Set in the near future where the line between humans and robots is becoming increasingly blurred and fractured, a young woman named Motoko Kusangani - the sole survivor of a cyberterrorist attack - becomes Major Mira Killian (Johansson) after her body is destroyed beyond repair with only her brain surviving, subsequently transported into a new 'shell'. Trained as a counter-terrorism operative, Major and the team learn of a link between increasing technology hacks and the murder of high-ranking Hanka consultants, requiring them to locate and quash the treat before wider-spread damage can be inflicted; at the same time, the Major becomes frustrated at her lack of understanding regarding her life before the shell, facing an identity crisis of sorts. Director Rupert Sanders is in charge of the Paramount Studios release and has positioned the film in the pre-summer blockbuster window, which in itself has become just as crowded as the main summer season. Does Ghost in the Shell manage to stand out for the right reasons, or is it just an empty shell?
Without question, this has to be one of the most visually-arresting live-action releases in quite some time, creating an eye-popping world that is never dull to look out and experience visually. From the towering holograms over cityscapes to the inventiveness of the Major invisible movements across plains of water and the high-tech set pieces, every penny of the film's reported $110 million production budget is evidently splashed onto the screen thanks to some marvellous special effects and neon-infused visual treats - a decision that, although possibly costly with the film underperforming and underwhelming so far, gives audiences something to appreciate when the narrative lets up (but more on that later...). Sanders helps anchor the film and its vision with technical precision and eye-candy imagery, with the production design team aiding with some fantastic costume designs, landscapes, settings and concepts. Full of personality, the film's soundtrack is effective in building some tension, even when nothing else can sustain it and personality is a massive issue with the rest of the film...
It seems though that with all the focus on the top-notch effects and impressive visuals, everyone forgot to pay attention to the script; sandwiched between two reasonable acts is an inexcusably spiritless second that is shockingly dull, drifting into lengths of boredom that the film never really recovers from, despite sparking a few signs of life in the third and final act. It's a complete narrative shambles. Rather than a runtime issue (although it would benefit from a 15 minute trim), Ghost's main issues arises from its misguided pacing, as by the time you have been dragged through the snooze-fest that is act two, you struggle to care for anything else that proceeds it, bogged down by a lack of energy and haunting spirit that the boredom will never end; when said boredom eventually surpasses, the damage has already been done and it ends up fighting a losing battle to redeem itself. It lacks a sense of cohesion and, although this may be more of a reflection of my own intelligence than the film itself, I was required to read a plot summary afterwards in order to garner a stronger idea on what the hell just happened. Despite an abundance of interesting thematic questions the film could contemplate, it never really considers any of them nearly profoundly enough, a notion which could have otherwise elevated this middling film to something more substantial. Ghost just doesn't stand out from this blockbuster-of-the-week template we have going on at the moment, particularly in the shadows of bigger names such as Logan, Kong: Skull Island and Beauty & The Beast. It's forgettable and derivative exercise and really rather shallow and empty.
And now we're on to the cast, namely Scarlett Johansson. Now, just what do we do with you... In terms of casting based on emotional range, skill and acting precision, Johansson is the perfect fit; she expertly balances the line between stilted robotic and an icy, aching human hybrid, both a weapon and a victim and she handles it very effectively. Yet, viewing the casting choice on a political level, the waters are incredibly murky; the explanation given is surprisingly satisfactory - after all, a brain has no race or colour and considering that was all that supposedly remained of Motoko, could be transported and assumed into an empty shell of any colour or race - but it admittedly reeks of Hollywood's commerciality triumphing over political correctness and that does leave a sour taste, emphasised by the controversy kicked up before hand and has perpetuated throughout its promotion. It's a very bittersweet situation to be left in but alas, the performance really is the last of this film's worries. Ghost's supporting cast are all solid enough in their roles and everybody pulls their weight as expected without ever standing out.
Ghost in the Shell is an empty visual spectacle, favouring its aesthetic beauty so extremely that everything else plays a distant second fiddle. No one can deny the stunning world created and effective soundtrack in play and you'll be hard pressed to find someone who thinks Johansson's performance is actively bad, even if they disagree with the casting choice itself. Those three elements can only bolster the film for long enough though, as the most pressing error - the uneven, spiritless script and dreadful pacing issues - sees the high-tech world come crashing around them. Its intriguing themes and ideas of humanity and identity are largely ignored beyond the surface details and additions, electing for a more general run-of-the-mill blockbuster with any goodwill inspired from the first act ripped to shreds by a damningly boring second act. Ghost in the Shell is certainly a misfire, a missed opportunity and largely forgettable but at least it is darn gorgeous and even when numbingly boring in the middle act's lull, you can rely on the visuals and/or Johansson to provide a temporary distraction.
Summary: Ghost in the Shell, ironically, is all shell and no ghost, an empty spectacle so inherently focused on arresting visuals with little else beyond a solid star turn from Scarlett Johansson to save it (a casting choice which in itself is haunted by a controversy the film never fully justifies or escapes). 'Style over substance' has never felt more apt.
Highlight: Just how incredible some of the visuals really are. They've not wasted a penny.