Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Micheal Pitt, Pilou Asbaek
Director: Rupert Sanders
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: Adapted from the popular Manga franchise, Ghost in the Shell is set in the near future and focuses on super cop Major (Johansson) who is the first of her kind. A robotic body but a human brain, she uncovers a large scale conspiracy around her torturous birth that will have damaging repercussions across the entire city of Neo-Tokyo.
I’ve always believed that to truly appreciate film and especially to review it, you cannot let outside politics and controversies dictate those opinions. Yes they can add context and detail, after all watching back DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation now with its affection for the KKK is a distasteful proposition but remove all that and it is a well constructed keenly directed picture. Should we accept it as a vital document of a time of intense racial fear mongering, or simply as a piece of filmic fiction that only represented a predominant feeling in Hollywood at the time? So it would feel egregious to not mention the issues surrounding this Hollywood adaptation, but they are noise masking the fact that it’s all concerning a pretty lame film. This controversial backlash with claims of whitewashing over the casting of Johansson as the notably Asian central character from the original anime did not seem the biggest deal upon glimpsing the early trailers. After all this was a $110 million blockbuster of a largely unknown property amongst Western audiences, how else would the notoriously risk-averse Hollywood studio system greenlight this without the protection of a bankable star? This does not make this right by any means, but at least Johansson had the suitable action look and acting chops to compensate for any racial prejudices. And for the first half of the film this still sat OK with me, in a city of the future ScarJo’s Major was simply a piece of a diverse cog featuring a predominantly Asian cast as well as French and Norwegian actors (Juliette Binoche and Asbaek accordingly). But, and I’m not familiar with the source material here, a mid film revelation of Major’s true history does leave a noticeable distaste in the mouth. It still could have been salvaged if attention had been drawn to this change in content but the film does nothing to address it, instead leaving you feeling confused and just a little bit uncomfortable.
As mentioned this would be a sore point if the film as a whole had been stronger but alas the real issue here is the measure of its quality. Events are strong to begin with, leaping into the Major’s birth in an opening scene that is moody, mysterious and visually unique. We forward onto a breathless action sequence that introduces the Major’s effectively efficient police skills, as well as the Teenage boner-inducing flesh coloured suit she embraces (although a step up from the childish nudity the original version presented, manga has always dealt in upfront sexuality). It is evident from this scene that director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) has conjured up a visually breathtaking world. The Neo-Tokyo on show here is filled with odd shaped skyscrapers, gigantic holograms advertising a range of corporate products and a bevy of robotic populace. A populace that is utilised using a refreshing mix of CGI and actual costumed performers, one that our Major blows away in this opening scene with competently choreographed gun play.
In an odd move though, Sanders spends far too much time hiding his phenomenally designed world behind a series of scenes set in bland corridors or underground rooms. Wherein a series of surface level dialogue scenes take place that deal with the nature of identity, purpose and humanity, all personified by Michael Pitt’s android bad guy Kuze. Pitt manages to give a decently mournful performance behind a layer of CGI augmented body work, but all this talk of lofty themes go nowhere particularly interesting or original. The film as a whole offers little in the way of surprises, with even the mid film revelation of the Major’s true origin landing with all the emotional weight of a paper bag.
The Major herself is by her very nature (you know an android) a robotic presence, with Johansson giving her some much needed oddness to create a perfectly watchable performance. But there is no soul underneath, no charge to her mission, no graspable connection to have with her. Surrounding the Major are some terrific performers. Pilou Asbaek as her cop partner Batou gives their relationship some much needed heart and affection, without the prospect of a romantic entanglement between them. He is also the only one who seems to be having a measure of fun. Binoche is always watchable but sadly underwritten and appearing to sleep through most of her dialogue scenes. It is left to terrific Japanese performer ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano to get the best material as the head of Section 9, choosing to only speak in his native tongue and being suitably bad-ass with a tired hangdog lethargy which only makes him more appealing.
No matter what the cast do they are not helped when you take into account that Ghost in the Shell is a film at war with itself. It wants to be a deep thinking muse on larger themes, but with gun battles and action scenes. Don’t get me wrong that can be done, Christopher Nolan and Matt Reeves are both notable at balancing smarts with explosions, but Sanders gets all the balance wrong. The truths are surface level and a chance to wrap things up in a potentially interesting debate about man vs machine are lost when a giant Spider-Tank shows up to blow shit to smithereens. Ghost in the Shell is in no ways a bad film, its visually impeccable, pacy, and acted well but it is a flaccid experience. The whitewashing issue is an important one but it’s not worth the effort of debate when it’s attached to a film as dull as this.
Verdict: Stylish but hopelessly inert. Ghost in the Shell offers little in the way of originality and never quite manages to balance its ideas with the demands a $110million action film requires.