The live-action “The Ghost in the Shell,” based on the manga series by Masamune Shirow, is a blend of extreme visual highs and writing lows. If you were to only watch the film for the art direction, it’s one of the most effective visually since the future world of “Blade Runner” was created in 1982.
Serving as a backdrop for this tale of a woman whose brain has been transplanted into a robot body is a cityscape that looks like an android’s dream. Giant projected images dwarf buildings presenting their nonstop advertising messages.
And, it’s not just the towering images that make the visuals of “The Ghost in the Shell” so staggering. Even the smallest details of traffic lights and cemetery plots create a stunning look at the future.
It has been the case in recent years – from “Serenity” to “Gotham” – to mix items from different eras. This blend makes it difficult to tie the production to a particular time period. That blending is done brilliantly with “The Ghost in the Shell,” from the advanced cybernetics used to modify humans to a very everyday teapot.
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This beautiful imagery is behind the story of The Major (Scarlett Johansson), the prototype in a world where robotic upgrades have become the norm. She’s the ultimate upgrade having been given a whole new body. The title comes from how her soul or “ghost” has been transplanted into the mechanical shell.
Major uses her mechanically enhanced skills as part of a small law enforcement group. The team’s biggest threat comes in the form of Kuze (Michael Pitt), an internet master who is waging a crusade against the top scientists at the company doing the leading work in robotics.
Director Rupert Sanders mixes action-filled scenes and moments where Major can ponder her existence. As has been the case going all the way back to the manga series, “The Ghost in the Shell” takes some very serious looks at humanity’s efforts to play God.
The big stumbling block is the writing. Strip away to imagery and this is a so-so buddy cop movie that never paints a clear picture of the real bad guys. The fact Major is so emotionally dour about her life eliminates any chance of the film rising about the level of standard cop drama.
The script carries on the basic elements of the original story but needed to be updated with the casting of Johansson as the central figure. The story has always been about an Asian woman and the script for this film maintains many of those elements from Major’s real name to her parents.
It’s not hard to understand that Johansson was cast because of her ability to draw moviegoers. She’s well suited to play the role, not a big shock considering Major is only a few degrees away from the Black Widow role she has played in the “Avengers” movies.
But, if that kind of casting commitment is made, then the story must be tweaked so that the plot points seem more fluid and not such a disjointed mess.
“Ghost in the Shell” purists will have a hard time with the casting as it gets away from the manga series. If it is possible to get past that, then “Ghost in the Shell” has set a new standard for visual elegance that makes up for the sloppiness and familiarity with the script.