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Review: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is occasionally pretty, but bland and soulless

Jasin Boland/Paramount Pictures

It’s been an uneasy road to opening day for big-budget anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell, which has over the last several months been dogged by (justified) accusations of whitewashing for casting white actress Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Major Mira Killian, née Motoko Kusanagi.

Might Paramount execs look forward to at least some good reviews to assuage their confidence that hiring Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders wasn’t a complete bonehead move? Alas: No. Not from this reviewer, anyway. This just in: Ghost in the Shell is bland, soulless garbage.

It’s occasionally pretty, bland, soulless garbage, mind you, in a cyberpunk sort of way. The movie takes place in a future where humans have begun to rely upon cybernetic enhancements — none so much as policewoman Major, created by Hanka Robotics to be their living weapon, a human mind in a nigh indestructible robotic body. An investigation puts Major on the tail of the terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt), which in turn leads Major to some supposedly startling revelations about her own past. (I say “supposedly” because the only thing that’s unexpected about this movie is how far its racism extends beyond casting a white actress to play an originally Japanese character; you can find the spoilers here.)

Ghost in the Shell is visually striking, but not visually striking enough — or inventive enough in its world-building — to stop its one-hour-47-minute running time from feeling like twice that long. A futuristic cityscape dotted with holographic ads? In the immortal words of Miranda Priestly: Groundbreaking.

Paramount Pictures

On top of that, the action scenes aren’t anything to write home about, utilizing as they do the “shoot mostly in medium and use lots of cuts” technique so standard to movies that don’t want you to know you’re watching a stunt double. The only thing that really sticks out about them is also one of the movie’s most WTF elements: Namely, that Major takes time before each one to divest herself of her clothing, leaving her leaping around in the plasticine, nipple-less buff.

Honestly, I have a hard time coming up with a conceivable reason she’d do that that’s not a plain ol’ “give the fanboys fap material.” “Gee, the bad guys are coming, guess I’d better duck into a corner for a few seconds and remove my jumpsuit that in no way restricts my movement, so why am I even bothering?” said no one ever.

(Do not come at me with “but it was like that in the source material!” I do not care. I care, in fact, even less than the Ghost in the Shell screenwriters cared about crafting non-lazy, non-clunky dialogue. To wit: “We built you a synthetic body—a shell—but your mind, your soul, your ghost is still in there.” Do you get it? There’s a ghost and also a shell. Someone or another says one of those words every five minutes.)

The male gazeyness and lackluster action scenes don’t even touch on Ghost in the Shell’s core problem, which is that it’s an empty husk of a movie that by all indications was designed by studio executives with no interest in film as a creative pursuit. It makes me appreciate the artistry — such as it is — of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, because my God, at least Zack Snyder was going for something. Whatever it was, we didn’t get it — we got jars of pee and Batman wearing a trenchcoat over his Batsuit in the desert and “MARTHAAAA” — but you can tell that the people involved felt some level of passion for the vision they were trying to create.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, is a movie that says absolutely nothing. It’s a generic story told by a generic director in a generic way. The plot, predictable as it is, trundles along only because our heroes repeatedly prove themselves oblivious to obvious traps. A major plot point hinges on a woman opening up to a complete stranger about her dead daughter within 30 seconds of meeting her … because, sure, that’s what people do? The film doesn’t even bother explaining the villain’s motivation.

Paramount Pictures

Not a single joke or moment of levity is present. Not a single idea is introduced. It’s pretty weird that a movie about a human/robot hybrid wouldn’t seek to tackle issues regarding artificial intelligence, free will, and what makes a human human. And yet, here’s Ghost in the Shell, which tosses off some pseudo-intellectual dialogue about how our memories don’t define us or how Major’s “more than human and more than AI” ( … how?) and then just walks away without engaging with those ideas at all.

This movie thinks it’s deep. It isn’t. The most successful movies about the line between human and artificial intelligence are compelling in large part because for most of the movie you never quite know what’s going on behind the android’s eyes. How much free will does Ava in Ex Machina really have? Are Rachael’s emotions in Blade Runner really “real”? You can tell exactly what’s going on behind Major’s eyes in Ghost in the Shell, because what’s going on behind her eyes is precisely zip. There’s no complexity to her. There’s minimal character growth or even inner conflict. Hell, I’d have settled for a personality. She’s a human mind in a synthetic body, so you think she’d still have one from before she got all robot-ed up, right? A little? But no. A complete blank slate.

We’ve seen Johansson do characters who aren’t emotionally expressive before, to great effect—Hello, Black Widow. Hello, Under the Skin—and this ain’t that. Her acting is bewilderingly flat, beyond what you’d expect from an android character. And it’s not just the androids, either; even the humans in this movie, most notably Pilou Asbæk as Major’s partner Batou, perform in that same dull, deadpan style. The underacting is so pronounced across the board that it had to have been an intentional decision on the part of Sanders, though why he’d choose to go that route I really couldn’t say.

Every single shred of anything in this movie has been done better elsewhere. Rewatch Blade Runner or Ex Machina. Give Minority Report another go. Catch up with Her. Hell, watch the original Ghost in the Shell anime. Anything’s better than spending your hard-earned cash on this waste of a movie.