Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche
Directed by: Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”)
Written by: Jamie Moss (“Street Kings”) and William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) and Ehren Krueger (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”)
In the ’90s, adolescent me had all kinds of under-the-radar alternate entertainment thrown at me by virtue of being a socially-awkward fat nerd. Some things stuck hard, like comic books, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.” Others even I deflected, like Magic: The Gathering and anime—then only accessible on VHS from higher-end comic book shops, not counting the mass-market, sanitized Japanese exports like “Sailor Moon” and the fledgling days of “Pokemon.”
I feel like I gave anime a fair shake, though, and hyper-violent cartoons with occassional nudity was an easy sell anyway. But still, nothing. As I moved into my 20s, the ubiquitousness of DVDs led to me sampling one of the masterworks of the genre I had long heard about, 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell.” And again, it didn’t take. I shook hands with anime and we went our separate ways.
But, because genre filmmaking is a beast that can’t be satiated, it was only a matter of time before “Ghost in the Shell,” with its cyberpunk-robot storyline easily retrofitted for American audiences, was given the big-budget Hollywood treatment—and the endlessly debated, probably problematic whitewashed casting that goes with it.
Set in a future where humans augment themselves with cybernetic implants and live in cities filled with Golem-like holographic advertising avatars, “Ghost in the Shell” opens with the creation of the Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first synthetic humanoid with a real human brain inside of it under the care of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Major’s real body was damaged in a terrorist bombing, so she is told, and Ouelet saved her life. Since the Major is a product of the probably-evil Hanka robotics corporation, she is of course weaponized and made to hunt down terrorists with a multinational team, including the hulking, dog-friendly muscle with cybernetic eyes Batou (Pilou Asbæk), the closest Major comes to having a partner. They’re on the trail of a super-hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who’s working to assassinate Hanka scientists—but his reasons remain mysterious until the Major is able to get close to him and recover her memories, changing everything.
As a dull amalgam of “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and HBO’s “Westworld,” “Ghost in the Shell” is a beautiful-looking film that proclaims to be about identity, but fails to find one of its own. Its the type of movie that, 15 years ago, cinephiles would have salivated over as showcases for their home audio/video setups—a special-edition DVD in a shiny foil packaging, all gloss with nothing underneath. It’s a shame, too, because Johannson once again proves herself to be a badass female action hero in an industry severely lacking them. After this and the travesty that was “Lucy,” can we stop dicking around and just give her a “Black Widow” movie already?