Given the extent to which Ghost in the Shell’s themes about the increasing unions between human and machine have permeated Hollywood science-fiction, that this remake has no grasp of those ideas feels particularly baffling. Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell is a flimsy copy of a copy, one that recreates some of the anime’s set-pieces nearly shot for shot, but then pares away nearly everything else that made the original a classic.
Johansson’s Major is a quasi-Robocop who works for “Section 9,” an intelligence agency patrolling an unnamed future city. As viewers are told in the film’s opening montage (which sees her shapely form being purpose-built in a lab), the only “human” part of her is her brain. The rest is a humanoid cybernetic shell, a kind of flesh-colored bodysuit that can turn invisible (if she sheds her clothes, which she does anytime she goes into battle). The Major is heralded as “the future” by her creators, a robotics company called Hanka; she’s a post-human triumph in a world where most people have already begun to augment their bodies with cyborg add-ons.
The Major, along with her sidekicks Batou (a gruff Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han, whose character is crucial in the 1995 film but mostly sidelined here), is investigating a mysterious cyber-villain called Kuze (Michael Pitt). Meanwhile, her boss Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) seems to be running interference between the government and the corporate entities invested in the Major’s performance as a super-soldier, though any other details are left to the viewer’s imagination.
Sanders and his screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger are credited) try to keep things as simple as possible, which somehow only makes them more confusing. The particulars of the Major’s world are never explained, outside of some throwaway lines about the proliferation of cybernetic modification. In design, this future-city resembles a scrubbed-up Blade Runner, a CGI festival of glass skyscrapers and 3D billboards, covered in superhighways. Kuze’s evil mission is simply to take out the leaders of Hanka Robotics, which he does by “hacking” the brains of robots and people to carry out his assassinations.
There’s not much nuance at work, and Johansson’s extremely flat performance doesn’t help matters, though she’s likely doing as much as she can with the material she’s been given. Her character is an intentional blank slate, a living weapon designed with few memories of the past. Obviously, there’s more for her to learn, and some various rote twists along the way, but the message of Ghost in the Shell never amounts to more than “shadowy military-industrial corporations are not to be trusted.” It’s an insidious move that seeks to lamely justify the Major diving into endless bullet-storms against her largely anonymous enemies.