Not to get too cute, but Ghost In the Shell has a gorgeous shell with almost nothing inside.
We’re thrust into a distant future that desperately wants to look like the world of Blade Runner, a future where robotic alterations to human bodies have become commonplace. The title, Ghost in the Shell, refers to those alterations taken a step further—Scarlett Johansson is simply a human brain, a ghost, inside an entirely robotic body, her shell. She works as part of an anti-terrorist group that falls upon a plot to kill various members of that group for unknown reasons. Who, exactly, is doing the killing and why becomes central not just to the plot of the movie, but to Johansson’s entire sense of identity and purpose.
And it really does look great. I made the Blade Runner crack, but to be fair, Blade Runner has influenced nearly every futuristic world we’ve seen over the past 35 years in some way or another, and this one feels sleek and relatively realistic. The action set pieces are genuinely exciting and the way robotic parts are incorporated into human bodies feels novel and even kind of fascinating.
But the problem is, we’re missing the ghost in this shell. We’re missing the human sense and the emotion. The movie is based on a 1995 anime film of the same name, which itself is based on an earlier manga series, and while I haven’t seen or read either of those, I can only imagine that they did a better job of examining what it means to be human in a world that’s aggressively trying to lessen our humanity. Here though, it’s a missed opportunity, as either Johansson doesn’t have the chops to pull off the kind of conflict and confusion her character must be feeling, or, more likely, the script and direction don’t give her the chance to do so—opting instead for that pretty shell that makes for excitement and visual delight, but no real feeling underneath.