‘Ghost in the Shell,’ the live action version of the popular 90’s anime and manga of the same name arrived in theaters last weekend, trailing with it some high expectations for adapting the source material and controversy around its’ casting choices. The final verdict on the end product is that it basically leaves little impression on either front. It’s visually impressive and expertly realized, but it fails to be overly stimulating like some other future visions, mainly due to a pedestrian screenplay and wooden acting.
The film jumps right into the creation of the main character, Major (a purposely robotic Scarlett Johansson in an undulating skintight suit), a new type of individual in a future where cybernetic enhancements are the rage. She has a supplanted human brain in a powerful synthetic body that can take abuse and be repaired easily by her makers. Heralded as the first of her kind, she is a product of Hanka Robotics, a company with the prospect of profiting off human immortality on its’ mind. She is loaned out to the government as an agent of a police force dedicated to the eradication of cyber-terrorism, which puts her in the cross hairs of a mystery for which she will play a key role.
Instead of presenting this set-up and these developments in an organic and fluid way, the screenplay by committee relies on heavy exposition and voice-over. It even goes so far as to explain the title of the film in its’ opening sequence and calls back to the ghost, or soul, and shell, or fabricated body. The fact that the filmmakers don’t trust that the audience can figure out these themes very easily and the jumpy transitions from scene to scene do the overall artistic experience a disservice.
Director Rupert Sanders has yet to find his footing in crafting compelling entertainment beyond the creation of some truly stunning visuals. His background as a visual effects artist certainly results in breathtaking CGI shots and a command of space in a frame, yet like his other big-budget feature ‘Snow White and the Huntsman,’ he is unable to overcome lazy writing or coax performances out of his talented actors that rise above average. Ultimately the film maintains along gamely enough as there is so much stimulus in the complicated fx shots and action sequences. The big ideas presented here are interesting enough, although the main conflict is more effective in ‘Robocop’ – like that science fiction masterpiece, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ would have benefited from an R rating.
It’s hard to understand the controversy around the casting choices. As presented here, the landscape is a multi-cultural urban center rooted in Japanese culture. It’s a future where diversity appears to be matter-of-fact and the main character is basically a chassis that could contain any type of brain. The media was quick to label this film as ‘white-washing,’ and perhaps a case can be made, but the film is populated by many characters of various backgrounds. The larger issue here is that the movie ends up being a bit flat despite the inspired visual pallet and potential to explore some interesting themes. Rather than crafting intelligent sci-fi that challenges human identity, extreme body modification, the notion of consent, and the ramifications of surveillance/control, this ‘Shell’ ultimately ends up a hollow one . . .
Directed By: Rupert Sanders
Written By: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, & Ehren Kruger
Running Time: 107 min.
* * ½ (out of 4 stars) -OR- B-