THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"GHOST IN THE SHELL"
Ghost in the Shell is based on a Japanese anime film from 1995, which in turn is based on a manga. The previous version is highly acclaimed among connoisseurs of anime, although truth be told, it's an extremely confusing work that assumes the audience already has intimate knowledge of the story's minutia. (I recently tried to rewatch the movie, only to turn it off in frustration after half an hour.) The new live-action remake doesn't do a whole lot to rectify that problem. Although not as maddeningly obtuse, this Ghost in the Shell is plagued by muddled storytelling.
The story is set in the future, where humans are able to become equipped with cybernetics that give them extraordinary powers. Their bodies may technically be enhanced, but their souls – or “ghosts” – let them retain a vital link to humanity. Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a high-tech warrior who works for Section 9, the task force assigned to bring down terrorists. She and her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) are very good, and very fearless, at this job, much to the pleasure of their boss Aramaki (played by noted Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano).
Despite some potential in that premise, Ghost in the Shell isn't entirely sure which way to go with it. The first half seems as though it's going to be about Major's efforts to apprehend a hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt). He's been infiltrating the company whose leader, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), built Major and wants to profit from her abilities. That ends up being something of a red herring, because the story mostly moves away from it in the second half, as Major seeks to discover the truth about her past, with the guidance of the scientist (Juliette Binoche) assigned to keep her tuned up.
Blending those two halves certainly would have been possible. The screenplay – by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger – doesn't try particularly hard to do that, though. In fact, it doesn't try hard to do much of anything. The set-up on the hacker section is weak. Ghost in the Shell does a poor job introducing some of the key characters, and it isn't able to meaningfully convey why Kuze's actions are so threatening to Cutter. This makes the action scenes (which, incidentally, are less plentiful than you might think) somewhat weightless. Low stakes prevent them from achieving any satisfying impact.
Major seeking answers about her identity and exploring whether her memories are real, meanwhile, proves to be pretty predictable. Other sci-fi movies have tackled this same kind of theme with far more depth and substance. The big revelation about her past, at least as it's presented here, turns out to be very underwhelming because it's only handled at a surface level. It lacks emotion.
With two separate plot halves, neither of which is fully developed, Ghost in the Shell struggles to maintain some semblance of interest. The things it has working in its favor can only carry the movie so far. Visual effects used to convey a futuristic city are impressive in a Blade Runner type of way, as are those used to show Major's powers, which include being able to make herself largely invisible. Scarlett Johansson makes a good, if controversial choice for the lead role. (From the time her casting was announced, some people cried foul at a Caucasian actress playing a character who was Asian in every previous incarnation.) She manages to bring a detached, robotic quality to Major, while still showing glimpses of humanity underneath.
That's about all there is. Directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White & the Huntsman), Ghost in the Shell is easy enough to watch. It's not terrible, but it's not especially good either. The movie just kind of sits there, pretty to look at and mildly diverting at times, without going beyond that. A sci-fi action/adventure with Scarlett Johansson and big-budget effects ought to be a lot more fun than this.
( out of four)
Note: With the exception of maybe three scenes, the 3D in Ghost in the Shell was not nearly as impressive as I thought it would be. This is an instance where seeing the movie in this format isn't essential.
Ghost in the Shell is rated PG-13 for for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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