Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson in a mixed-bag reenactment of an anime classic.

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ScarJo
Paramount

The new Ghost in the Shell channels its visual elements from familiar futuristic sources. The neck jacks, the holograms, the wire-fu leaps and endless dystopian rain are part of a sci-fi tradition that descends from Blade Runner and Neuromancer down through the 1989 Ghost in the Shell manga, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime film, and of course the 1999 cyberpunk landmark, The Matrix. But the new movie does have its own mood—it's a little bit reflective, although not enough to clog the action—and its own look (scruffy CGI) and sound (warm-bath drones and unstable synth garglings). It's an interesting film to watch. It's just hard to care about a single thing that's going on in it.

Fans of the earlier Ghost in the Shell animated film will find many references to check off here: the big garbage-truck chase, the splashy invisible-man smackdown, brief echoes of Balkan-style choral keening. The story has been only minimally adjusted, and the characters remain largely undefiled. Scarlett Johansson, in black leather action gear and black punk-chop hair, plays Major, a cyborg team leader with the government's Section 9 antiterrorism department. She operates in a gaudy postwar world in which just about everybody has artificial body enhancements. In her case, only her mind—her "ghost"—is human; her body, or "shell," is a computerized construct. (This offers a handy dodge for the charge that Johansson's casting constitutes "whitewashing" of a character that was originally Japanese—who can tell if it's only a shell? Later, we are further informed that Major's hardy brain was all that survived after a maritime disaster that killed her immigrant parents while they were bringing her to Japan—they could've been coming from, like, anywhere, right? Sure.)

Overseen by Section 9 chief Aramaki (uber-cool Japanese actor-writer-director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano), Major and her platinum-haired partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk, also a costar in Johansson's 2014 action hit Lucy) are currently battling an infestation of criminal brain-hackers, and are hot on the trail of the group's evil leader. There's quite a bit of story here; but although I was sort of sure what was happening while it was happening, and have since done remedial research to remind me what was happening, I still couldn't actually tell you what was happening if you threatened me with a hammer. We get to spend quality time with the sweet robotics scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who created Major in her current form and thus harbors maternal feelings for her, and we get to recoil from Ouelet's skuzzy boss, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), who sees Major as nothing more than a weapon. There are also key innings with a dramatically cloaked and metal-bodied character named Kuze, played by Michael Pitt (now going by his full name, Michael Carmen Pitt, no idea why).

Fortunately, director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) gives us a lot to look at while we're failing to keep track of whatever it is that's going on. There's a spectacular scene in which a corporate confab in a spiffy restaurant is disrupted by a corps of murderous robo-geishas, and some trademark ScarJo butt-kicking when Major is assaulted by a pair of leering thugs (who quickly discover there's really nothing to smirk about). The production design—both digital and otherwise—is always arresting: giant hologram fish swim through the city streets, bundles of cables and bags full of bodies dangle in the air, and water drips without letup in the enveloping murk.

The movie has two problems. One is that the fundamental Ghost in the Shell theme of technological alienation, which played out perfectly in the measured pace of the animated film, can't be given enough space to do so in a big-budget live-action movie—time is money, and gentle melancholy doesn't pay its way. And while Major's deep unhappiness with her cold cyborg nature is examined at some length, Johansson gives such a deadpan performance that very little poignance shines through. There may be no actor who looks better back-flipping off the top of a skyscraper in a skintight body suit, but here, it pains me to report, that's not enough.

NEXT: Why successful people should not feel guilty about voting with their feet, but should instead make it easier for others to do the same

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  1. Sounds like what I was worried about from the trailers…it appeared to capture the look, but ignored the heart of GiTS in favor of Hollywood style action.

  2. Sounds like what I was worried about from the trailers…it appeared to capture the look, but ignored the heart of GiTS in favor of Hollywood style action.

    1. Damn squirrels

      1. Cyborg squirrels at that.

  3. Deadpan acting or not, I’m going to go see this one! I try to support any sci-fi and cyberpunk on the big or small screen. Not too long ago, it seemed little from the sci-fi genre was getting made apart from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, and don’t get me started on what happened to Firefly.

    Besides, I find that production design, cinematography, and music are what distinguishes really enjoyable movies for me, and it sounds like this one has those elements.

    1. There’s no denying that the imagery was excellent. It was a beautiful film to watch. The execution of the story was mediocre imo.

      I was honestly impressed by Scarlet, probably because I had a low opinion of her acting to begin with. If you told someone to act like a human in a robot’s body, I’m not sure even the best of actors would come up with something better. I got the impression that she tried to act like a robot with occasional human facial expressions.

      Ultimately, her walking style just made me laugh. Is that how androids walk? I’m sure yo could explain away her having had an afternoon where she was taught how to walk like a person again.

  4. There may be no actor better at back-flipping off the top of a skyscraper in a skintight body suit, but here, it pains me to report, that’s not enough.

    What? Tits and ass and great curves no longer enough to cover the fact up that she’s a terrible actress?

    1. Acting, shmacting. She’s got charisma, and that’s the important thing.

    2. Not that I found her curves ever that great to begin with, but she’s sure chunked up lately. And that face has always been a contender with sarah jessica parker for the mr. Ed award.

      As for acting, are you saying you can’t appreciate 50 shades of brooding?

  5. although I was sort of sure what was happening while it was happening, and have since done remedial research to remind me what was happening, I still couldn’t actually tell you what was happening if you threatened me with a hammer.

    Like it matters…

    There may be no actor who looks better back-flipping off the top of a skyscraper in a skintight body suit

    This is all that really matters, and that’s the only reason why at least half the people who will see this movie are seeing it – because Scarlett Johanson in a skintight bodysuit.

    The other half are probably fans of the original anime, most of whom will only be “hate watching” it so that they trash it later because they’ve already made up their minds that the original is “way better.”

    1. ^ SJ in skin tight body suit.

    2. With absolutely zero overlap between those two groups, I’m sure.

      /sarc

  6. Hollywood has given up on originality in genre movies. Everything is based on obscure comics beloved by geeks or the international audience.

  7. Johansson gives such a deadpan performance that very little poignance shines through

    It’s not her fault. She’s just a terrible actress.

    1. Everyone knows that cyborgs are traditionally suppose to be emotional and expressive.

  8. Side note on the white washing claims. Even if I really considered it a thing in this case in the original anime the majors first body was a causasoid model. So in the anime she was white looking so getting a white actress isnt white washing it was just good casting. Unless you want to claim the Japanese author writing for a Japanese audience white washed the character way back when instead of trying to create a image of Japan that was multicultural in the future.

    1. I guess a Japanese person stuck in a white body could be reason for greater angst since you would be further removed form your former self

    2. “Side note on the white washing claims…”

      Here’s another side note – why does that concept only go in one direction?

      Was it black washing when Will Smith was cast as James West in the Wild Wild West movie?

      It seems that it’s considered perfectly legitimate to transform a white character into some other race in a story/movie but not vice versa.

      1. why does that concept only go in one direction?

        Was it black washing when Will Smith was cast as James West in the Wild Wild West movie?

        More pointedly, why* does it always go outward from white despite the explicitly stated hierarchical method? A negroid man playing a caucasian character is allowed to nominally subsume tiny portion of a dominant race in order to generate greater equality but a caucasian playing an mongoloid isn’t? Wouldn’t Scarlet Johannson have to displace 10 asian actresses in at least half a dozen conventionally asian roles to even become close to threatening anything generating similar levels of equality?

        *rhetorical

    3. Was discussing this yesterday with some folks ignorant of Magna and Japanese culture. Had to explain to them that a LOT of the characters in this genre deliberately resemble Caucasians. Not just the pale skins everwhere, but the abundance of blue eyes. Blond hair is rare, but red hair is not. A young adult in Manga who is not of Caucasian appearance will invariable have spiky hair and be angry.

      You can’t tell Manga fans this, but anyone who isn’t a Manga fan but who has seen Manga art knows this.

      I walk into a friend’s room and I ask him, “Dude, why do you have pictures of naked cartoon white chicks everywhere?”

      “They’re not white! They’re Japanese! It’s not porn, it’s art! Even that one of the prepubescent blonde taking off her panties! It’s art!”

      1. A young adult in Manga who is not of Caucasian appearance will invariable have spiky hair and be angry.

        I don’t think you and I consume the same Manga. Yes, there are distinctly Caucasian characters frequently they’re surrounded by, or just another part of, asian characters and/or lost in a collection of non-descript characters with pink hair and green eyes, dark skin and purple hair. Even this assumes their depiction as being anyway indicative of their or an actual race. *Plenty* of characters not of this planet, walking around virtually on another planet, and/or assuming the guise of human.

        (for the record I’ve never had any cartoon poster on my wall and think the race has little to do with whether your friends are perverts or not, I’m just irritated by the notion that a motley collection like this, this, or even this is somehow a LOT of caucasians)

      2. Anime and manga characters appear white, but for all intents and purposes, they’re Japanese. Western foreigners in the genre often have exaggerated features (like a longer noses, sideburns, moustache, etc) to set them apart from the Japanese characters.

        The Japanese don’t particularly care that their manga (Asian) characters are aesthetically white or don’t look authentically Asian. They’re from ethnically monolithic cultures and are not part of the super charged racial politics that infect America. No Japanese TV producer will every say something like “Our shows are too Japanese, let’s bring 40% more Latinos and blacks”. Their society just isn’t set up this way.

    4. The Japanese commentators themselves (from what I gleaned from wikipedia) actually were shocked – that anyone actually expected a non-Caucasian to be cast. The Japanese people who own the rights to the original source material basically dismissed the SJW whining as political bullshit, and were fine with the casting.

      So it’s basically a bunch of perpetual aggrieved American douche bags getting indignant on behalf of people who have openly dismissed their sentiment.

  9. I’m sure that somewhere there must be asian actresses that could have played the part better and would have maintained the original story more accurately and would have attracted a larger audience from more countries like maybe Asia. but then thats just my opinion

    1. Soudesu.

    2. Sure they could have looked more Asian, but no way an Asian can look like a Manga character.

      1. If you’ve seen the original film(s), Major has a pretty natural (Asian) build.

  10. I saw the movie today and tried very hard to keep an open mind. I liked the looks, and Scarlett Johansson is a better actress, voice and otherwise, than the one in the animated movie, but the writing is not so great, and instead of the film being about government ministries fighting with each other, this one is more about corporatism being bad, which doesn’t play as well.

  11. Unless they went full stupid in the live-action version, the character is *the* Major (a rank), rather than Major (a name). Her actual name in the anime is Motoku Kusanagi, not sure if it is the same in this version. Seeing her referred to as ‘Major’ in the review as if it were a proper name was making my eye twitch.

    1. Motoku Kusanagi is her name in this movie, too….

  12. I always wondered if they would ever do a live-action version of a Miyazaki film. That is about the only anime that has any life in it. Dystopias are beyond stale.

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  15. “although I was sort of sure what was happening while it was happening, and have since done remedial research to remind me what was happening, I still couldn’t actually tell you what was happening if you threatened me with a hammer.”

    Watched it Saturday in 3D with my brother and his wife. I had no problem following the plot, if anything it was very much dumbed down form the original. I was honestly impressed though that they didn’t have more ‘explaining things for the slow people’ scenes and dialogue. Overall it was much better than I was lead to expect. I normally go in for plot and such, but visually I thought the movie was worth seeing. I rarely go to movies, but this honestly blew me away. Not as philosophical as the original perhaps, a little too clear cut, but I really enjoyed it.

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