Nestled between William Gibson’s claim-staking 1984 novel Neuromancer and the Wachowskis’ gamechanging The Matrix, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cops-and-cyborgs tale Ghost in the Shell is almost assuredly better known than widely seen – next to Akira, it’s one of the few anime titles that folks who don’t know an Astro-Boy from a Dragonball Z can namecheck. Watch it now, and you’ll see how Oshii’s manga adaptation both grafted earlier influences onto its source material and influenced countless works that came after it. Like its main character, the movie caused ripples even when its presence seemed invisible. The animation was gorgeous. The live-or-MS-DOS existentialism was chic. It had a spider tank, which falls somewhere on the Cool-ometer between an AT-AT and Mechagodzilla.
Whether we were truly clamoring for a live-action version, one that would make Major Motoko Kusanagi a flesh-and-blood(-and-pixel) heroine and try to one up Blade Runner in the neon urban clutter department, is a moot question. It’s here, uploaded into the mainstream mainframe, complete with a movie star, a jumble of elements from Ghost-related offshoots and several greatest-hits moments. The amniotic birth scene that breaks Major out of her pale humanoid eggshell, a thug beatdown in what looks like a large public puddle, that arachnoid assault vehicle – you can check them all off your list. It looks cyberpunk-as-fuck, even if its vision of metropolitan meltdown now comes off as nostalgic futurism. (This is easily the most visually sumptuous movie … of 1996.) What you have, however, isn’t a cyborg fusion of mid-Nineties brand recognition and 2017 blenderized-blockbuster spectacle so much as a paranoid android running on a low battery. “All shell, no ghost” is a low-hanging-fruit diss. It’s also apt.
So we join the good folks of cybercrime special unit Section 9 and their MVP, Scarlett Johansson’s Major, right in the middle of a stakeout involving a business exec assassination, deadly Geisha-bots and cerebral hacking. A mysterious hooded figure takes credit for the hit; after Major deep-dives into the hard drive of a recovered killer droid, he warns her not to collaborate with the Hanka Corporation, the city’s major manufacturer of artificially intelligent beings. She and her bottle-blond partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek), who’ll get an optical upgrade that brings him up to speed with his anime counterpart, keep tracking the bad guy and fend off numerous attacks from slimeballs and remote controlled innocents. Major suspects the hallucinogenic glitches she keeps experiencing, however, hold the key to her pre-crimefighting identity. Viewers, on the other hand, will wonder when the movie is actually going to start; even after a half-dozen chase scenes, shootouts and swooping cityscape shots, there’s the feeling that things are constantly on the verge of kicking into a higher gear that never quite comes.
Still, while you suffer through the narrative equivalent of an OS spinning pinwheel, you are gifted with distractions like a gorgeously rendered, highly lysergic cosmopolis littered with giant holograms of koi and Kabuki-costumed figures. (The production design feels like an amalgamation of various underground sci-fi and totemic pop-cultural worse-case scenarios recycled for multiplex eyeballs – call it Hot Dystopic.) You get Clint Mansell’s droney-dreamy score, Juliette Binoche looking very scared and later, Michael Pitt looking very scarred. Takeshi “Beat” Kitano pops up in what feels more like a nod to his Johnny Mnemonic bona fides than anything else – until he’s allowed to dispatch henchmen with a suitcase and a death stare, at which point you’re reminded he’s a living Japanese-cinema legend and not just a piece of culturally appropriated furniture.
Speaking of which: Yes, you also get Scarlett Johansson simultaneously channeling her best-known role (Black Widow) and her best performance to date (Under the Skin) while sporting a Chelsea haircut and skin-colored catsuit. Accusations of whitewashing have dogged the production since her casting was announced, and whether the production would have been better served by an Asian actor in areas other than cultural sensitivity and common sense is debatable; take out the obvious bottom-line factor of hiring a bankable movie star, and you still have a problematic movie that’s coasting on borrowed chicness. (There’s an “explanation” for the primarily Euro-Caucasian leads in the story itself that could not feel more reverse-engineered.)
We’ll gingerly suggest that if you had to employ an Occidental tourist for this role, you could do a lot worse than Johansson, who knows how to hold your attention whether sprinting or standing still. She’s found a comfortable niche playing characters that don’t seem to feel at home in their bodies, their brains or their human being-ness, newly discovered or freshly enhanced. These roles seem to rely not so much on her bombshell factor as her facility with a blank affect, though you need a director who knows how to use it properly in service of a bigger vision – a Jonathan Glazer (Skin), a Spike Jonze (Her) or even a Luc Besson (the wonderfully WTF Lucy). And you don’t hire Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) because you want a visionary, you hire him because he will finish a job and make it look sleek.
Which is why, in the end, you get Johansson spinning her wheels in a stock hero’s-journey story that feels stripped for exotic spare parts. The secret-sharer sense you got from watching the original, the idea that you had come across a low-frequency transmission that felt subversive yet familiar enough to strike a chord, has been surgically removed. All that’s left is big-budget cybersploitation scrubbed for a global audience, a machine designed to collect money. Who stole the soul? For a movie steeped in aspects of the singularity, there’s nothing very singular about this Ghost in the Shell at all.