If there was nothing else going for Rupert Sanders’ take on Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, I’d probably give it a soft recommend on style points alone.
We’ve all cautioned, or have been cautioned, against movies that put style over substance; here, Sanders turns the style itself into substance. Jess Hall’s cinematography is gaudy and gorgeous, capturing the neon-drenched, cloud covered, commercialized hell that is this vision of dystopian Japan. As designed by Jan Roelfs and costumed by Kurt and Bart, the setting feels at once state-of-the-art and worn down by overcrowding and capitalist greed. Meanwhile, editors Billy Rich and Neil Smith keep things moving at an appealing clip that gives the story room to stretch out and sink in, and Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe tie it all together with a complementary electronic score that occasionally suggests Tangerine Dream.
Speaking of which: Imagine a young Michael Mann’s modern riff on a somewhat less sexualized Barbarella, and that’s kinda close to what this take on Ghost in the Shell is all about. As appealing as that might sound, that’s also kind of the rub: anybody hoping for a heady, thought-provoking experience is probably going to end up disappointed as the film opts to play the action movie hits instead. It’s not that the film is empty; it’s more like any depth and emotional resonance this movie tries for is hobbled by an occasional lack of focus and a critical lack of nuance; the latter in particular makes the film more reminiscent of the kind of sci-fi flick that Dino De Laurentiis would have his name on in the late ’60s.
(This review will contain spoilers from here on out.)
Here’s the breakdown: Scarlett Johansson plays Mira Killian, who wakes up in a lab after vaguely remembering drowning. She’s told that she was the victim of a terrorist attack on the refugee boat she arrived on. Mira’s parents died in the attack; technically, so did Mira. But a team of Hanka Robotics scientists, led by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) were able to salvage her brain and put it into a fully synthetic body. Ouelet, rocking an 80/20 split between maternal figure and mad scientist, is excited about the possibilities for human advancement that Mira represents. Head prick in charge Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), however, sees Mira only as a weapon, a product, and orders Mira to be placed in Section 9, Japan’s elite anti-cyberterror unit, as soon as she’s fully functional.
A year later, Mira, now known as The Major, intercedes against another terrorist attack that leaves a Hanka senior official dead. Three other high-level Hanka scientists were killed in similar attacks, and they’re all linked to someone known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt). Taking it as personally as she takes any terrorist attack, Major throws herself into the hunt, swearing to take him down. However, Kuze’s grudge against Hanka has been hard-earned, and it threatens to reveal that what little The Major thinks she knows about her past is complete bullshit.
The film builds itself on fairly solid themes about the value of memory and the ways technology erases individuality, and it finds a fascinating emotional throughline in The Major’s trying to figure out what it means to feel anything as she quietly begins to doubt her own memories. Between Lucy, Under the Skin, and her ostensible day job as Black Widow, Johansson can play a role like this in her sleep, and she finds interesting ways to balance the robotic single-minded aspect of The Major with her human desire for connection and grounding. The film is at its strongest when it focuses on that stuff; it even uses that theme to throw a fascinating wrench into the controversy surrounding the casting of Johansson in a role that was clearly written as Japanese. We eventually learn that The Major was once Motoko Kusanagi (her name in the original stories), a young runaway who wrote passionate manifestos denouncing cybernetic enhancement. She was abducted by Cutter’s men alongside several other Japanese youths, including her friend Hideo—who would eventually become Kuze, Hanka’s last attempt at attempting to put a human brain in a robot body before the success of The Major. Essentially, we can infer that Hanka—who is represented entirely by white people—muscled their way into Japan, abducted members of the indigenous population that objected to their presence, wiped their memories, created new ones, and tried to put their brains into synthetic bodies designed in Hanka’s own image. Even if the film is far more interested in the more philosophical ramifications of this than the sociopolitical ones that drove the understandable complaints against this movie, I can’t help but find it to be damn clever.
The problem is that moments of such cleverness are few and far between, with the script insisting on making its points with sledgehammers while the film is crying out for a small chisel. Cutter’s a great example of this: a one-dimensional bastard who is so short-sighted, temperamental, and uncharismatic that it’s hard to even understand how he got as far as he did. Not every sci-fi movie antagonist has to be Roy Batty, but it’s hard to go beyond a certain depth in your story when you hang a big “EVIL” sign on your corporate figurehead. The film runs into further trouble when it also raises the question of what we’re supposed to hold onto when we learn that our memories are false, and then fails to give a complete answer. It gets lost in the weeds of easy sentiment and is further distracted by trying to service its basic action movie plot. It also doesn’t help that not every character is working in service of these ideas. Going back to Cutter, the man is fanatically concerned with maintaining the integrity of his product, which runs counter to the film’s secondary argument regarding the line between humanity and automation, but not so much its primary argument about memories. That’s kind of a problem for the guy who turns out to be your primary antagonist. Still, that might be more on point than Kuze; his character is far more interested in transcendence, which doesn’t have the first thing to do with memory or individuality. I’m honestly baffled by how Kuze’s motivation is supposed to serve the story; perhaps it’s clumsy sequel bait?
Still, even saddled with these massive shortfalls, I keep coming back to how much style this movie has to burn. I could frankly drown in the world that Sanders and his crew built here; the movie runs a tight 107 minutes, and I could have easily sat through another 30. While the film has plenty of other little virtues going for it as well, it’s that hard connection with the world that kept me engaged more than anything else. Anyone who needs a little more than that might want to stay home, but if you appreciate the value of good spectacle and a strong atmosphere, Ghost in the Shell has your number in a way most films of this pedigree rarely do.