Let's get something clear right out of the gate: “Ghost in the Shell,” a live-action of a classic Japanese manga (comic book) and anime, would have been better served with a Japanese lead actress. It would have been the more appropriate choice for the material, and made a big statement that Hollywood was finally willing to move on past a century of cultural appropriation and allow non-white people tell their own stories. The movie should have starred, say, “Pacific Rim”actress Rinko Kikuchi, not Scarlett Johansson awkwardly sporting Kikuchi’s angular bob haircut.
All that being said, “Ghost in the Shell” is a very good movie; by far the best effects-drenched sci-fi adaptation in several years.
Director Rupert Sanders and his VFX team do an incredible job of not just bringing to life the fictional future Japanese mega-city of New Port City, but making it even more bold, busy and visually dazzling than fans of the source material could even imagine. The city is a forward-looking vision of a stratified, sleepless Hong Kong, where they actually filmed for 10 days (and those scenes are especially rich in real urban detail and grit).
The movie is especially dazzling in IMAX, and while 3D often feels these days like a money-grabbing gimmick, it makes the experience all the more immersive here. Cars zoom past, small holograms and digital screens flicker and dance. Huge and varied holograms project atop the endless skyscrapers that circle Kowloon Bay, with geishas and warriors and basketball players and shiba dogs smiling down on the tens of millions of A.I. robots and cybernetic-enhanced citizens roaming the bustling streets.
The diverse populace are covered with varying degrees of implanted electronics, giving them everything from x-ray vision and super strength to invulnerable liver, to maximize nights spent drinking. But all those improvements pale in comparison to the marvel that is Major, the badass cop played by Johansson.
Major is the crown jewel of tech conglomerate Hanka Robotics, a human mind and soul encased in a perfect stealth killing machine of a body (which is frequently dressed only in a skintight suit). You can see why Paramount would want Johansson for the role; she's played versions of it before, as Black Widow in the Marvel movies and the titular Lucy of Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller. Major is told that her human body was destroyed in a terrorist attack, and has no choice but to believe it, because her own memories are foggy at best, causing her extreme existential angst.
Her doctor (Juliette Binoche) and partner on the force (Pilou Asbaek) constantly assure she's human, but she's unsure, and a later meeting with a character played by Michael Pitt makes her question everything. And her ability to be hacked -— which is a word that must appear in the script 25 times at least -— doesn’t help, either. Nothing is as it seems, even to the next evolution of human life.
Johansson does her best with the material and role, which require her to suppress emotions for much of the film; she's a pro and makes it come alive as much as possible. The plot, derided by some critics as thin, is really just simple, which feels like a great gift in this age of exhausting multi-verses and bloated comic book adaptations. It’s a classic storyline, with conspiracies, corporate villains, and government agencies all intertwined.
The visuals are really the main attraction here, and you should see “Ghost in the Shell” on as big a screen as possible. But the story is solid enough to keep you entertained during scenes that don’t make your jaw drop. We’re looking at the future, whether we like it or not.