What do you get when you cross Blade Runner with Robocop and sprinkle in a little Johnny Mnemonic? A movie during which I almost fell asleep. Twice. To be fair, I had to wake up before five o’clock that morning to get to a meeting, but a loss of an hour of sleep isn’t enough to explain why I had to fight nodding off during an action film. An action film starring Scarlett Johansson. There might actually be something wrong with me.
As it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with me. Ghost in the Shell is pretty boring and pretty empty. I had a shell pun all prepared, but my friend said no. Anyway, I perused a few early reviews and they all had a similar experience as me. Essentially, Ghost in the Shell is all style and little substance. Like them, I found the plot to be very lacking, the characters woefully underdeveloped, and the point of the movie missing. As an unintentional confirmation, a friend said arguably the worst defense one can possibly give for a movie – “if you saw the original, this one makes a lot more sense.” He wasn’t saying that to point out this movie’s flaws, he was saying it as evidence of how good he thought this remake was. If knowing the source material is required to understand a movie, that movie has failed at least one degree of filmmaking and probably others.
(SPOILER WARNING for everyone out there who is not an anime nerd. That same friend said the film stays very close to the 1995 version and, apparently, anyone who is a fan of anime has seen this movie so they already know what’s going to happen in this one.)
The biggest problem with Ghost in the Shell is the movie can’t decide what its plot is supposed to be. That probably has something to do with the fact that the screenplay was written by three different people and I’m betting at least one of them doesn’t give a shit about anime. It also has five different production companies, which isn’t terribly abnormal, but when two of them are Paramount and DreamWorks and two others are Chinese companies, you know there were far too many muckety-muck fingers in this pie demanding things that had nothing to do with good writing, but I digress.
I bet if we zoom in we’ll find some replicants.
Here’s the plot of the first half of the movie, summed up by Major (Johansson): “They can hack into people’s minds and they won’t stop until they control everyone.” Here’s the plot of the second half of the movie, again summed up by Major: “They created me, but they cannot control me.” Don’t be fooled into thinking those are the same plot because the word ‘control’ appears in both of them. The ‘they’ in those two sentences are two completely different people and neither one of ‘them’ is actually trying to control anyone.
Right away, the movie gets off on the wrong foot by showing us title cards that explain the premise of the film, then follow that up by immediately showing us what those title cards said – cybernetic implants are all the rage and a big cybernetics corporation (Hanka) has figured out how to marry a human brain (the ghost) with a cybernetic body (the shell). In the words of CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) upon the success of Major’s creation, “she’s the future of this company. She’s the perfect weapon.” The film jumps to one year later where Major is leading a team of soldiers or policeman or private security to fight crime…or something. The film never clears up the actual purpose of this team, so infer what you will and be prepared to be confused later. The first action sequence sets off plot number one where Major and team must track down a brilliant hacker, Kuze (Michael Pitt), who is murdering Hanka scientists to stop Hanka from controlling everybody. Think CSI: The Six Million Dollar Woman. I’d tell you about the rest of her team, but they are nothing more than single adjectives in the background, with the exception of her loyal sidekick, Batou (Pilou Asbaek). He has maybe three adjectives, but mostly you’ll remember him for his eye implants and white hair.
Dude – you’ve got something in your eyes.
Eventually, the team closes in on Kuze, but Kuze escapes after revealing himself to be a failed version of the technology that created Major. He also reveals to her that the story Hanka told her about her nearly being killed by terrorists was a lie; that she was actually a runaway living in a slum whom Hanka captured specifically to experiment on. It’s at this point that the movie switches to plot number two where Major wants to know about her past and Cutter decides Major must be killed even though he has the technology to wipe her memory and even though he spent the first half of the movie emphasizing that she was the future of the company. Eventually, Major fights a spider-tank (yes, a spider-tank), then the movie ends.
The problem with the dual plots isn’t so much that they are poorly connected, but that they want different things. The first half wants you to root for Major to stop Kuze from destroying Hanka and the second half wants you to root for Kuze to stop Hanka. As the viewer, you end up not caring about either one because neither is developed well. The plot fails as a whole because it sets you up to root for Hanka because Major works for Hanka, then asks you to hate them by contriving a cliched abduction story for Major and Kuze. To top it off, it ends with Major and team still working for Hanka, but under a new CEO. The only thing clear about any of this is that nobody is trying to control people, rather they are trying to kill people. Also, Cutter is trying to maintain Hanka’s profit margin. Now you know why I had trouble staying awake.
A better movie explores the deeper meaning of a scene like this.
I’d like to tell you that the visuals of this movie are a redeeming quality, but that would be giving it too much credit. There isn’t anything wrong with them, but they don’t bring anything new or interesting to the table. If anything, they are nothing more than a modernized version of Blade Runner on steroids. And don’t even get me started on how lazy they got with Major. Her skin allows her to become invisible, yet during half of the action scenes she is inexplicably wearing body armor and jeans and not using her invisibility at all. Or wearing a strappy tank top, which is totally what a robot with no emotions would do.
The bottom line is that this movie could have been much better. A better movie would have spent more time on Major’s memory fragments and used them to show how her ghost wouldn’t let go and fought with the machine of Major. A better movie would have kept Kuze as the antagonist (a fully human one at that) who was simply just fighting Hanka on the grounds of stopping the dehumanization of cyber enhancements (which goes along with Majors inner turmoil). A better movie would have used Batou to push Major towards her human side while using her doctor (Juliette Binoche), the doctor who created Major, to push Major the other way. A better movie would have used all of that to explore the concept of humans becoming less human. Most importantly, a better movie wouldn’t have leaned so heavily on people knowing a twenty-two year old movie (and even older TV series) and being manga nerds. Or anime. Or whatever.
Rating: Ask for seven dollars back and make sure to wake up the man next to you.