Since 1989 the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise has captivated audiences in a variety of formats. The illustrations, whether static or animated were just as captivating as its philosophical musings on the nature of identity within an increasingly digital world. While some may call these concepts dated, they are more timely than ever as our reality grows ever closer to our former fiction. Hollywood, always hungry to gobble up existing work with a built in fanbase and expel another “blockbuster” has taken a surprisingly long time to snatch up Shirow’s opus, but now that they have, can it possibly live up to its legacy?
The short answer is “No.”
Major’s origin story has once again been altered, but not to good use. As we learn in an unnecessary pre-credit scene (featuring Westworld’s iconic “robot milk”), Major(Scarlett Johansson) is an android functioning with a human brain. Her brain was harvested as a youth after nearly being killed in a terrorist attack. Major is now considered a “weapon”, property of the Hanka company, on loan to Section 9, a government law enforcement agency. A terrorist with exceptional hacking abilities has suddenly appeared and is systematically assassinating high-level scientists within the Hanka company. Major and her trusty cyber-sidekicks Batou(Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa(Chin Han) punch, shoot, and hack their way along the digital breadcrumbs the villain leaves behind.
“Ghost in the Shell” is Rupert Sanders’ second feature length film, the first being Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). Reportedly the screenplay had a number of writers taking a crack at the script, but in the end only two were credited: William Wheeler and Jamie Moss(whose only other screenwriting credit is for Street Kings) Perhaps it’s inexperience, another example of writing by committee, a risk/profit decision by the producers, or even a complete misunderstanding of the source material, but the final result is a story that has been neutered and dumbed down for mass consumption. Random elements from the different iterations of “Ghost” have been cobbled together apparently in an attempt to please the fans. Ironically, with only a few exceptions, these elements are likely to estrange the very people who will understand what they are. Major has exchanged her philosophical musings on the nature of identity and humanity for angst, insecurity, and random outbursts of “I am a weapon” or, conversely “I am more than just a weapon” depending on the needs of the script. Her struggles with her hidden past play out more like an amnesia episode on a classic sitcom than a futuristic, metaphysical examination.
Fortunately, there are plenty of amazing visuals and eye candy to feast your eyes on while the generic dialog drones on. Everything from the smallest prop, up through the costuming, set design, and digital FX that fill the cityscapes is exceptional! Such an incredible amount of talent, passion, and determination went into these aspects of the film that it elevates it to a watchable status. Complementing these visuals is a perfectly stylized soundtrack that is very reminiscent of Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy.
The question that remains is, who is the intended audience for this film? Loyal fans will surely be disappointed by the bastardized story. Newcomers to the series may be dazzled by the visuals, but with soulless action scenes and a script that has the subtleties of a sledgehammer in a china shop, it’s unlikely to entice a new fanbase. It may be pretty to look at, but it’s only the shell of a movie.