Ghost in the Shell Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
There have been numerous iterations of Ghost in the Shell since Masamune Shirow first published his manga series in 1989. In Japan, the adventures of cybernetic future cop Major Motoko Kusanagi have appeared in comic books, TV series, video games and movies, the most notable of which is Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film. That’s also the version most well-known beyond Japan, and it thus forms most of the source material for the big-budget live-action Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell, from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman). Oshii’s film was hugely influential on later sci-fi hits including The Matrix, so the new version can’t help coming off as derivative. But if Sanders is copying, at least he’s copying from the best, and the new Ghost looks phenomenal, with more intricate and ornate design than anything in the 1995 movie.
The striking look is matched by a plot that is just as murky and ponderous as its source material, with a greater focus on the kind of origin-revealing conspiracy that modern Hollywood action movies obsess over. Scarlett Johansson plays this movie’s version of Major, a cop in an unspecified future city, where she works for the covert Section 9. Major is a fully cybernetic being, a human brain (or “ghost”) implanted in an artificial body (a “shell”), and the mystery of who she was before becoming Major eventually takes over the plot in the second half of the movie. That leaves less room for the philosophical musings of the original, and places greater emphasis on plot twists that aren’t particularly shocking, many courtesy of cybernetic villain Kuze (Michael Pitt).
Even if the plot doesn’t hold together, the visuals just about make up for it, with Sanders putting together stunning images even as the characters just take a drive through their dense, advertising-clogged city. The movie’s look owes a lot to Blade Runner, The Fifth Element and, of course, Oshii’s original movie, but Sanders synthesizes all of it into something distinctive, a mash-up style that corresponds with the movie’s meticulously multicultural casting. Johansson, experienced at playing non-human entities in movies including Her and Under the Skin, gives Major the right mix of angst and efficiency, and the supporting cast is mostly unobtrusive. As Major’s boss, Japanese icon Takeshi Kitano, delivering all of his dialogue in Japanese, is the lone standout, and he gets one badass action scene that rivals Major’s best moments.
With all the existing variations on this story, it’s perhaps inevitable that the best the filmmakers would be able to do is create a serviceable replica, and they’ve managed to succeed at that. The ghost may be lacking, but the shell is shiny and durable.