Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ beautiful, but soulless

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Ghost in the Shell” is a pretty apt descriptor for the movie, it turns out. The shell of this update on the Japanese animated 1995 sci-fi tale is quite lovely, full of eye-popping, visionary whiz-bang, but inside there’s nothing but a ghost.

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures in theaters March 31, 2017.

It sure is a kick to look at, though. “Ghost in the Shell” takes place in a future metropolis — Tokyo, perhaps? — augmented by digital advertising in the form of holographic images that hover in the city skyline. These giants are the size of Godzilla and play on an endless loop, like the city is under siege by gifs, a sharp commentary on consumerism run amok.

Elsewhere, director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) takes visual cues from myriad sources, some of which were influenced by the original “Ghost in the Shell.” There are nods to “The Matrix,” HBO’s “Westworld,” “Enter the Void,” Björk album covers, “The Fifth Element,” “Lost in Translation,” you name it. It looks so good that you can tune out and still be plenty entertained. (A bad moviegoer would bring his own headphones and listen to the soundtrack of their choice — and that bad moviegoer might have more fun.)

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures in theaters March 31, 2017.

Tuning out is probably the best option, given the story, which is an uninspired mishmash of stuff you’ve seen in a bunch of other sci-fi movies before this one.

Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, a human-robot hybrid who works as a counter-cyberterrorist officer. In addition to tracking baddies, she’s on a mission to find herself, as her origins are cloudy; as a human, she remembers being on a refugee boat with her family before it was sunk by terrorists, but nothing else.

The Major is clad in a number of form-fitting bodysuits that look like those preferred by Marilyn Manson in his “Mechanical Animals” phase. She’s often wrapped in a glimmery, iridescent sheen, and she has the ability to turn invisible when needed.

But Johansson doesn’t have a lot to offer to a character that is, like the movie itself, bereft of humanity. She speaks in clipped sentences in a flat tone, and walks with the body posture of an overdeveloped teenage boy. Do we care about her? Not really, she’s not nearly as interesting as those living billboards. Let’s learn more about those!

Scarlett Johansson plays Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Her foils don’t add much. Pilou Asbæk (who also starred with Johansson in “Lucy”) plays Batou, her sidekick, who is outfitted with Brian Bosworth’s 1988 haircut and looks like a character from the video game “Bad Dudes.” Michael Pitt (billed as Michael Carmen Pitt, so apparently that’s what we’re calling him now) plays Kuze, an earlier version of the Major, who speaks with an automated voice reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” narrator. His presence is mostly a distraction.

The great Beat Takeshi does manage to register as the Major’s boss, speaking in Japanese when everyone else around him is communicating in English, because, well, he’s Beat Takeshi and he does what he wants, presumably. (Takeshi is also sitting behind a desk most of the movie, and still manages to steal scenes.)

As “Ghost in the Shell” shuffles through its generic storyline and occasionally lapses into incoherence, you want to forgive it just because it looks so good. And you can, to a point. But like those holographic giants towering above the city, it’s mostly just digital noise, visually impressive, but soulless.


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‘Ghost in the Shell’


Rated PG-13: for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images