The live-action redo of 'Ghost in the Shell' is in theaters now

Image: Paramount Pictures

By Brad Sun. Let’s just get this out of the way: Scarlett Johansson doesn’t belong in this movie. Even putting aside the legitimate concerns about whitewashing and cultural appropriation (more on that later), her performance as “The Major” is a distractingly inadequate foundation upon which to build. This live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is a failed and all-around boneheaded attempt to capture the groundbreaking essence of its source material.

As the title implies, Johansson portrays a robot with a human soul. And yet, despite her best efforts, she never quite sells the uncanny eeriness of a nearly perfect human facsimile, nor the living being that inhabits it. Instead, she defaults to the same furrowed brow she’s adopted in many of her past action-oriented roles, a look of determination and/or confusion she keeps for the entirety of the movie, almost as if she’s constantly repeating to herself, “walk like a robot… walk like a robot…”

This immersion-breaking effort extends to the overly expository dialogue as well. In nearly every scene, characters randomly wax philosophical about the nature of identity, or rattle off general information about the film’s futuristic setting to one another (details they all presumably know already), for the sole purpose of keeping the film’s audience up to speed. It would be the equivalent of your dentist suddenly saying to you, “You’ve been my patient for the past five years and we now have the technology to fill cavities and prevent tooth decay. If only there was a filling that could stop the decay of our modern society.” It’s an attempt to make the film appear more serious than it really is, and instead it has the opposite effect. Everything feels unnaturally staged or just downright silly.

Johansson is unduly burdened with literally embodying the entire thematic and emotional arc of the film, but her co-stars fare better in their smaller roles. The great “Beat” Takeshi Kitano brings a stately badassery to the proceedings, and in a rare moment of understatement, walks away with the film’s coolest gunfight (and one-liner). Likewise, Michael Pitt, with the assistance of some remarkable computer effects, nails the enigmatic menace of antagonist Kuze, really looking and behaving like he stepped straight out of an anime. Were he a character in the latest Tekken game, I would totally main him.

The live-action redo of 'Ghost in the Shell' is in theaters now

Image: Paramount Pictures

The visuals are, in fact, quite impressive across the board. Ghost in the Shell‘s neon-soaked Tokyo has neat little details on every grimy corner, and the modded-out ’80s cars that populate its streets are cool enough to deserve a movie art book all to themselves. But don’t mistake slick art direction for world-building. Like much of the film, the cyber-enhanced urban setting doesn’t hold up to even the most basic of scrutiny. Case in point: we are presented with wonderfully creepy robot geishas that become even more wonderfully creepy as they kill people and spider-walk up walls. But why in the world would anyone create such scary and dangerous machines to pour them tea in the first place? They’re there simply because the Major needs something awesome to shoot at.

Perhaps if The Matrix didn’t exist, that would be enough. But the Wachowskis (who were themselves heavily inspired by the first Ghost in the Shell) did all this better back in 1999, and the original animated film from 1995 still holds up quite well (and even feels far more progressive than this re-imagining). Indeed, it is sadly ironic that a movie so ahead of its time would, more than 20 years later, inspire an adaptation that feels so backwards.

Which brings us to the issue of race. Without getting too deep into spoilers, let’s just say two recent movies tackle science fiction themes of mind swapping and race bending. One uses psychological horror to thoughtfully explore racial and economic disparity. The other is Ghost in the Shell. It’s dumb, it’s gross, and by the end it has the audacity (or perhaps just cluelessness) to condemn its villains for doing the same thing the filmmakers have done in real life. Suffice to say, if you watched Get Out and thought it was a tad unfair to white people, this movie is for you. Everyone else will be squirming uncomfortably in their seats.

Not surprisingly, watching the Major strip down to nothing but her cyber-skin and fearlessly dive off a skyscraper is as thrilling now as it was in 1995. However, despite a valiant effort on Johansson’s part, there’s not enough substance and far too much buffoonery to give these moments of spectacle the resonance they ought to have. As it stands, this movie is a pretty but insultingly empty shell, vainly searching for a ghost.

Directed by Rupert Sanders.

Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger.

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, and Takeshi Kitano.

Rated PG-13 because robots don’t have blood or nipples.

3 out of 10