While watching “Ghost in the Shell,” I felt trapped inside one of those serialized video games like “Unchartered” or “Assassin’s Creed.” The colors, sounds, graphics and episodic nature of the story felt like different playing levels where you kill people and complete mini missions until the enemy is vanquished. As the chief icon of this “game,” Scarlett Johansson even moves like an electronic character. She’s strong and badass as a cyborg warrior named Major. She’s important all right, but, really — must Johansson be costumed in a flesh-colored, body-hugging onesie that makes her look naked? So much for female empowerment. I guess that’s one way to sell tickets.
Seeing Johansson lay the smack down all over a futuristic city has a certain appeal, but we’ve seen her do that before as Black Widow in the “Avengers” movies and in Luc Besson’s “Lucy.” It would have been more substantial if Johannson were called upon to do more than kick, punch, shoot and kill — all without smearing the lipstick on her perfect pout.
Johansson isn’t the only casualty. All the characters are pretty one-note, serving only to propel Major’s story along. She is an enhanced human, part of Project 2571. Her brain is transplanted into a synthetic body. She is created by a company called Hanka Robotics, owned by the nefarious Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). Her marching orders come from Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), a guy who’s a lot like Bosley from “Charlie’s Angels” and works for the Department of Defense. The great Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (“A War”) is Batou, Major’s right-hand man. Juliette Binoche, is Dr. Ouelet, the scientist who created Major. She takes on the mother-figure role, because it’s human connection Major craves, not her daily digital plug-ins via the four sockets at the nape of her neck.
Major’s claim to fame is she’s the most advanced creation of her kind — better than being human and better than being a robot. Ouelet calls her a “miracle,” Cutter calls her the “future.” After an effects-heavy opening showing how Major comes to be, the story jumps ahead one year and picks up with the mysterious deaths of the scientists who worked on Project 2571. Major and Batou patrol the city tending to shadowy figures (Michael Pitt) and other baddies who disintegrate into metallic dust.
Director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and writers Jamie Ross (“Street Kings”) and William Wheeler (“Queen of Katwe”) turn the beloved 1995 Japanese anime version into a telekinetic live-action Hollywood adaptation that is all visual sizzle. Any attempt at saying anything of substance just sounds ridiculous coming out of the characters mouths. Try saying this with conviction: “Your shell belongs to them, but not your ghost.” The “Ghost” of the title is someone’s consciousness and the “Shell” is the synthetic body. And there’s also fun stuff like memory-erasing serum and cerebral hacking.
I won’t deny the movie looks cool. But while watching you can’t help but recall the whitewashing controversy. This is a Japanese film with lead actors who are white and blonde, despite Johansson’s choppy, black lob hairstyle.
Nonetheless, it’s a feast for the senses. But it does little to feed the soul, even with provocative themes that touch on the value of free will and importance of human connection and love.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Ghost in the Shell”
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Peter Ferdinando.
(PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.)