Marshaling the very latest in digital photography, stereoscopic imaging and cutting-edge effects, “Ghost in the Shell” is a technical knockout, a here-and-now valentine to what design wizardry Hollywood can pull off in 2017. At the same time, it does so in service of a tired tale full of repurposed visual tricks, storytelling clichés and big-studio concessions, to the extent that the film offers a sleek modern polish to a story that feels about 15 years too late.
In that sense, form really matches content. For those who don’t already know, director Rupert Sanders’ 2017 “Ghost in the Shell” is a remake of director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime of the same name, itself an adaptation of a popular manga series. All three tell the story of The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a cybernetic kickass ‘bot housing a real human brain.
The Major (here named Mira Killian, though in the Japanese versions she goes by Motoko Kusanagi — and the film does address the whitewashing controversy in its own way) is both an employee and product of the Hanka Corporation, a robotics and defense conglomerate in futuristic New Port City.
Alongside the beer-swilling, robotically-enhanced Batou (Pilou Asbaek, of “Borgen” and “Game of Thrones”), Major spends her nights running anti-crime raids for the heavy-handed local government. All is going swimmingly until they embroil themselves in the machinations of Kuze (Michael Pitt), an elusive cyber-terrorist who knows more about Major’s past than she does.
As you can expect, “Ghost in the Shell” moves forward as one part sci-fi-actioner — with Major and crew battling Kuze’s goons every chance they get — and one point cyberpunk thriller, as our lead learns more about her human past and her parent corporation’s devious intentions. But you may be surprised to learn that the film’s greatest pleasures come from neither the shootouts nor the twists.
In fact, both are rather wanting. The action is both plentiful and perfunctory, with Sanders staging most sequences as run-of-the-mill shootouts and slow-mo slugfests without much inventive or kinetic charge. There because you can’t mount a film of this budget and genre without them, they fulfill screen-time and contractual obligations, but not much else.
The twisty revelations don’t fare much better, saddled for the most part on the shoulders of Juliette Binoche, whose character pops up every now and then to offer lengthy exposition before shuffling out of the way. Instead, Sanders’ interests (and clear passions) lie in simply setting the scene, in building out the details and textures that make up this fantastic visual landscape.
Bathed in violent neon colors and augmented by the fanciest 3D money can buy, every frame of “Ghost in the Shell” feels worked over to the max, but in the best possible way. What inventive verve the former ad-man Sanders (who’s only on his second feature length film, after 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman”) lacks, he makes up for in his focus and work ethic, in his dedication to recreating the idiosyncratic anime world and making it sing in live-action.
“Recreating” is the key word: Sanders, alongside production designer Jan Roelfs (“Gattaca”) and cinematographer Jess Hall (“Transcendence”), practically uses the 1995 version as blueprint, pre-vis and storyboard, filling in the empty spaces between 2D animation and 3D blockbuster with a number of allusions to “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report.” and “A.I.” (That the latter two come from “Ghost in the Shell” executive producer Steven Spielberg seems no happy accident.)
There’s a real precedent for painstakingly recreating the anime aesthetic: It’s called cosplay. Indeed, “Ghost in the Shell” makes the most sense if you look at it as a cosplay movie, one that forgoes trying anything new and instead wows you with the assured and accomplished manner with which it recreates in live-action what had only existed in animated cels. Which it really does. Short of the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer,” “Ghost in the Shell” is the closest translation of the highly specific anime style ever mounted in live action, and between the two films, there’s only one that won’t incite an epileptic fit.
But that not-insignificant achievement comes at a certain price. On top a number of been-there, done-that action sequences, even the film’s basic ideas come with significant déjà vu. Fact of the matter is, the sci-fi canon has changed a lot since the 1989 manga and the 1995 film, and it has changed in part because of those two entries.
There’s nothing wrong with introducing “Ghost in the Shell” into post-“Matrix,” post-“Westworld” territory; it’s just disappointing that the film doesn’t bring anything new to the table.