Ghost in the Shell, the live-action adaptation of the beloved manga and anime franchise, comes to the screen under curious circumstances. There are fans feeling the hype, others off-put by the casting of Scarlett Johansson (the latest in a series of choices that begs questions about whitewashing), and still others who have no context for the universe other than as a cool thing people have mentioned in passing. I fall into that final category. It’s more typical of my experience to come in with reams of knowledge about the universe in question, so the role of blank slate is a rarity — and in this case it feels like an advantage.
I quickly learned that the Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind, an android body with a human brain. That brain was recovered from a tragic accident, and is thus the titular “ghost” in the titular “shell.” On board? Good. We watch the Major’s birth in the opening minutes, she’s scared and perfect. Then we flash to a year later. She’s on a rooftop, still perfect, but now glowing with power and confidence. She’s perched high over a nondescript Asian metropolis that’s all glowing lights and dazzling tech and omnipresent adverts. And when she leaps into action it’s in a neutral suit that clings to her every inch, but still manages to feel utilitarian. It quickly becomes clear that the Major is a lethal gamechanger. And it’s here that we get a sense of what’s to come: she’s a part of an elite squad and when scientists start turning up dead with cryptic threats, she’s sent to find out who’s doing the killing, and kill them right back.
Ghost in the Shell is a slick tech-noir that’s part-action, part-mystery, all visual stunner. There are suggestions that the world in which the Major is dispatched to protect, serve and ultimately ponder her own nature, is far more robust and rich with detail than we’ve been made privy to here. And that’s unfortunate. Director Rupert Sanders delivers a visual feast, but doesn’t make all that much of the story and the mythology.
Controversial as her presence is — and the movie does explain it in a roundabout way — It’s not difficult to see why Johansson was chosen. Yes, she’s a massive star and she can open a movie, but she is also an actress who can carry a movie. Johansson has done badass well for as long as the industry has thrown that type of gig her way, and Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to do anything to damage that reputation. Her Major demands attention, and indeed delivers the complexity we long for elsewhere in her story.
What Ghost in the Shell lacks in depth, it makes up for on the surface. The whole affair is an eye-popping, shiny adventure, and that lead performance will keep you in it, even if the rather neglected plot won’t. As such, the big screen does it a great service.