Ghost in the Shell is all shell, no ghost

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
  • Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Warning: This post contains spoilers.

About two-thirds into Ghost in the Shell, the new live-action Paramount production based on a Japanese manga series by Shirow Masamune and a 1995 animated feature by Mamoru Oshii, a cyborg police officer implanted with a human mind confronts one of the scientists who developed her. Their conversation reaches a head when the scientist explains that the cyborg's memories, which the cyborg believed had carried over from her experience as a person (her "ghost," in the movie's parlance), had in fact been manufactured. The human being, whose brain now inhabits the robot, did not lose her parents in a terrorist attack, as she'd thought. That event is completely fictional, the scientist says—the developers thought it would be useful motivation in making the cyborg want to fight crime.

This revelation should be the emotional core of Ghost, triggering a crisis in the cyborg and causing her to question her purpose as a crime fighter. Yet the scene falls flat dramatically, despite being performed by two very accomplished actresses, Scarlett Johansson (who plays the cyborg Major) and Juliette Binoche (who plays the scientist, Dr. Ouelet). Director Rupert Sanders, who generally proves competent when it comes to action set pieces, shows no feel for interpersonal (or, in this case, person-to-cyborg) relationships. The actresses don't seem to be playing off each other, and the scene lacks dynamism. It feels hurried—a brief, obligatory stop in the land of dialogue before the film returns to action and special effects.

There isn't a single affecting moment in Ghost, which comes across as a mass of concepts in search of meaningful realization. Some of the ideas are actually quite provocative—had the filmmakers invested the work with more emotion, they could've delivered something more haunting than the glitzy and empty package they produced. Ghost takes place in a future where most people have the ability to change themselves through cybernetic modification. Many have wired their brains so they can communicate telepathically, while others sport digital implants in their eyes and muscles. Criminals use the new communication networks to hack into others' minds and control them, a scary form of cyberterrorism that leaves most people vulnerable to attack. (The central story line has the Major trying to catch a supercriminal who has been hacking into various people and robots and using them to kill others.) Alas Sanders's film fails to convey that sense of vulnerability in any of the characters, giving us instead superhuman warriors and anonymous bullet fodder.

From Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell
  • From Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell

Occasionally the characters ask about what forms identity and whether our ability to determine who we are has been compromised in a world of cybernetic modifications. These conversations aren't very deep, however, and the filmmakers seem too intoxicated with the flashy, digitized world they've invented—or, rather, cobbled together from pieces of Blade Runner, Masamune's manga, and Oshii's feature—to give the dialogue subtextual heft. (Moreover the film's design is overstuffed without ever being immersive—the filmmakers just pile up details without organizing them meaningfully.) And since none of the characters are realized all that fully, their questions about what makes them unique seem for naught.

There's certainly potential here for a contemplative sci-fi film in the tradition of Blade Runner and Oshii's celebrated anime. Though originally envisioned by Masamune in the late 1980s, the world of Ghost suggests a grotesque exaggeration of the current era, in which countless individuals appear connected to their smartphones and use them to communicate constantly online. It also suggests a cleaner version of the future world David Cronenberg imagined in his 1999 sci-fi feature eXistenZ, where people connect to virtual reality networks by plugging cables directly into their spines. (On a related note, the neck holes through which Johansson's character receives input in Ghost recall the memorable spine holes from eXistenZ.) Yet the filmmakers prove time and again that they're not interested in contemplation, offering easy action-movie kicks in place of ideas. What emerges is the year's biggest moviegoing disappointment so far.


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