I feel like I was uniquely qualified to enjoy watching the live action Ghost in the Shell, a hunch that paid off nicely. First, I watched the movie weeks after its fiercely negative hype had already died down. I also caught a free screening, which eased a lot of its potential moral dilemma in regards to its white-washed casting. Then there’s the fact that I have no personal attachment to its source material, having never read the original manga or seen the anime film that followed in the 90s. I went into Ghost in the Shell expecting nothing more than Blade Runner-runoff eye candy and a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot. The movie did not disappoint on either front. It’s an intensely beautiful, intellectually empty spectacle overloaded with laughably stilted dialogue and nonsensical plot machinations. I would never hold it against anyone who takes offense with how the movie functions as an adaptation or how it handles the casting of its front & center protagonist, but divorced from that context and considered solely as a trashy sci-fi themed shoot-em-up, it’s a deeply silly, surprisingly entertaining film.
In two upfront information dumps, one provided by onscreen text and one delivered by a slumming-it Juliette Binoche, we’re explained to be living in a dystopian techno-future where the cutting edge of robotics is bio-enhancements to the human body. Routine cosmetic surgery outfits citizens of a Future Tokyo with everything from robo-eyes to robo-livers to enhance both the practical and the recreational aspects of modern life. Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg protagonist is the next logical step in this technology: a human brain/soul (“a ghost”) implanted into a completely synthetic body (“a shell”). She’s not allowed to be her own autonomous person with this new merchandise, however. It turns out the Evil Corporation that implanted her ghost in its new shell intends to use her solely as a militarized bio weapon, erasing memories of her true past and ordering her to strike down people she might consider comrades if given freedom of choice. This inevitably leads to a dual quest to both track down her (embarrassingly ill-considered) origin story and to take down the corporate monsters who own her. And if that weren’t enough of a by-the-books superhero plot for you, she begins & ends the film perched like Batman on the edge of Tokyo rooftops, surveying the city she’s reluctantly doomed to protect.
What a city it is, though. The delicious synths, neon lights, and post-Blade Runner grime borrowed for this dystopian techno-future make for a surprisingly intense visual experience despite Ghost in the Shell‘s cookie cutter superhero plot. Billboard advertisements have evolved into kaiju-sized holograms, layering an eerie artificiality onto the city like .gifs flickering on a gigantic smartphone. The range of influences on this visual palette cover everything from the legitimately respectable (The Matrix, Advantageous, The Congress, Paprika) to the trashy media I probably shouldn’t champion as much as I do (Nerve, Tron: Legacy, Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic). This isn’t the first time I’ve had that reaction with director Rupert Sanders either. I remember leaving his Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman thinking it hopelessly vapid, but hauntingly beautiful, like a feature-length perfume commercial. I’m not exactly sure what product Ghost in the Shell would be selling me as a 120min advertisement. Maybe those Pop Tarts with the bright blue icing or, I don’t know, light-up Reebox? Whatever it might be, I was totally on the hook to make the purchase even while recognizing to an extent just how much of a sellout dweeb with no moral compass it makes me.
The moral crisis at the center of Ghost in the Shell‘s production is the casting of ScarJo in the lead role, a character initially depicted with Asian characteristics in the original anime and manga. The live action version decided to double down on this casting choice by not only outfitting Johansson with an Asian-style haircut and making her & the few other white characters (in an otherwise diverse cast) the constant center of attention, but also by making her character a literal Asian woman trapped in a white woman’s body. If I were at all taking this film seriously, as I assume many dedicated Ghost in the Shell fans have, I could see finding that choice horrifically misguided. Instead, it plays to me as humorously clueless, just another colossal misstep in a film that’s essentially a long line of colossal missteps. Besides the racial implications of ScarJo’s casting, the film also hilariously misuses the cold, inhuman delivery that she’s employed so well in films like Lucy, Her, Under the Skin, and The Jungle Book. It might entirely be a question of quality in dialogue too. I can’t say that Johansson is doing anything especially different in Ghost in the Shell than she does in any of her other non-human roles, but something about her robotic delivery of lines like “I will find him and I will kill him. It is what I am built for, isn’t it?” that plays more like an SNL sketch than a legitimate character study. By the time a villainous Michael Pitt arrives to attempt to out-do her robo-speech, all bets are off and Ghost in the Shell plays like an oddly violent, expensive-looking comedy.
Your personal experience with this disposable sci-fi action spectacle is going to depend almost entirely on how seriously you’re willing to take it. For those expecting an intricately crafted visual feast that presents a glimpse of a haunting, technology-ridden future, Ghost in the Shell will only offer you morsel-sized scraps: creepy “geisha bots” with segmented faces, neon-lit nightclub shootouts, a sea of writhing bodies in a brief dive into a machine’s subconscious, etc. What’s a lot easier to latch onto is the humor in the movie’s overblown absurdity. Spider tanks, robo-Yoda speak, casual references to something called “The Lawless Zone,” digital cloaks, blatant ogling at ScarJo’s naked, Barbie doll-smooth body: Ghost in the Shell is teeming with ridiculous production details and screenwriting choices. Any awe I had for its visual craft was equally balanced out by my frivolous amusement with throwaway lines like, “Your shell belongs to them, but not your ghost. Your ghost is yours.” Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, this strange mess of a film is fundamentally misguided as an adaptation of its source material, but also surprisingly impressive in its attention to its intricate Blade Runner Jr. production design and charmingly dopey in its reductively simplistic superhero narrative arc. It’s a delightfully dumb source of sci-fi action entertainment as long as you don’t ask for too much intellectual stimulation from it. You’re not going to get it.