Note: This review will contain Ghost In The Shell spoilers. Sorry.
Let's get this out of the way upfront: I've never seen the original Ghost In The Shell. Anime, for all that it has given the world, just isn't my jam, and that means I walked into Rupert Sanders' film with zero preconceived notions. Of course the plan is to rope in longtime fans of the original (and the manga series that inspired it), but really, people like me are probably the ideal audience for Sanders' version: I liked the trailers, I like virtually everyone involved, and I had zero baggage heading in. I was ready to be won over.
While there were no preconceived notions, I will confess to having a few expecations. I expected Ghost In The Shell to be visually stunning, and it is; almost every frame of this thing is eyepoppingly gorgeous. I expected Ghost In The Shell to be #problematic, and it was, but not necessarily in the way most people anticipated it to be. I expected the performances to be above average, and they were (yes, I even enjoyed Michael Pitt, making the bold decision to play his character with what can only be described as Max Headroom voice).
What I did not expect was to be reminded of John Carter Of Mars.
Andrew Stanton's John Carter Of Mars arrived back in 2012, a full seven decades after Edgar Rice Burroughs published the first John Carter story. Hollywood had been monkeying around with an adaptation for years, never quite getting it off the ground ... and never quite giving up, either. And so, while everyone and their uncle took a crack at making it happen, a bajillion other sci-fi-loving screenwriters came along and pillaged Burroughs' series for ideas. John Carter Of Mars was not a bad movie, but all the stuff John Carter Of Mars did really well turned out to be things we'd seen in a dozen other movies over the years, and John Carter suffered for it.
I kept thinking of Stanton's film as I watched Ghost In The Shell. It's undeniably impressive - spectacular, even - on a technical level, but I've also seen all of its tricks before. Eventually I found myself wondering how old the anime version was, and whether a number of screenwriters and directors hadn't picked its bones clean in the ensuing years. Having never seen it, how would I know?
As it turns out, the anime version arrived in 1995, so that'd only be possible for some of the movies I caught Ghost In The Shell riffing on. Everything else, well, that was probably just garden variety cribbing (here are some of the titles I listed in my notes while watching Sanders' film: A.I., Blade Runner, Ex Machina, The Terminator, The Matrix, Metal Gear, Robocop, Inception). Again, it's not that Ghost In The Shell isn't entertaining. I had a reasonably good time watching it. I just felt like I'd seen this movie a dozen times before, and that made me wonder why anyone would bother.
Here's the basic story: Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, a killer robot-lady who hunts down various cyber criminals on behalf of Hanka Robotics. She leads a team called Section 9, and together they keep the city safe from ne'er-do-wells. One day, one of Hanka's big muckety-mucks gets assassinated by a mysterious geisha-bot (note: this movie's geisha-bots are probably its best feature; I could watch those unsettling creations crawl around on ceilings all day), and The Major finds herself drawn into an investigation where everything she thought she knew about the company, herself, and her team is called into question.
Much like its visual effects, nothing about Ghost In The Shell's plot is particularly compelling. I pretty much knew where it was headed fifteen minutes into the film, and save for some highly-questionable shenanigans in the third act, I was right.
Which brings us to issue number two: Ghost In The Shell is problematic to a degree that even I was able to pick up on. Yes, the Birth.Movies.Death. staff is made up entirely of left-leaning cucklords, libtards and snowflakes, but some of us are more woke than others. I fall somewhere towards the rough end of that spectrum, a well-meaning dummy who really only becomes aware that something problematic is happening when it's painfully, outrageously obvious.
The final note I took during Ghost In The Shell reads: "PROBLEMATIC AF."
Look, I'll tell you the problematic thing that Ghost In The Shell does, but before I do, go back and read this. Know that this movie has been fielding "whitewashing" complaints for over a year now. Remember that, as recently as a few weeks ago, Twitter was still giving the studio shit over the various casting decisions they'd made on the film, particularly in regards to race. I need you to have all of that in mind before I tell you the problematic thing that Ghost In The Shell does.
Here goes: early on we learn that, when The Major was a young girl, she was in a boat accident that killed her entire family. She was rescued, however, by the scientists at Hanka Robotics, who promptly decided to use her brain to fuel a perfect killing machine (as you do). Much later in the film, we find out this story is complete bullshit: in actuality, The Major was a poor Japanese girl who was kidnapped and forced into the procedure. In other words: in the process of creating the perfect specimen, Ghost In The Shell's scientists decided to turn a Japanese girl into Scarlett Johansson.
I'm sitting there watching this unfold and I'm thinking, "You guys fucked up."
I can't say whether or not this is how things play out in the original. I only know what happens in Rupert Sanders' version, and how bad the optics look on it. I was astounded when the film took this turn, amazed that - after dealing with over a year's worth of complaints regarding the racial insensitivty of their movie - no one involved thought to say, "Y'know what? Maybe this is the wrong move. Maybe let's rewrite that flashback."
Anyway, if you set aside Ghost In The Shell's jaw-dropping obliviousness or the fact that, even at its prettiest, it's doing things you've seen a million times before, it's not a terrible movie. It's just a really mediocre movie that looks like it came with a $500M price tag. I have no doubt that it will be torn apart by critics and die-hard fans, just as I have no doubt that I'll have forgotten I ever saw it by the time summer rolls around.