The new Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson and adapted from the popular manga and anime, is a movie so at odds with itself and what it is trying to be that the controversy surrounding Johansson's casting is actually pretty fitting. Most reviews of the film have reached the same conclusion: excellent visuals; rote characters, cookie-cutter plot. At the risk of being unoriginal, I felt the same way.
The film is pure visual style. It is remarkably successful at immersive world-building in a dystopian future dominated by holographic adverts and alienating technology. It strongly echoes the visual language of Blade Runner which should come as no surprise, since the film is faithful to the 1995 anime's visual look and almost every sci-fi property from the 1990s was influenced in their vision of the future by Ridley Scott's masterpiece. This Ghost in the Shell is chock full of gorgeous, arresting imagery; Clint Mansell provides a pulsating, synth-heavy score that fittingly recalls Vangelis; and the production designers deserve, at the very least, an Oscar nomination. The filmmakers shoot the Hong Kong skyline, which is already a striking celebration of neon noise, and then layer on even more splashes of colour and images making Victoria Harbour somehow even more compelling to look at than in real life. In terms of creating a dynamic, visually fascinating impression of the future this film is a complete success.
Which is a shame, because if it could only fill this glossy shell with material worthy of the world it builds than it would easily be a great sci-fi film. It can almost coast on that visual stylishness alone. The characters look great. The costuming is pitch-perfect cyberpunk chic. The main characters are effortlessly cool, and the action for the most part is skilfully staged. Scarlett Johanson, who apparently studied Millie Bobby Brown's walk from Stranger Things, tries to navigate a fine line between robot and human and I think she mostly succeeds, if for no other reason than her sheer movie star charisma. But once you move beyond the surface, the cool design elements, the world-building and the look of the characters the film falls apart.
The plot is terribly basic, pulling a switch-a-roo on the villain in the film's back-nine and replacing a potentially interesting antagonist (Jimmy Darmody, wasted in the role) with a totally bland, paint-by-numbers bad guy. By the end of the film they must have completely blown their budget, because it falls back on a really boring, lazily staged CGI spectacle involving a robotic spider. This is a scene that was in the anime but it just proves that slavish devotion to source material at all costs can be a liability if you don't think it through. By that point, the film had become practically unwatchable anyway and totally different, tonally and visually, from everything that came before it. All of these things - which dilute the heady philosophical issues being toyed with, and substitute in their place thin, boring clichés - have the fingerprints of studio re-shoots and executive demands to make a film about the line between human and machine more accessible to a wider audience.
But the worst part about this film is the "twist" ending (which I will spoil here). The film's final third reveals that the Major is the result of a secret, nefarious program at shady robotics company Hanka that has been capturing runaways off the streets of Tokyo and transplanting their brains into cyborg bodies. Much like the plot of Ex Machina, this is an iterative process where each failure gets them closer to the perfect cyborg, and along the way all the previous failures are terminated and discarded. Equipped with this knowledge, the Major runs off and somehow locates her real mother, a Japanese woman, which sets the table for an utterly ridiculous scene where Scarlett Johansson's body, which we need to remember has a Japanese person's brain inside of it, talks to her brain's biological Japanese mother. The film literally ends with the two of them hugging in a cemetery because apparently, this poor Japanese woman has finally gotten the statuesque Caucasian daughter she always wanted? What. The. Fuck.
Aside from the utterly shameful laziness of this writing, which subsumes interesting philosophical and moral ideas into the turgid, simplistic narrative blob of "Evil Corporation Has Evil Plan; Cartoonish Villainy Ensues", it's really kind of offensiveand weird to see them pay lip service to the whitewashing debate in such a ham-fisted way. The very clear subtext when you extend this premise to its logical conclusion is that the ideal cyborg - and therefore the epitome of human perfection - is a white woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson or, maybe Michael Pitt. Now I am hardly a bleeding heart, and indeed I would have been OK with the casting choice (Hollywood is a business after all, and if the film wanted that $100 million budget they had to cast a big star), but the way they pop this old Japanese woman into the film in order to basically give her blessing to its problematic racial and identity issues was a total foul-up. It is, however, consistent with the general collapse of the film in its third act so, at least they really committed to putting all the bad ideas in the final part of the movie.
Ultimately, I recommend you see this film simply for the technical skill it displays in building a visually immersive world. And it's not like anyone can say they are really surprised. Director Rupert Sanders' previous film, Snow White and the Huntsman, was also a visually dazzling, narratively dead rehash of an established property featuring a robotic female lead. So, at the very least, the man is consistent in his projects.