Ghost in the Shell is the last release in what has been a packed March for would be blockbusters. It was equally anticipated and dreaded by nerds, because it was an adaptation of a muck loved anime but also because they seemed deadest on scrubbing nearly everything interesting from it. The movie is not the complete disaster it could have been, like the Dragon Ball Z movie, but it also can’t meet the standards of the films that inspired it, like Robocop, Blade Runner and the original Ghost in the Shell movie. Ghost in the Shell is decently executed, but bland, emphasizing visuals and style over story.
I came into this not planning to even mention the whitewashing stuff. That conversation is an important one to have, but at some point you just have to deal with the movie that was made and not the one they should have made. But Ghost in the Shell makes it impossible to ignore this aspect by making it a central aspect of the film. Without spoiling things, how they handle the relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Major and Ghost in the Shell usual protagonist Motoko Kusanagi seems to try to address concerns by doubling down on the problem. Instead of just doing its own thing, it draws attention to the difference and makes it impossible to enjoy the movie without the fact that they changed the race of the central character in mind. That approach contrast with how they handled Batou, who is also played by a white actor, but he just plays the character and is one of the best parts of the movie. Or they could have just left her Japanese like Chief Aramaki, played Beat Takeshi who speaks entirely in Japanese and is another high point.
Leaving aside her race, the changes made to the character make her a much less interesting protagonist. The Major is a stone cold badass, but Major (not the lack of definite article) is a robotic victim. Or I guess she a little of both. They strip the character of her identity and she spends the whole movie trying to figure out who she is. She still does some badass things, but not because she is innately a badass, but because she believes herself worthless and expendable. The whole movie is about her reclaiming who she starts out as in every other version of this property. Also, the story is now all about who she is, instead of being content to be a sci fi thriller. There are philosophical and ethical issues of identity and memory that are inherent in the concept of Ghost in the Shell, but this movie is very careful not to engage with any of them. There is little to no questioning in this movie, other than a tiny bit when Major realizes that the big mystery involves her personally.
Despite all my complaints, the movie is fairly well executed. It does a great job establishing in the setting, even if it isn’t interested in exploring it much. Most of the action scenes are well executed. The story makes sense. It is missing any semblance of a hook to take it from competently enjoyable to actually good. It is not unlike the director’s previous effort, Snow White and the Huntsman. That was another competently executed by barely engaging movie.
There just isn’t anything below the surface here. With the movie drawing attention to its whitewashing instead of just making the choice and going with it, it really needed to be good otherwise. And it kind of isn’t. Ghost in the Shell is all shell and no ghost.