Directed by Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell is a live-action incarnation of the world created in Shirow Masamune’s landmark manga and anime franchise. While it channels the world’s slick technology and combination of gleam and grime, it ultimately defaults to Hollywood standards.
In Ghost in the Shell, the Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a new type of being, a human brain placed in a fully robotic, humanoid body. The human mind is the “ghost” of the original human, and the “shell” is the robot frame, hence the title. Unlike the philosophically deep source material, this 2017 adaptation utilizes a straightforward, familiar plot involving wicked super-corporations, amnesia and action to drive the film’s events and action scenes. Early and often, the Major, and her allies in Public Security Section 9, shoot and punch their way through cyberpunk goons and evil henchmen, chasing after a mysterious super-hacker named Kuze (Michael Pit). Eventually, the Major faces the truth of her past and its future implications for herself and near-future Japan.
Visually, Ghost in the Shell thoroughly captures the original material’s balance of shiny, futuristic technology, low-tech, grimy slums and sewers, and traditional Japanese visual such as bonsai trees, walled gardens, and paper lanterns. These elements combine to show a potential world where even when technology runs rampant and replaces the natural order, the original world still lives and breathes under the shiny exterior. Possibly, it’s a metaphor for how shell cyborg bodies envelop, but don’t replace, the organic human brains and minds inside. Also, the acting is competent but nothing remarkable, with Johansson’s tense acting carrying the film while supporting cast such as Takeshi Kitano and Michael Asbaek play Chief Aramaki and Batou, respectively.
The Major carries the film, with its simple plot based on her origins and nature, while Aramaki, Batou, Togusa (Chin Han) are just warm bodies who shoot their way through the bad guys. Aramaki has one impressive scene when he fights off several armed assailants while he is alone in his car, but otherwise, the support staff feel like lip service to the source material and little more. The movie’s philosophical thoughts, too, feel like they’re going through the motions that the original Ghost in the Shell material explored more deeply.
In summary, Ghost in the Shell has the visual punch, gleam and grime appropriate of the source material, but the thin plot and watered-down main cast hold it back from being the visionary cyberpunk magnum opus that it could have been.