This is the Americanized, fast-food version of “Ghost in the Shell,” the popular manga, which later became an influential animated film. Accessibility is prioritized over quality, which means much of the film’s running time is spent homogenizing complex ideas into relatable ones. It feels less like an adaptation of its source material, and more like a pretentious “Robocop.”
We find ourselves somewhere between the near and distant future—close enough to feel relatively at home, but far enough away to not quite recognize every picture on the wall. Cybernetic enhancements are the new plastic surgery. Wish you were stronger? Buy an arm. Want to enjoy a cigarette without the consequences attached? Buy a lung or two. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the zenith of this burgeoning technology, as she is entirely robotic, except for her brain, making her capable of extraordinary physical feats while retaining the ghost—or soul, or simply brain—of an empathetic human being. Existential questions arise when Major meets Kuze, a cyber-terrorist whose anatomical make-up is not unlike her own. Kuze is one of those villains that are hip now: hooded, good with computers and wearing that “I just ran away from home” look.
With a premise like this, you’d be foolish not to expect a generous helping of furrowed brows and thousand-yard stares. Major spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of her existence. Is she human or machine? Does it matter? What happens to individualism in a plugged-in world? The film raises these questions and then, like an ill-prepared schoolboy, gives us answers without any indication as to how they were arrived at. Perhaps, the knowledge that good guys fight bad guys or that Scarlett Johansson stays in shape are somehow relevant. Not unless two plus two equals fish.
What little personality the film has is funneled into the production design, which is rich and flavorful. Director, Rupert Sanders, creates a world more advanced than our own, yet emptier and somehow pathetic. If only some of this originality could have seeped into the narrative, which feels like it was plucked from some storytelling bargain bin. Lest I be too critical, there is an inventive sequence where geisha get the scary clown treatment, but it’s hardly worth admission.
After “Lucy,” her stint as Black Widow and now this, it would seem that Johansson is a bona fide action star. Deservedly so, for she carries a movie better than most, even in something like “Ghost in the Shell,” where the movie isn’t returning the favor. Oscar winner, Juliette Binoche, turns up, but in an inconsequential role that a cameraman with a plate of chopped onions could pull off.
Many will surely refer to this film as a shell with no ghost, and as low-hanging fruit an observation as that is, they would be right. It’s a passionless, purposeless victim of conformity—the very thing Major fears about herself.
2 out of 5 stars