Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell
By Matthew Huntley
April 10, 2017

The many eyebrow lifts of Scarlett Johansson.

Just like its heroine, Ghost in the Shell is constructed out of artificial and re-used parts. It's another one of those futuristic sci-fi actioners about an elite team of skilled agents tasked with maintaining peace and order, this time in the Japanese city of Niihama. The catch is that many of the agents, and in fact many civilians, have been enhanced with synthetic material. In this future, the opening titles tell us, the line between man and machine has been blurring, and it's reached a point where one agent, Mira (Scarlett Johansson), is mostly machine. Her only native human tissue is her brain, which makes up her consciousness, or “ghost.” When she wakes up for the first time in her new body, her doctors tell her she was rescued from a refugee boat and the only reason she survived is because they transplanted her brain into a highly adaptable endoskeleton, or “shell.”

If this setup reminds you of “Robocop,” it should, because it feels derivative of it. And if you see Ghost in the Shell, which I don't exactly recommend you do, you'll probably find it also reminds you of Blade Runner, Extreme Measures and The Matrix, among others, as far as its presentation and narrative are concerned. Original and inspired Ghost in the Shell is not, and in the face of so many other movies of a similar nature that have come before it, it has the added burden of finding new and innovative ways of standing out, ideally through a strong commentary or rich, complex characters, or both. By the end, it has made some progress in this regard, and the movie certainly looks sharp and slick, but it takes too long to find its own voice, and even when it does, it's too low to make much of an impact.

Mira, who was designed and built with the intentions of being an advanced weapon, is promoted to the rank of major after a year in the field. She's part of a select law enforcement unit headed by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and works alongside Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Han (Chin Han) to thwart potential terrorism in Niihama's Section 9. The team is funded and overseen by Hanka Robotics, a domineering corporation that spearheaded the current line of synthetic augmentation that constructed Mira's prosthetic body, which gives her a unique strength and agility. And of course, it's obvious from the beginning that Hanka's CEO, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), will eventually serve as the film's villain, although with a name like Cutter, how could he not?

The plot kicks into gear when Mira and her cohorts stake out a hotel where another Hanka official is almost assassinated at the hands of a robotic, rogue geisha. To search for answers, Mira “dives in” to the geisha's software and uncovers a plot by a hacker to take out all Hanka seniors that were part of a specific project from the past. This includes Mira's friend and caregiver, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who routinely administers Mira medication that prevents unwanted “glitches,” or disorienting memory fragments. Mira tracks down the hacker, whose name is Kuze (Michael Pitt), and he enlightens her about a truth she might not have otherwise been aware.

All these developments roll out amidst the standard martial arts sequences, gun battles, car chases and near-death moments expected of the genre, and director Rupert Sanders and his crew offer little in the way of surprises as far as structure or presentation, while the screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the Japanese manga of the same name, is essentially a watered-down, generic introduction to this universe without being too deep or interesting. We've seen this all before, sometimes better, sometimes worse, and Ghost in the Shell falls somewhere in between these two labels and ends as something mostly forgettable. Johansson is perfectly credible here, and it's easy to buy her in this role, but the movie doesn't give her much to do outside of looking pretty and glossy while the other characters are simply stock Hollywood types.

Still, as the movie progressed, I did sense it was gaining traction, both with its substance and its purpose, especially after Mira meets a kind, middle-aged Japanese woman (Kaori Momoi) who, like Kuze, informs her of a buried truth. Even though this scene arrives too late in the game to make much of a difference in our overall opinion of the movie, it does allow us to see where Ghost in the Shell could have separated itself from the norm and added new, more interesting layers to its mix, ones with more emotion and intelligence. So, there's at least potential for this would-be series to get better, and even though we walk away from this first entry feeling apathetic and unsatisfied, we're also not entirely disappointed.