This is a tough one. Any time you tackle a classic you risk annoying people or messing it up. Ghost in the Shell has close to biblical import in the manga and anime worlds, so it was even more fraught with peril.
But let’s tackle the story problem first. How do you make an exciting story about an emotionless cyborg looking for its humanity? It ain’t easy. We have lots of eye candy, enough to rival Blade Runner or even the more recent Valerian. The world is rich, incredibly designed to the smallest detail, and evocative of the roots of the material.
Scarlett Johansson (The Jungle Book) is solid as the female mercenary lead. Believable in action and cold in execution. But it is not much different from her turns in Lucy, Under the Skin, Her, or even as Black Widow, in many ways. It is a solid go-to for her and she shades each differently, but it is all getting a bit the same. Sometimes, that can be enough, but this is a complex tale of identity and horror…and the script leaves both her and us hanging on resolving and dealing with those aspects.
To get around her character’s lack of emtion, we do have some of her team to reflect on. Pilou Asbæk (Great Wall, or even better as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) in particular and Juliet Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria) as well. Both have connections to Major that provide emotion by proxy.
But then there is the white washing problem. Why are all the cyborgs Western? And, while that could be a choice in order to distance the new entity from its past, it is something that could have been covered by commenting on it. We know she has a Japanese mother and was at least half-Japanese herself from this film. I’m not trying to be overly PC, but it can be as jarring as watching a cast of Englishmen playing Frenchmen without even bothering to try and change the accent (let alone language). Culture and race (even if only from a morphological point of view) are even more core and affect credibility.
Given this was director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) second feature, it was at an impressive scale. But, ultimately, like Valerian, this is mostly an empty ride. Even the climax ends up missing the mark as the relationships aren’t really established to make it believable nor is the key phrase used to set it off quite how its been set up through the script (though I liked the idea). Truly a shame as it was almost a powerful finale.
Do you want to spend some time in this universe? If you want the eye candy (both CGI and the skin-tight clad Ms. Johansson), sure. It isn’t a brilliant script. It isn’t mindblowing acting. It isn’t more than a middling adaptation. Sometimes, that can all be enough for a bit of distraction. Can’t it?