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It might be said that in an age where anything, quite literally, can be made in movies to appear as real as the hand in front of your face, there comes a saturation point where wonder is no longer a thing. In years past, movies were a breeding ground of innovation and visual surprises that made us believe our imaginations had no limits. When we first took a space odyssey, when Superman leapt into the skies, when Rick Deckard hunted Replicants, when dinosaurs ruled again; these were just a few of the films that changed how we see and experienced movies. And yet now, as even modest projects can be stuffed with computer imagery that creates worlds beyond what could be done just a short time ago, leaving few films feeling special for the universes they create.
Now comes Ghost in the Shell, a CGI-heavy movie that is from frame one all about the eye candy, and honestly, is quite impressive, especially for fans who will recognize much from the 1996 animated film that serves as part of the inspiration. It is in no uncertain terms a good-looking movie with startling details that see an immense cityscape that explores the squalor of its underbelly to the gleaming heights of its supremely wealthy, doused in neon and towering holographic advertisements that all feels like a direct descendant of Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner, a comparison that is surely not without intent. And despite the vivid stage the film presents, it is when it’s over, a mostly modest experience, even with a few genuine moments that hint of greater potential.
The story takes place well into the future, where cyber-enhancements are a way of life, giving most people a mix of real and machine about them. Being fully human is a rarity and the world is awash in upgrades from bootleggers on the streets to multinational corporations dealing in state-of-the-art. Protecting the citizens of a mostly-Japanese-influenced society is an elite team of solider-types from Public Security Section 9, led by Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), an aging but powerful man who answers to a calculating boss named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). New on the team is a woman referred only to as Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is the first of her kind, an entirely synthetic, highly-advanced robot body fused with a human brain, one taken from the body of girl involved in a terrible accident. A year after the procedure, she is a weapon of near unequaled ability who is tracking a mysterious figure known as Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who has a few jarring secrets of his own about who Major is and what the truth is about her past.
Directed by Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell is surprisingly easy to follow, considering the dense and often ambiguous source material, and its plot is relatively light, with Major on a search for her true self. Sanders is clearly a master at generating believable worlds and pays more than enough homage to the much beloved original with a number of near spine-tingling images that truly give the production a great feel about it. Beyond the visuals though, it is, much like the robots that inhabit it, a little lifeless, even with the remarkable presence of Johansson, who embodies the controversially-cast part with some decidedly good moments, though even she can’t carry this over the threshold where the real questions and answers lie, the dilemma of her condition and the future of the race one that should be profoundly moving. By choice or not, her often unexpressive face leaves potentially powerful moments dry, and as Sanders spends all his energies on the look rather than the feel, it leaves some of the experience wanting.
Coming off best in the cast is Major’s creator per se, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) who is the most human of the lot and though her path is an easy one to predict, is the most memorable, though in the latter half Kitano has some moments to shine in some old-fashioned gunslinger heroics. I also liked Pitt’s performance, doing some nice work as a man in torment, even if the script doesn’t give much of any them any real opportunities to bridge their strictly-defined roles.
There is a peculiar emptiness in Ghost in the Shell that is hard to define. While watching, you keep waiting for the awe to strike, to be lifted by the incredible visuals and effects, but it never truly arrives, despite some cool imagery and nicely-photographed action. That may be the fault of the filmmakers, or my own desensitization in the movie-going experience, but there is still some good here that makes for a worthwhile theater run.
Movie description: Ghost in the Shell is a 2017 live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese mange and animated film from the 90s about a cybernetic-enhanced woman who is part of an elite squad of agents in charge of stopping the most dangerous criminals.
Director(s): Rupert Sanders
Actor(s): Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller