These are the sorts of consciousness-expanding questions that have animated the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise for more than two decades. The world of GITS is part futuristic action movie and part philosophy lecture, in which artfully constructed animated action sequences serve as vehicles for investigations into the nature of consciousness. It’s a showcase for what top-notch animation can do — one that the new movie never quite manages to match.
However, it might take a few months—or maybe even a few years—but eventually, Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell will have an afterlife. The live-action adaptation of the Japanese classic is a complete Cyber Bore, narrative-wise, but for those who gush over big- screen artistry, there’s plenty to get lost in: the opulent, expansive CGI visuals; the gorgeous Clint Mansell/Lorne Balfe score, pulsing and plunging like a Tangerine Dream nightmare; even Johansson’s stoically acrobatic performance, which proves once again why she’s one of the most in-demand action-film stars in the world. It’s one of those films destined to be salvaged by the web, where the movie’s defenders will advocate for it via frame-grab sprees or the occasional sub-Reddit threads. Ghost will find its followers.
In the here-and-now, though, Ghost in the Shell is an all- encompassing embarrassment, the kind of movie you might not want to admit you watched—and which, judging from the box office, not a lot of people bothered to see in the first place. The film earned just $19 million domestically in its opening weekend, coming in third behind the still-running Beauty and the Beast and the surprise smash Oh Look, Alec Baldwin Is a Talking Baby, I Guess That’s Cute to Some People? That crash came despite the fact that the latest version of Ghost—which is based on the long-running manga and anime series—was gifted with an estimated $110 million budget, a major star, a teen- baiting PG-13 rating, and a nearly 3,500-screen opening weekend. In what’s been a notably healthy box-office year, Ghost should have shellacked the competition.
But on the internet, Ghost has been a dud-in-the-making since at least January 2015, when Johansson’s casting was first confirmed. The news set off a two-year-long preemptive outcry on the web, where online petitions and thoughtful Twitter threads addressed the film’s whitewashing and cultural appropriation. That’s been a point of contention with several works from the last year, including Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, and Netflix’s Iron Fist, but Ghost in the Shell’s transgressions were perhaps the most deeply felt: Here was a landmark piece of Japanese pop-culture—one whose what- does-it-mean-be-human? ideas and hacker-trash aesthetic had already been co-opted by US-produced films like The Matrix and AI—being re- imagined with a white American lead actress and an English director (Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders). It didn’t help that, a year before its release, rumours surfaced that the filmmakers had tested digital effects that would have allowed certain performers to “shift their ethnicity” so they could resemble Asian characters. By the time the film opened on Friday, it had shifted from “problematic” to full-on off-inducing: Wait, didn’t we all agree this was a bad idea?
The overall result is a movie that’s all borrowed parts, with no depth or connection. The layers never quite come together to form something more. It wants to be a movie about the search for consciousness, but, unlike its source material, it doesn’t have a soul.
6 out of 10 stars