Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
For a film about a brain that gets put into a terrorist fighting robot, Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell sure is dull and conventional. Blowing the budget on special effects and a beautiful score, Ghost in the Shell apparently could not spare a dime for an overhauled script that was not so pale, cliche, and run-of-the-mill. A classic tale of a dedicated-to-the-law hero who slowly discovers that everything they thought was true is not true, the bad guy is actually good, and those helping them are actually the bad ones, Ghost in the Shell feels impeccably shallow, forgettable, and shockingly boring. While a visual splendor at every turn, Ghost in the Shell's success is skin deep with no beating heart to keep its blood pumping and no charm to be found whatsoever in this science fiction action film.
As I have never watched the anime or manga or whatever the film is based on, I came into this one without any pre-conceived notion as to what it should look and feel like. Yet, I nonetheless came away wholly underwhelmed. Horrifically edited, chopped up, and dumped at about 90 minutes long, Ghost in the Shell is a film that hints at many different topics, but is never actually given a chance to explore them. As she is a woman killed by a malevolent organization and then used by that organization to advance their cause in the body of a robot, the film could have a lot of things to say about identity, politics, and be used as a critique of governmental control of a country. Yet, none of these are given any measure of depth. Instead, the lazy and nonsensical writing of the plot leaves these items as backdrops to beautiful effects, forgetting to actually provide the film with any measure of depth in its story. Comfortable being a passable and forgettable shoot 'em up action flick with cliches throughout, Ghost in the Shell feels as though it is a studio product built to suppress the interesting ideas clearly envisioned in the source material in favor of making it more commercially viable. By the end, it is clear that this is not Ghost in the Shell, but rather something inspired by it that entirely misses the point of its source material. It is a live-action remake without heart or soul that feels as though it is nothing more than an ill-advised cash grab attempt.
The aforementioned issues with the editing are really what waylays this film. Much like 2016’s Suicide Squad, there a lot of interesting ideas and themes that get tossed at the wall in Ghost in the Shell. However, very little actually winds up sticking. Instead, it gets lost in a film that feels chopped up and wholly misguided. At a tight 90 minutes, Ghost in the Shell could have been a cohesive and smart action science fiction film. Unfortunately, at a loose 90 minutes, Ghost in the Shell is a longer film crammed into a shorter running time that still tries to accomplish all of the same goals and messaging as a longer film. Thus, Ghost in the Shell is one of those films that tries to do too much in a short timeframe, never giving any of it the proper depth. This is truly exemplified when the film finally jumps into the plotting in the second half. Speeding through without trying to remain a cohesive piece, Ghost in the Shell has to resort to having characters just come out and explain things that would be shown or revealed in a different fashion in other, better films. Instead, here, everybody seems willing to just spill the beans and say exactly what the mysterious project that created Major and others was really all about. After years of covering it all up, it is amazing what the realization that the film is about to end can do to a character’s motivation to explain what happened. In stark contrast, the first half takes its time and really tries to pace itself before everything just hits the fan in the second half with the film stumbling out of control, desperately trying to end in time while covering as much ground as possible. Ghost in the Shell is a film that, when it ends, you wonder where the rest of the movie went.
The film’s storyline really does not do the film’s strengths any justice either whatsoever. Largely about a new program that puts human brains into robot bodies to make warriors, Ghost in the Shell ditches its heady ideas about augmentation and then blending of human with mechanical in favor of becoming just another film about cover-ups. On the surface, it could be interesting with the mysterious Kuze (Michael Pitt) infecting robots and using them to kill the scientists on some highly secretive project. A compelling character given a strong rendition by Pitt, Kuze winds up just being a character with a vengeance that is being hunted by the people who are actually evil, who use the unwitting Major to do their bidding. Revealing he is actually good and there to help Major, only to die seconds later, Ghost in the Shell is a lazily written and unimaginative film with a derivative and dull plot that just happens to be set in an extravagant and futuristic world. It refuses to take chances, instead opting for this safe cover-up angle with a cliché militaristic bad guy, a misunderstood opponent who is actually good, and a few hardcore yet goofy sidekicks along the for the ride with Major. For a film that hints at so many undercurrents that seems compelling on the surface, but winds up reverting to tired clichés for both plot and character development that renders the film as one that has nothing under the skin.
Shockingly, the film's action is equally ineffectual. The fight scenes are largely low-key, unimaginative, and not particularly great either. The final climactic battle scene with Major getting helped by Kuze does not really work either. The choreography is certainly a major issue with these fight scenes, as it never really seems to flow or actually look appealing. However, the fight scenes also feel exceedingly dull. There is no anticipation or climactic release found in these, instead suffering from the same crisis faced by Marvel superhero films: the fight scenes exist not to tell a story or be visually stunning, but just look cool. As Major rips a thing open and loses her arm in the process, it is hard to not see this as a hollow expression of the film's own shallow intentions. Though its visuals largely stun with intricate designs, the fight scenes themselves are not similarly inspired, instead just hollow re-creations of better action scenes in film that feel as though they know the beats and how it should look, but lack the punch, thrill, and excitement to actually work in their own right.
One area of this film that is largely a source of conflict for my own opinion is the acting. Led by Scarlett Johansson, Ghost in the Shell lacks a charismatic lead to really come off smoothly, but whether or not that is fair to criticize due to Johansson playing a robot is up for debate. Her emotions and movements are incredibly robotic, showing that she really did get that down well, but it is not particularly different than how she usually acts. For a woman cast as the action hero lead in many films, Johansson really lacks the charisma and charm to make these kinds of roles come off well, with Ghost in the Shell being a great example of this. That said, again, it may be intentional in this case. Thus, turning to her delivery, this is where Johansson really struggles. With a weak script that fails to develop the characters, the plot, or workable dialogue, it is hard to lay the blame entirely at her feet. However, Johansson is somebody who always acts like they are acting. She seems self-aware that she is an actress, which often greatly undermines her performance by it being stiff, rigid, and unconvincing. In this film, it kind of benefits her, but I have really yet to find a performance by her that I love.
Visually, the film is largely top-notch. The holograms floating around buildings are a weird touch that do not really work all that much, but otherwise, the film is incredibly gorgeous. Though perhaps not strictly necessary, Major splashing into a room through an all-glass window to kick some ass is a seriously stunning image. This neon-lit visual behemoth has been defended as a good film because of its visuals and it is hard to not see why that is the case. For those who value visuals above all else, Ghost in the Shell certainly delivers that in spades. Perhaps the highlight is a shot of a group of people on a boat in a pinkish blue light floating by on the water with the city skyline in the background. It is perhaps director Rupert Sanders' most inspired moment in the film. As a whole, much has been said about the film's visuals and it is hard to not praise them. There is a lot of neon in this film and, as always, it is a lot of different kinds of pretty. At some point, neon will not look so good, but that time is not yet. The incredible production design goes hand-in-hand with the great effects as the skyline and set pieces consistently deliver the goods with intricate designs that really turn into eye candy. The highlight there being the excellent sequence in which Major goes into the mind of one of the companion robots to see the infection it had. Dimly lit with winding tunnels, the design and visuals of the moment are more low-key than this film will be remembered for, but are nonetheless excellently put together.
That said, what really entices me to love this film is Clint Mansell. Perhaps one of the best composers working in Hollywood right now with The Fountain being his crowning achievement. His score in Ghost in the Shell sounds similar at times, especially with the awe-inspiring and hopeful beginning of this film as the robot form of Major rises out of a pool of liquid to be completed. The score hits some beautiful notes in that moment that both stand out on their own and greatly benefits that sequence, which is exactly what a score should do. Setting the tone and the scene perfectly throughout, Mansell's rapturous score meshes beautifully with the excellent visuals and effects that goes to solidify Ghost in the Shell as a technical masterpiece but a structural failure.
Beautiful visuals and an excellent Clint Mansell score notwithstanding, however, Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell drops the ball. With horrifically paper-thin writing, disposable characters, bad and generic dialogue, shoddy editing that rushes through the rising action and climax, and iffy acting from Scarlett Johansson, there is not much to praise about this film beyond its visuals and score. Hinting at deeper ideas about identity and the dangers regarding artificial intelligence as it begins to mesh with humanity, Ghost in the Shell drops everything in the name of rushing through its finale with cliches abounding. Predictable, dull, and the very definition of shallow entertainment, Ghost in the Shell should have stayed in its shell.