By Joe Hammerschmidt
The first thought to come to my head as the credits rolled on Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” was rather obvious: I should’ve explored the string of successful anime features to originally draw influence from Masamuni Shirow’s early 90s manga. Previewing the film in always-captivating IMAX, my eyes were exposed to a world of overwhelming eye candy throughout, borrowing from the anime and building its lore to take advantage of the full three-dimensions. Sanders’ forte is in outlandish visual storytelling, so much to the point that the literal plot either suffers or was never that high in quality to begin with.
Despite the near-genericism I experienced, Scarlett Johansson made for an enjoyable lead portraying a field commander known simply as “The Major.” Assumedly the first of her kind, in which a human brain is implanted in a human-like android “shell”, her non-human qualities excel her sufficiency as a secretive assassin, partnered with the worldly Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and stoic leader Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). In this futuristic society, robotic technology appears the norm as more flesh-and-bone humans evolve into electronic beings piece-by-piece, with key firm Hanka Robotics leading the charge. Public Security Section 9, a task force meant to stem the tide of wrongful cybernetic action has its work cut out for them with Major slowly connecting the dots to recover memories of her past life lost one year prior, memories her handler Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) had been sworn to keep hidden at the request of Section 9 head Cutter (Peter Ferdinando).
The weight of this film reaching a successful point of delivery relies heavily on Johansson’s presence, a sparkler amid a shimmering metropolis, strong to stand out, then take a giant step back for the sake of her fellow actors; Michael Pitt’s portrayal of a fellow human-to-cyborg transplant turned refugee criminal who Section 9 seeks to track down is the best example of an equal to that of Johansson’s level of commitment. Knowing so little of the anime, I can’t attest to any of the criticism pointed to the casting itself, with all the “whitewashing” claims thrown around as of late. I would’ve preferred an Asian actress over Johansson taking the lead role as much as the next person, though the shoes (or lack thereof) she opts to fill do fit well, if not a trifle snug,
Despite the hollow plot, Sanders, previously known for 2011’s Snow White and the Huntsman allows his actors plenty to play around with, even if that only amounts to location and visual effects, if not so much scenario itself. It would be unfair to say our director doesn’t have any enthusiasm for the story, it’s just he knows his focus is always on whether the eyes will like it more over the heart. The help he receives from cinematographer Jess Hall (whom I always had admired for his work on Hot Fuzz) to capture his half-hearted vision, coupled with stunning, almost award-worthy costume designs by Kurt and Bart (Mockingjay – Parts 1 and 2) are valuable enough; but again, they don’t save the fact that the plot can’t rescue itself out of a jam.
Unlike the absurdly boring Huntsman, Shell has excitement to spare, though more time is wasted than necessary to establish the character’s eminent goal, interjecting logical storytelling with nearly pointless action sequences. If this weren’t an action film made with Hollywood money, perhaps the pacing and organization would’ve been structured better to tighten the prologue (of sorts), then rewarding hopefully patient viewers with a moment of pure violence to aid in telling the story. Instead, the pure moments of hyperviolence, to which Sanders and his cast work best in, are enough to keep the story from acting on its own accord, organically. The moments where I felt both action and explanation were in perfect sync with one another were what I would’ve liked to see more of, though they are regrettably few and far between.
What Ghost in the Shell persistently lacks in symmetry, it makes up for in pure awe. When separate, the elements make up a near-enjoyable experience, if one is willing to disconnect their critical mind from the activity on screen, instead immersing themselves into the world created as if they were a part of it. While Sanders leaves no regard for a worthwhile plot, instead calling on just what he needs from it to keep said activity moving along, his attention to detail still wins out the fight. It’s all flash with little to no substance, and the benefit of an IMAX 3D screening opportunity reminded me far too much of that aspect. When keeping current Hollywood trends in mind, this comes as no surprise, though one always pines for a film to come around and buck the trend. At least the true die-hard fans will find no fault in their favorite thing being made anew. (C+)
Ghost in the Shell opens Friday at most area theaters; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images; 107 minutes