Ghost in the Shell streamlines the story of the iconic manga and anime of the same name. In a future where cybernetic enhancements have become commonplace, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is a terrorist attack victim whose brain was salvaged and placed into a fully artificial body. She is put to work at Section 9, a law enforcement agency. She and her team are on the tail of a mysterious criminal hacker with some sort of vendetta against the Hanka Corporation, the company responsible for much of the technological advancement that has changed society so dramatically, including the Major’s robotic body. As she pursues this hacker, she encounters glimpses of a past that she does not recognize, leading her to troubling truths about her origins.The film doesn’t directly adapt the original anime film. It instead takes elements from the entirety of the Ghost in the Shell canon, including the two full seasons of the TV series Stand Alone Complex. The movie ends up condensing a pretty long and complex narrative, and that makes the structure of this story kind of challenging. The emotional crux of this movie lies in events and relationships we don’t get to see, the film ultimately prioritizing the aesthetics over any real investment in these characters.The movie builds its plot around questions.Who is the mysterious ghost hacker? What is his connection with the Major? And who is the Major, really, and what did the Hanka Corporation really do to her? The assumption made in this film is that audiences will be naturally interested in the solutions to these mysteries, but that doesn’t quite pan out. The film becomes kind of disengaging as the movie hints at answers that involve an unseen backstory. Even in the moments of ostensible emotional payoff, there just isn’t much to cling to. The relationships are just too thin, the movie too quick to omit any scene that doesn’t involve the furthering of these mysteries. In a story that is so much about the indelibility of the human element, this whole thing comes off as thoroughly mechanical.It’s pretty, though. A lot of work has clearly been put into turning New Port City into a living, breathing metropolis. It is a city that shows off alluring extremes of technological advancement and urban squalor. In the wide shots, it is a gleaming future utopia bathed in light and movement. But once the characters are the streets, it reveals an entirely different personality. The movie ends up being light on larger themes, the script eschewing the overt philosophizing of the source material, but there is something inherently compelling in the stark difference between the two faces of the film’s setting.It’s all part of a largely pleasing visual look. The film kind of flubs the action a bit, with the emphasis being on cool individual imagery rather than a logical flow of events. But it looks cool enough, and it works within the film’s larger context. Much has been made of Scarlett Johansson’s casting, but to the film’s credit, with how it plays this story out, it adds an interesting sociological layer to the film’s otherwise flimsy themes. And Johansson has really become the go-to actress for conveying strange warmth beneath a cold, artificial exterior. In the supporting cast, Beat Takeshi just owns the screen, and Michael Pitt proves to be pretty magnetic.Ghost in the Shell, for all of its unique elements, feels oddly generic. Its focus on aesthetics results in a glaring lack of personality in the characters. When characters come into this movie, they are invariably spouting some sort of expository dialogue that provides clues to the story’s larger mysteries. They are plot devices rather than humans. The film does offer up a truly alluring exterior, but just like the city it puts up on screen, any cursory exploration reveals nothing quite as engaging.
GHOST IN THE SHELL OPENS TODAY IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.