Rupert Sanders’ live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” anime masterpiece offers enhanced visuals but reduced intelligence. Retrofitted with a straightforward narrative and “commercial” face for its cybernetic protagonist, this iteration is a wet dream for American video game/anime-loving “dude bros” and a middle finger to the rest. Make no mistake, as much as Sanders and his trio of writers (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) claim to admire Oshii and original manga creator Masamune Shirow’s existential noir techno-thriller, it’s clear by the results that profits matter far more than reverence or integrity.
Hollywood whitewashing is problematic on its own, and “Ghost in the Shell” clearly isn’t the first offender, nor will it probably be the last. However, “Ghost in the Shell” goes the extra mileage to offend. Scarlett Johansson‘s casting is the fulcrum of the pyramid, and everything else follows in subordination. How else can Paramount excuse Johansson’s presence other than to dedicate a chunk of the script to rationalizing her whiteness? This offensive tactic is yet another example of the studio system’s aversion to casting Asian actors in lead roles. Given that the setting is Japan, and that the original Major Motoko is externally Asian in appearance, there is no possible explanation other than a tragic industry disbelief that Asians can be a trifecta of sexy, relatable and physically formidable in a mainstream blockbuster.
All the aforementioned distastefulness erupts in the haphazard final act, but before doing so “Ghost in the Shell” deceptively intrigues. Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, a weapon test subject designed by Hanka Robotics with a human brain. This consciousness of sorts is referred to as a “ghost” that exists beneath the cybernetic bodily shell. Killian’s creator, the empathetic Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche), views Mira as the prototype for eventual human evolution. Rather than allow independence while observing from afar, Hanka contracts Mira to Sector 9, a counter-terrorist special ops unit.
Ouélet’s superior and Hanka CEO, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), makes no effort to hide his villainy. More interested in Hanka’s stock value than the mental constitution of his employees and creations, Cutter is as diabolically “corporate” as they come. Ironically, drafting Mira to Sector 9 was the worst mistake Cutter could have made. Sector 9’s head of operations, Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), can sniff corruption from a dozen 40-story buildings away. Aramaki and Cutter’s “cold war” rivalry is fascinating to witness. Furthermore, it winds up being a huge asset to Mira once she learns the truth of her origin.
The plot kicks off with a nod to Major Motoko’s epic camouflaged skyscraper jump from the 1995 film. Johansson’s dive of heroism doesn’t quite measure up, but it gets the film off to a fantastic start. Following a routine security sweep of a Hanka dinner event, Mira fails to prevent a key scientist’s subsequent assassination. Thankfully, Mira manages to incapacitate the killer: a Geisha assassin robot that leaves behind a message from the real perpetrator. Thereafter, Mira and field partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) break protocol by conducting a dive linking Mira’s “ghost” with the Geisha’s.
Mira’s prey is revealed via hologram as “Kuze” (Michael Pitt), a hacker with a vendetta against the Hanka science division. The dive awakens Mira’s curiosity about her makers, suggesting there’s more to her creation than what’s been told. An escalation in seeing vision “glitches” throughout New Port City (another Tokyo in this futuristic Japan) leads Mira to wonder whether in fact these aren’t glitches at all, but memories instead.
Much like with Kristen Stewart in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Sanders’ direction of his leading lady comes off awkward and unsure. Johansson’s Major drifts between saucy one-liner “cool girl” and lifeless cipher. Major serves more as an extension of the action and a reactant of the plot than a fully realized character. Johansson sells the somber dialogue, but her detached performance makes it difficult to care about Mira’s journey towards self-discovery. Binoche and Johannson’s kindred bond is one of the few upsides of the film. Binoche in particular is able to exude enough kindness and compassion to release her from any kind of experimenter’s guilt.
Despite some dazzling visuals and color schemes that amplify with 3D glasses, “Ghost in the Shell” sabotages its own vitality. With a script that abandons the philosophically fascinating themes that separated the original version from its peers, this “Ghost in the Shell” suppresses that which made it singular. An ending change with cash-grabbing sequel dreams in mind emphasizes how neutered exquisite material can become once Hollywood takes over. May “Ghost in the Shell’s” failure be a lesson that nobody can buy into the future if the future doesn’t represent a modicum of the present or past.
“Ghost in the Shell” is distributed by Paramount Pictures and arrives in theaters on March 31 in Real 3D and IMAX.