Film Review: Ghost in the Shell

Major, a human transformed into a robotic fighting machine, investigates the murders of the scientists who made her. Big-budget adaptation of an influential Japanese manga plays it too safe.
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Years in the making, Ghost in the Shell is an expensive, carefully calculated, corporate version of a manga that was anything but. The disconnect between what fans expect and what DreamWorks delivers will limit the movie's box-office durability.

Shirow Masamune's 1989 comic book has been ransacked by everyone from the Waschowskis to Pixar, giving this origin story some of the feel of a retread. But Masamune borrowed a lot from Blade Runner, and that movie seems to be the primary visual inspiration for this adaptation. The candy-colored skyline, computer-controlled cars and aerial freeways, neon-lit food stalls and nightclubs and buildings covered with holographic ads all seem pinned to Ridley Scott's universe.

Scarlett Johansson is Major, a fighting machine with a human soul, all that was left after a terrorist attack. Designed by the sinister Hanka company, the tough, no-nonsense Major is also reckless, disobeying orders from her District 9 head ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano) to try to stop a massacre inside a high rise.

But rogue robots controlled through a private neural network by "Kuze" (Michael Carmen Pitt) succeed in murdering a Hanka scientist and downloading his brain data. Major takes a "deep dive" into the hard drive of a captured robot, finding clues about Kuze but also awakening images of a mysterious past that her doctor Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) dismisses as "glitches."

As Major and her District 9 cohorts, including the beefy Batou (Pilou Asbæk), close in on Kuze, she learns that the villain is developing the ability to hack into bystanders' brains and control their actions. Ouelet narrowly avoids death as sanitation workers suddenly open fire on her car. New secrets continue to emerge about Major's past.

Each plot twist in Ghost in the Shell is accompanied by some nasty bit of violence. Major is tormented with Tasers while handcuffed to a stripper's pole, Batou loses his eyes in an explosion, poor Hanka scientist Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca) gets her face ripped off. But the action and gore are curiously uninvolving, as are the chases through anonymous streetscapes.

In fact, everything in Ghost in the Shell feels detached, artificial, antiseptic. Binoche valiantly brings some life to her character, trying her hardest to pretend Ouelet isn't a worn-out stereotype. Kitano, a superb director himself, operates on a separate and entertaining level from the rest of the movie. Playing a grieving mother, Kaori Momoi is the only one in the cast to build a legitimately emotional moment. Despite their work, Ghost in the Shell unfolds smoothly, dispassionately, faithful enough to the facts of the story without ever capturing the manga's manic energy.

Johansson showed real action chops in Lucy but seems slightly off-kilter here. Accusations of "whitewashing" that swirled around the production aren't really fair. As Masamune himself pointed out, Hanka could have built a Major in any ethnicity it wanted. On the other hand, the story would have made more sense, and the action might have been more convincing, with an Asian performer as the lead.

Ghost in the Shelldoesn't make major mistakes, fitting comfortably into the mainstream of Hollywood dystopian sci-fi action blockbusters. But the movie also seems to go nowhere, slowly. Lucy may have flown completely off the rails, but at least it was fast and punchy. Safe, withdrawn, ultimately uninvolving, Ghost in the Shell is this year's V for Vendetta.

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