The fact that the original “Ghost in the Shell” manga and anime have become some of the most revered pieces of their respective mediums is the biggest pitfall of its remake. The themes at play— pertaining mainly to the relationship between humanity and technology — may have felt original when Masamune Shirow and Mamoru Oshii first espoused them, but in the decades since, those same themes have been emulated many times by many other films. Now that the new American remake must depend on those themes for its relevance, it can’t help but feel like a pointless retread, and the rest of the film hardly helps in that regard.
It’s not that there’s nothing to like about the movie. Rupert Sanders’s (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) visuals, for one, are spectacular. The world of the anime comes roaring to life with all the requisite CGI one would expect, but more surprising are the outstanding practical effects. Online featurettes have revealed the painstaking amount of work that went into actually creating the creepy geisha robots that appear early on, and the effort shows: their sequence is a definite highlight. Meanwhile, the computer-generated effects transform the film’s setting into a technological wonderland with an omnipresent seedy undercurrent, at once strangely relatable and completely removed from out reality.
The cast is nothing special, as outside of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (“While the Women Are Sleeping”) — who at 70 years old gets the best action beat of the movie — none of the talent on display is given a chance to shine. Scarlett Johansson (“Captain America: Civil War”) plays the lead role of the Major (in a casting that spawned a thousand righteously indignant think pieces) and rarely rises above a robotic monotone that seems to contradict the movie’s fundamental argument that she’s human despite her augmentations. Her scenes with Pilou Asbæk (“Game of Thrones”) feature a chemistry that eases some of that burden, but for a lead who is supposed to carry the film, both Johansson and the Major come off as flat.
It would help if the script would do anything original with the characters or story, but once again, this is where “Ghost in the Shell” falters the most. It begs to be taken seriously but never once asks a question or makes a statement that hasn’t been made by every other two-bit sci-fi flick of the last twenty years. It treats itself like the second coming of “2001,” as if it is a sci-fi film that will change the world instead of a mediocre blockbuster with delusions of grandeur.
Its pretentious self-importance is matched only by the relentless tedium of its pacing. Per the anime, “Ghost in the Shell” is not an action movie; it has greater things on its mind than that. However, with the dullness of the character-centric scenes, the action becomes the only thing upon which the viewer can fall back. Here, strong choreography helps to mask the occasional sameness of the fighting, at least until the climax resorts to the most generic battle imaginable. Without strong characters or action, the movie becomes an interminable chore to watch, even at only two hours long.
“Ghost in the Shell” certainly fails to recapture the thematic intelligence that made its source material — both on page and screen — iconic, but had Sanders and his writers created new and compelling scenarios for the characters to populate, it may still have been an enjoyable blockbuster experience. Unfortunately, it fails there, as well, and with only strong visuals to keep it afloat otherwise, it stands only as a gorgeous but sadly mediocre adaptation.