The review embargo has been lifted for Ghost in the Shell, the controversial Scarlet Johansson cyberpunk vehicle based on Masamune Shirow's classic manga series and the subsequent animated adaptation from director Mamoru Oshii. Does Rupert Sanders' live-action remake live up to its predecessors? The answer depends on whom you ask.
The live-action remake of the classic 1995 animated movie is, according to The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer, "a heavily computer-generated enterprise with more body than brains, more visuals than ideas, as if the original movie's hard drive had been wiped clean of all that was dark, poetic and mystifying."
While the movie came under fire when Johansson's casting as (previously Japanese) lead character Major was announced, Mintzer suggests that "the real issue in Ghost in the Shell may have less to do with whitewashing than with brainwashing, as it often feels like the screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) chose to jettison the more thought-provoking, cryptic aspects of their source material in favor of a streamlined actioner that jumps from one fight to another without much contemplation."
IndieWire's Mike McCahill, meanwhile, argues that part of the problem might be the audience's overfamiliarity with the material at hand. The original movie's "knotty postmodern inquiries into identity - a stopover on that sci-fi continuum connecting Blade Runner to The Matrix - are here stretched into Imax-ready, 3D-enabled spectacle," he writes. "Blown up to this magnitude, ideas already threadbare through 20 years of recycling start to look doubly thin."
McCahill also compliments the movie's visuals, while complaining about the lack of character work. (As he puts it, "Yes, it's the shiniest of kit; whether the emotions are stirred is another matter.") That's a sentiment echoed by Screen International's Lisa Nesselson, who notes, "One can hardly blame cyborgs for not coming across like flesh-and-blood characters but it's not easy to care what happens to any of the protagonists since they so rarely generate moments of human emotion." As the movie nears its climax, she writes, "Intellectually we know a great deal is at stake, but the emotional payoffs remain frustratingly minor."
Not everyone was left untouched, however. The Telegraph's Tim Robey is clearly enamored with Johansson in the role: "Here she is both ghost and shell," he raves, "a pair of soulful eyes, welling with memory and confusion, stranded inside a gorgeously supple action figure." (Yes, "gorgeously supple"; we'll move on quickly.) He also praises director Sanders' "satisfyingly disciplined" action sequences, and the "balletic kind of stunt-karaoke" that re-creates scenes from the original animated feature, calling the movie "a franchise in the making, [Johansson's] own futuristic, post-human equivalent of a John Wick or Bourne."
Perhaps the best summation of the movie's appeal comes from The Wrap's Ben Croll, who identifies where Ghost belongs culturally: "There's a real precedent for painstakingly recreating the anime aesthetic: It's called cosplay," he explains. "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 re-creates in live-action what had only existed in animated cels."
The irony being, then, that Ghost in the Shell might end up being a movie where, while the shell is as shiny, colorful and distracting as possible, there's only a ghost inside for those wanting something more than visual effects and gunplay. If nothing else, at least it lives up to the title.