Aesthetic is key to sci-fi. Whether it’s the lived in dirt covered look of Star Wars or the glossy slick atmosphere of Blade Runner, the aesthetic is key to how the individual worlds are established. Giving us visual cues that we the audience can give a sense of how this place operates. With Ghost in the Shell, director Rupert Sanders is definitely aping more of the Blade Runner sleek sheen, giving us the impression of a world overtaken by the holographic manipulated visages of Japanese culture that have been corporatized. It’s a visually stunning glossy update that shows the shallow soullessness of the world Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) attempts to protect, foreshadowing her own struggles with a concrete human identity while placed inside a robot body.
So, after establishing the initial aesthetic that gives us the most basic feel for what this world is going to be, one would figure that Ghost in the Shell would build on it. One would hope that the flawless mechanical action sequences Sanders creates would lead to a contemplative insight into the characters. Create an individual identity and that separates itself from the pack, especially for those – like myself – who have never seen the original 1995 anime film of the same name. Something that isn’t just a rehash of Blade Runner, Robocop, Metropolis, Short Circuit, A.I. or countless other stories about automatons with pretty hues. Of course, one would hope all that… but hope for that is about as empty as a robotic body without a “ghost” to fill it. Hope for this to be more than a vapid exercise in shooting recycled sci-fi jargon. There is no hope. There is no joy. Only boredom and extreme blandness lie in the wake Ghost in the Shell‘s unbelievably dull overlay.
The biggest reasoning for this mainly seems to be the construction of these “characters.” Killian is our cyborg protagonist searching for her human past. One would figure that some kind of curiosity or attachment or any number of actual intriguing aspects of her discovery would seep into Scarlett Johansson’s performance. Not necessarily that she’d become fully human, but that there would be a building realization that changes her as a character. Then again, that would suppose a world where Johansson isn’t sleepwalking through Ghost in the Shell. Putting aside the awkward whitewashing controversy, the Killian character could have made for engaging commentary on a Japanese woman forced into a white woman’s body to fit the standard concepts of beauty. However, that is never a concern here, where Johansson makes the average android seem like Daniel Day Lewis by comparison. Where humanity or contemplative robotic energy is vacuumed out in favor of extreme familiarity. Any attempt at anger or curiosity or revelation from Johannson is rendered worthless by her monotone delivery. There’s nothing there to invest in as she jumps off buildings or shoots at people, especially since she just ends up getting fixed later. There’s no suspense at all to any action she takes. Making every well shot action sequence totally pointless as it displays with total accuracy the type of unimpressive stakes that films like Aeon Flux or Ultraviolet previously created with slightly less engaging visual competence.
At the very least it would contrast with the very human behavior of her supporting castmates. Like Pilou Asbæk as her loyal human partner or Takeshi Kitano as her tactile chief of police. But no. They have a similar lack of human reaction. No concern or worry or joy beyond what’s necessary to the plot for Ghost in the Shell. Spouting some of the worst attempts at cop banter and “badass” one liners. The type of back and forth that feels more common with a parody of a cop drama rather than a real one. Yet, these are supposed to be the larger connections Killian has with humanity, along with her relationship with the doctor who helped build her (Juliette Binoche). Then again, when that relationship mainly hinges on the audience finding meaning in her endless repetition of “Ghost in the Shell” rather than anything genuinely meaningful.
There’s also the mysterious past that lingers within Killian that drives the central mystery of Ghost in the Shell. Without “spoiling” too much, Killian’s origins as a Japanese woman who becomes the test subject of an experiment to make cybernetic enhancement after a cybernetic enhancement has a lot of potential. Potential that was exploited to incredible heights in the likes of a Robocop, but could be given more life in a clever new context. However, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t give much of any emotional context to make this recycling worth much of anything. There are points where they try, mainly with Killian’s interactions with a Japanese woman who seems familiar to her brief glimpses of the past. Oh and her connection to the main villain Kuze (played with Max Headroom-style delivery by Michael Pitt). These two connections hinge the rather large revelations that expose the major aspects of Killian’s past. Yet, these revelations ultimately feel cold and mechanical. Much like the action scenes. That they’re more necessity of the plot rather than an emotionally immersive hinge of our main character.
All of this ultimately shows how incredibly vapid Ghost in the Shell is as a visual exercise. From the first twenty minutes, we get the sleek modern visuals Rupert Sanders is displaying. We get the astounding effects work and cinematography is on every single visual level. Yet, when that’s really all Ghost in the Shell has going for it beyond a few familiar themes, shallow one-note performances and a mechanical follow through with the action sequences, everything seems alien and distant. But without the added punch of eventual human emotion. Or engaging thrills. Hell, even one solitary moment of exciting thrills that lasts beyond the eye candy. It’s an endless droning display of effects demo reel that has little rhyme or reason to it that exists beyond the most basic of sci-fi. It’s drones on and on without making much of an identity to separate itself from the pack. Ghost in the Shell flops like a Rainbow Fish on a pier. Leaving shimmering glimmers of visual mastery that ultimately die on the dock. The pigments get old after staring at it too long. Leaving a dead husk of meat and scales that doesn’t excite as much as it overstays any sense of welcome. One would just hope Ghost in the Shell makes its last desperate flop into the ocean so one can stop watching the rotting colorful corpse flay randomly without rhyme or reason. Putting itself and the audience out of its consistently tedious existence.
Rating: 1 out of 5 Soulless Action Sequences