The lead character in Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg haunted by glimmers of her human past. Likewise, Ghost in the Shell is an efficient if rather robotic piece of franchise filmaking, that occasionally gives you a sense of the genuinely interesting project it might have been (1).
The things to like still outweight the things to dislike, but that doesn’t take it all that far. For example, it has rich, layered visuals that could have been really used to make a story truly compelling. But instead they are grafted onto the plot of Robocop (2). And the artistry of individual shots becomes rather Snydery, in that the price of creating impressive individual moments, is that the scences you get when you add them together feel pretty antiseptic.
The cast are well matched to a set of characters, who are drawn interestingly enough that I would have liked to have discovered more about them (3)(4). But I never did and they were given ledden dialogue to say.
Worst of all, it repeatedly announces its intention to tackle important themes without ever actually doing it. Indeed, at times it seems to be positively mocking the screenwriting dictum to ‘show don’t tell’. At one point Major, Johansson’s character, complains about lacking a connection to anything but she’s shown having deep and meangingful connections to her creater, her boss and her teamates. Similarly, characters repeatedly say that “it’s your actions not your memories that define you” but Major’s quest to redefine herself is both provided impetus by and manifests itself in her attempts to recover her memories. Ghost in the Shell’s philosophising thereby winds up seeming less like profundity than posing.
Given the multiplicity of potential themes that the film notices but never really engages with, I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been better as a TV series. With the extra space, the number of different themes could become an asset rather than a liability. That would have come at a price. The visuals would have to have been toned back and a less expensive lead than Johansson found. But it is not just themes that could have done with filling in. As I’ve already intimated the characters, concepts and world all could be explored further. Sadly, what might have been fascinating over ten hours is forgettable over two.
(1)I fully accept that the more interesting project might be the Japanese animes it’s based on.
(2) It really is more or less exactly the same. Right down to the bit at the end where the hero has to fight a walking tank.
(3) Well except for the obvious
(4) For a Borgen fan it’s quite startling to see Pilou Asbæk go from spin doctor to cybernetically enhanced special forces solider. He seems to have roughly doubled in size for this role.