Ghost in the Shell based on the Japanese Manga series of the same name, or Robocop Vs Blade Runner to use its informal title, is a film about the fusion of humanity and robot – the rise of the synthetic and the threat it represents to the soul, whatever that is. Assuming that the marriage of form and content is a metric of quality, Rupert Sanders film must be judged a great success. It has an uncanny, inhuman aspect; a near total absence of feeling, resulting in a CG augmented world that washes over you like a warm bath. Such is the distance it creates between its narrative and spectator, one could fall asleep watching it. It’s a massage for the eyes.
The casting of Scarlett Johansson may have provoked a white washing controversy, the fallout from which is widely believed to have killed the film at the box office, but one would think a great performance, charged with pathos and emotion would have allayed concerns. Unfortunately, Johansson interprets her brief, to play a cold human-robot hybrid, too literally. It’s an remarkably anaemic turn from an often charismatic actor; an interpretation of the fem-bot, that’s pegged on mood and an audience alienating sense of detachment. When Peter Weller wrestled with his human legacy and severed family connections in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, he managed to convey the confusion, anger and sadness of the situation with just half a face to play with. Johansson, full body on display, is a world away, flanked by equally passive, non-descript characters.
Sanders, it seems, was so focused on world building – derivative of Ridley Scott’s aforementioned masterwork – that he forgot to shake the script and find those rattling scenes that would sell the human component and forge that all important audience connection. Amongst the familiar incidents in a movie built from borrowed beats and genre clichés, there’s moments of great potential – the Major waking to discover she’s little better than a brain in a jar, confronting the scientist that did it, meeting her real mother – but no one on either side of the camera can get these prop propellers to turn with any speed.
The result is a movie that’s all plot and no character; a ghost of a film, a shell of a blockbuster. Johansson’s ethnicity is irrelevant in plot terms (her body’s been manufactured, so it’s a designer’s whim) but her casting ultimately contributes to the sense that the filmmakers have misjudged the material and its audience in a bid to make something commercially viable. That’s what the film’s about of course, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying watch.