Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell raises a rather puzzling question. Should we allow criticism of egregious Hollywood whitewashing to completely overpower a genuinely good movie? Sure, it’s easy to dog pile onto trash like Exodus: Gods and Kings or Prince of Persia when they bring absolutely nothing else to the table, but that’s not the case here. While certainly uneven, Sanders’ film makes an admirable effort to be more story driven and intellectual than most modern blockbusters while still delivering some deeply immersive eye candy.
The story is set in a future where cybernetic enhancements are a part of everyday life. The line between human and machine is starting to get a little blurry, with most people being a bit of both. The brain of Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), has been put inside something called a “shell” after her body was destroyed in a terror attack. Remembering only fragments of her past, Killian is placed into an experimental counter-terrorism unit called Section 9. She and her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk)find themselves facing off against a mysterious hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who has begun to stage assassination attempts on several of Section 9’s key players.
There’s a surprising amount of reflective moments spent with Mira as she tries to get a grip on her humanity. The characters take the time to have conversations about the nature of the world they are in and even though the screenplay occasionally falls into some pretty clunky expositional dialogue, we’re still given a lot to chew on. The mystery itself is fairly compelling as well, with Pitt’s Kuze proving to be a sympathetic foil for Mira.
Johansson anchors everything rather nicely with her subdued performance. Mira is a literal killing machine who’s humanity is a glitch, something that certain forces hope will be completely wiped away one day. There really isn’t a place in the world for her, and Johansson nicely rides the line between robotic stoicism and internal pathos. Since the city we find ourselves in is so far beyond something we can fathom, we feel as displaced as she does. The supporting cast, which actually features more Asian actors than the marketing indicates, is largely solid as well. Only Juliette Binoche, playing the doctor who put Mira together again, is a little weak. Her character is supposed to have a major emotional impact on Mira, but Binoche’s performance is so tuned out that it doesn’t really register.
The creative team here may have created what may be the most fully realized cinematic cyberpunk world since the original Blade Runner. Most films of this type will shell out some cash for the sweeping shots of the futuristic city but get lazy once we’re on the ground. Here, even the most minute details of any environment are given a new spin. This world may have the skeleton of ours but the way that it’s inhabitants carry out mundane tasks feels entirely alien. There’s so much going on the background of each shot that one may not even notice on a first viewing. It demands to be seen on the big screen in order to soak in as much of it as possible. Even when the story starts to have its shortcomings, the film is so wonderful to look at that it keeps up the momentum.
Saunders’ direction seems to take heavy influence from the early work of Zack Snyder, particularly in the action sequences. Meticulous attention is paid to framing to ensure that each shot looks like it was ripped out of the manga. He even uses slow motion to very similar effect, highlighting the most brutal blows which typically involve folks being thrown through the air. However, he doesn’t quite have the same flair that Snyder showed in 300 or Watchmen. All of the strongest battles are at the beginning of the film, while the ones in the second and third act fall a little flat. The final battle, in particular, is a colorless mess that feels like watching glasses free-3D with a blindfold on.
Unfortunately, Saunders seriously undercuts a great deal of this solid work with an absolutely catastrophic reveal in the third act. Without giving anything away, the film attempts to address the white-washing and it utterly backfires. In fact, what we learn ends up literally embodying what people in minority groups feel Hollywood does to them. It’s an astonishingly tone-deaf revelation that turns a film that was overcoming the controversy it created into a startling case for why studios still need to be held accountable for these casting decisions.
Ghost in the Shell comes agonizingly close to being good enough to wipe away the controversy it has perpetuated. Up until it swerves out of control in the third act, it’s one of the more ambitious and enjoyable Hollywood blockbusters in some time. It brings us into a different world in a way that few films bother to do, which is certainly reason to check it out regardless of its flaws. However, I suspect that when Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 opens later this year, this film may have to slink back into its shell.