To make a film with a robotic protagonist is difficult at the best of times. Robots, or androids, are defined by their lack of human emotions, so it is up to the film itself to convey those qualities. But when such a film lacks any personality, as this one does, there’s very little that can be done to save it.
Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is an anti-terrorist operative with a unique biological make-up, having the body of an android but the appearance and brain of a female human. The Major works for the government taskforce known as Section 9, investigating and responding to threats of terrorism in a futuristic, multi-ethnic Japan. Well, one assumes it is – the movie never makes clear when or where the plot takes place.
In the story, Section 9 is investigating a series of attacks linked to the Handa Corporation – the organisation responsible for bringing Major to life. Under the instruction of Section 9’s head Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), Major is paired with human agent Batou (Pilou Asbaek) to locate the individual responsible for the attacks. Though the two work well together, a series of glitches in Major’s processor threatens to compromise their objective, and her ability to operate in the field.
Ghost in the Shell was originally produced as a manga – that is, Japanese comic strip – in its homeland in the late Eighties, before being adapted into a feature-length anime in 1995. The live-action reimagining borrows heavily from both, with the vehicles, scenery and characters all resembling their original illustrations (as evidenced with Aramaki and Batou, below). There are homages to the original feature, such as Major’s leap off a skyscraper and the fight scene in a shallow pool of water, and references to other anime like Akira and Spirited Away.
It’s encouraging to see the producers opt for an original story, as opposed to a scene-by-scene retelling of 1995’s Ghost in the Shell. Sadly, the story here isn’t as clever nor as thought-provoking as its namesake, or even the other anime films that influence it. Moreover, the plot isn’t particularly unique, sharing similarities with a number of Hollywood releases that discuss similar themes, including The Matrix (which itself was greatly influenced by anime), Minority Report and Ex Machina.
Ghost in the Shell is also visually disappointing. Seeing the manga’s cyberpunk aesthetic in live-action form is impressive initially, but becomes quite distracting later on. As for the 3D, which this reviewer experienced, there are only one or two scenes where the movie makes good use of the effects, all other times seeming unnecessary. By contrast, the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, which played before the screening, demonstrated a much better utilisation of 3D effects, and that’s quite sad.
Most unfortunate of all is how joyless Ghost in the Shell is. Aside from Pilou Asbaek, none of the actors appear to be placing any effort into their performances, delivering their lines with little enthusiasm. This lack of passion is apparent throughout the film, with a strong sense that all who were involved – be it the director, the screenwriters, the editors or the composers – don’t even care about the project, and are only in it for the money.
It’s hard to be invested in a movie that even the cast and crew show no interest in. Ghost in the Shell may have a sound knowledge of its source material, but it lacks a soul of its own to connect with the audience. An early contender for the year’s biggest disappointment.