Ghost in the Shell is a Major Disappointment?

Photo from Paramount Pictures International.

Exciting action scenes? Check. Dazzling special effects? Check. A good plot? Not so much.

The Japanese media franchise “Ghost in the Shell” is the latest animated classic to be adapted into a live-action movie. Despite the film’s stunning visual effects and action-packed scenes, the story unfortunately falls a little short.

Inspired by the original Japanese manga series, written by Masamune Shirow, and the animated movie adaptation, directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, this incarnation of “Ghost in the Shell” takes place in a world where enhancing oneself with cybernetics is not just common but expected. The story follows Major (Scarlett Johansson), a lone survivor of a terrorist attack that left her body damaged beyond repair. She is chosen as a test subject by Hanka Robotics, a government-run organization, to have her brain transplanted into a cybernetic body — making her the first of her kind — and is subsequently trained to be a counterterrorism operative. With the help of her team, leader Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and fellow operatives Batou (Pilou Asbæk), and Togusa Han (Chin Han), attempt to track down and take out a terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt). But something is amiss with Major as she begins having hallucinations that are dismissed by her superiors as “glitches,” making her uneasy about how little she knows about her past. When she finally finds and confronts Kuze, he warns her about Hanka Robotics and she begins to uncover the truth about her existence.

No stranger to playing tough characters on screen, Johansson is in her element as the half-human, half-cyborg Major. But for all of the action she does, the movie is lacking in so much that it makes her performance fall a bit flat. Asbæk and Han are the gruff Batou and Han, respectively. While those characters have their moments, it feels like they are hardly used up to their potential. Kitano, known for his roles in the video game Yakuza 6, is the stoic Aramaki and serves well as the leader of the team.

The film is chock-full of fantastic special effects that, much like Major herself, blur the line between what’s real and what’s artificial. The opening scenes of the film show, in outstanding visuals, the “shelling” sequence where we see Major’s brain/soul (her “ghost”) being transplanted into a cybernetic body (the “shell”). The graphics are so seamless and smooth that they almost trick you into thinking the action could have taken place in the real world. Throughout the movie, sweeping panoramic shots show off the glittering cityscape of the futuristic city Niihama, while towering 3D digital billboards as large as buildings move of their own accord and draw your attention.

Aside from the eye-popping visuals, many elements of the story are a bit hazy and hard to follow. Director Rupert Sanders and his team of screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) unfortunately have not crafted a cohesive story. One of its biggest flaws is that the screenplay only lightly skims the top of the film’s world and hardly divulges any information about it, aside from cybernetic enhancements having become the norm among its residents. They also fail to include small, nuanced details throughout the film, rendering several scenes confusing at best and making you question what in the world is going on.

Even before the movie was released, it had been bogged down by controversy with cries of “whitewashing” after the announcement two years ago that Johansson had been cast as Major. The debate about whether her character, who has the Japanese name Motoko Kusanagi in the original source material, should have been played by an actor of Asian descent has gone on and on and around in circles. However, with the outrage mainly being centered in the Western world, many fans in Japan have been surprised by the reaction to Johansson’s casting. They have said that since this is a Hollywood version of the story, they were not surprised by — and even expected — the casting of a white actress in the lead role.

Director Sam Yoshiba of the international business division at the Tokyo headquarters of Kodansha, the company that holds the rights to the series and its characters, said, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place… this is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.”

Similarly, Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 animated version of the film, said, “The major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.”

“Ghost in the Shell” debuted in the No. 3 spot at the box office and made a disappointing $19 million in the United States and Canada during its opening weekend. The film cost $110 million to produce, and even though it has made an additional $40 million worldwide so far, it’s looking as though it’ll continue to stay in the red once it ends its run.

Ghost in the Shell, Starring Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbaek, Directed by Rupert Sanders, Rated PG-13, Running Time 107 minutes.