REVIEW: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ a haunting but flawed movie

The Art of Nerding Out

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“Ghost in the Shell,” a live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s iconic manga (comic books), may be the most frustrating movie of the year. It looks gorgeous, a masterpiece painted in neon light and epic cityscapes. And it stars Scarlett Johansson, who manages to stand out even though she’s surrounded by spectacle.

But when it comes to the themes of the story, the questions it asks don’t go deep enough and the answers don’t quite satisfy. What you’re left with is a movie that is entertaining and looks fantastic, but never quite reaches its full potential.

“Ghost” tells the story of Major (Johansson), an anti-terrorism task force member who is basically an organic human brain inside a robotic case. She and her Section 9 team must stop a shadowy villain named Kuze (Michael Pitt) from bringing the Hanka Robotics company to its knees.

Scarlett Johansson plays the Major in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Although Major has all the skills to accomplish her mission, she’s also having glitches, seeing things that aren’t there. These visions lead her to question what she’s been told by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) concerning her origin. Major’s quest for answers leads her into conflict with Hanka corporate big-wig, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) as well as with the reality of who and what she is.

“Ghost” is directed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), and he deserves credit for trying to make a movie that isn’t just about bloodless action violence. “Ghost” raises questions about the soul and memories, about what defines us as human beings — deep stuff compared to most other big-budget franchise movies.

Anamaria Marinca plays Dr. Dahlin in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

And his movie looks spectacular, especially to massive exterior city shots that recall the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner.” A few of the shots look a little unfinished, but I was so drunk on the imagery that I didn’t care.

I was also engrossed by Johansson’s performance as Major. At the start of the movie, Major is more of an emotionless chess piece, confused by her feelings and experiences, as I’d imagine someone in her shoes would actually be. As the movie unspools, she begins to show more emotion and embrace her feelings. You’re watching her come to grips with what she is, and I thought she was fantastic. Johansson’s work makes up for what is, outside of Binoche, a lot of pretty uninspired acting from the rest of the cast.

What doesn’t work is the script, which felt unfinished. And far too much of the story takes place in the dialogue, robbing characters of the chance to say anything interesting and turning them into fountains spewing exposition. In film school, I was taught to show, not tell. Apparently, these filmmakers went to different film schools.

Another problem with “Ghost” is the overuse of slow motion. Slo-mo is great when there’s a story-based reason to use it (as in “The Matrix” or “Dredd”). It can be effective at punching up dramatic moments. But if overused, it loses its power. Worse, it causes boredom, as you know where a shot or a scene is going to end and you have to sit around waiting for the movie to catch up.

But my biggest problem with the movie is its length. At an hour and 47 minutes, it’s the same run time as a dopey family flick or an Adam Sandler comedy. And it needs to be longer, because it tries to bring up so many interesting questions. Then it runs out of time and answers those questions in the most convenient (and unsatisfying) of ways. With a few more scenes, maybe “Ghost” could have had the depth it so obviously wanted to have.

I’m conflicted about “Ghost in the Shell.” I can’t overlook the flawed writing, wooden acting and half-baked execution. And yet, I’ve been thinking about it ever since I saw it, and probably will continue to for the next few days at least. I have to give props to a movie that tries to answer heady philosophical questions. Most big movies don’t even bother trying to get you to think. (I’m looking at you, “Kong” and “Beauty and the Beast”).

This movie will stay with me for a while, and that’s a very good thing.

3 ½ Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG-13