Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han
For a brief period in the mid-90s, the western world became infatuated with the Japanese animation form known as 'Anime'. Virgin Megastores (remember those?) devoted multiple rows of shelves to imported VHS tapes. Teenage boys swapped their Iron Maiden t-shirts for those sporting the iconic Manga logo. It's said that producer Joel Silver greenlit The Matrix after The Wachowskis made him watch the 1995 Anime Ghost in the Shell. Looking back now, it's easy to see why that particular set of filmmaking twins would have been attracted to an animated movie that explores the notion of identity.
The western anime boom is long over, and outside Japan it now conjures up images of 14-year-old boys frantically masturbating to animated tentacle porn, or to screenshots of the many grown women who cosplay as their favourite anime characters. As such, a big budget Hollywood adaptation seems to have missed the bus by two decades, and while director Rupert Sanders' take on the material sports state of the art modern CG, it brings back unwanted memories of those late '90s American flirtations with the genre, which always seemed to star Keanu Reeves, probably for the same reason Scarlett Johansson is frequently cast as dead-eyed robots and humanoid aliens.
Here she plays 'The Major', a refugee who awakens in a future unnamed Asian city (cough*Tokyo*) to find herself in a new body, having washed up on the shore when the boat she was presumably fleeing the west aboard sank. Given special powers thanks to her new robotic body (yes, this is little more than a thinly veiled Bionic Woman ripoff), she becomes an agent of the government, heading a special task force that oddly consists mostly of white continental Europeans and black Brits.
The Major's latest assignment involves tracking down a rogue hacker targeting everyone involved with the project that gave her Scarlett Johansson's body. The deeper The Major investigates, the more she begins to question her own background.
This is where Ghost in the Shell begins to dig a problematic grave for itself. In attempting to justify its lead character resembling a Danish-American in an Asian megalopolis (as a special agent, you would think her creators would want her to blend in), it offers a backstory that ultimately justifies all the pre-release accusations of whitewashing. While judging movies you haven't seen yet has left a lot of people with egg on their faces lately (Matt Damon turning out not to be the hero of Chinese-American co-production The Great Wall; Walter Hill's Tomboy espousing a trans-positive message), nobody will be cooking any omelettes from the contents of their beards with this one. As if that's not enough, more outrage fuel is provided by the inclusion of a transphobic gag that plays out (where else?) in a bathroom.
Should you experience Ghost in the Shell on a giant IMAX screen in 3D, it initially dazzles with a beautifully rendered city that resembles a coked up version of the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. But once the bombastic opening set-piece has passed, the movie becomes bogged down in a dull detective story, and such action sequences are all too rare.
While the cityscape is quite something to behold, overall this is far from a visionary piece of cinema, as Sanders shoots most scenes with the blandness of a HBO show, and the snooze-inducing conversations between The Major and her scientist creator (Juliette Binoche; I hope she buys something nice with her pay-cheque) will have you wondering if you're watching a deleted scenes from Westworld.
I've seen Ghost in the Shell described elsewhere as visually stunning but emotionally vacuous. As Morgan Freeman might say, I agree with the second part.
Ghost in the Shell is in UK/ROI cinemas now.