You know you're in for a rough ride when the first ten minutes of a film are spent explaining its title to you.
The big-budget, live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is a middling experience both for fans of the original and newbies. Fans will be put off by the film's seeming inability to let scenes marinate, over-explaining any nuance as though it doesn't trust the audience to come to its own conclusions; newbies, on the other hand, will wonder where the action is. Or, to make a bad pun: There's a lot of shell, but not much ghost.
After a neat opening scene in which we see a human brain transferred into an android body, we learn that this android, "the Major" (Scarlett Johansson), has become Hanka Robotics' greatest achievement. Hunting down cyber terrorists with her tough-guy partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek, who does his best to make a bland character likeable), the Major soon becomes embroiled in a plot to take down hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt) and recover her own memories from her former human self.
The action scenes — with the exception of an initially promising, exciting opener — are choreographed without much tension or excitement, cluttering the frame with too many visuals and moving objects. They lack imagination, and are mostly just trading blows or gunshots back and forth. A scene in which the Major, who has shifted into an invisibility form, beats up a baddie is a good example of the film's many strange decisions: All we can see is a guy getting thrown around — where's the fun in that?
Ghost in the Shell introduces ideas at a surface level as we follow the Major in her quest to understand her humanity, but it spoils scenes that would otherwise have been visually and thematically interesting by over-explanation. The dialogue is clunky and heavy-handed, and the Major and her colleagues feel like blank slates on which the film can project its ideas, without actual personalities to make us care about their wants or fears.
This would have been fine if Ghost in the Shell wanted nothing more than to be a big, loud, fun action movie, but it doesn't want to be that, either — it wants to be about something. Its philosophical musings feel shoehorned in, though, just as many of the visuals seem to exist only to painstakingly recreate scenes from the original anime. The film itself does indeed look like an anime, and its aesthetic is its strongest asset — the unnamed, Tokyo-esque city is colourful and striking, even as it also apes the futuristic, neon-lit market of Blade Runner — but that aesthetic doesn't serve a strong narrative purpose; it just looks pretty.
Interestingly, for a film that tries so hard to echo its predecessor, 2017's Ghost in the Shell ends up taking a completely different thematic stance. The Major of the original questions what last vestiges of her humanity remain as she replaces parts of her body with machines in order to become faster, stronger and more skilled in her profession, while also tracking her gradual acceptance of this new stage in her life. Johansson's Major, however, seems lost and confused, less in control of her own thoughts and actions. It's difficult to believe that she's an expert in her field as she aimlessly floats through fragmented memories trying to prove to herself that she can be a robot and human. It's a less nuanced, easy-to-swallow narrative that we've seen dozens of times in sci-fi, right down to a straightforward "final boss"-type villain instead of the original's darker, more cryptic ending.
The news of Johansson's casting as the originally Japanese Major received its fair share of controversy when first announced, and rightly so. Without giving too much away, the movie goes to great lengths in its last act in order to invent a backstory — completely new to the remake — that seems to exist solely to wave away accusations of whitewashing. At best, it's silly and in direct opposition of the original's themes; at its worst, it comes across as using Asian characters as props for the white protagonist's narrative arc. It's another lazy, ham-fisted decision in a film full of them. (Paramount)