Friday, 7 April 2017

Film Review: Scarlet Johansson's Ghost in the Shell forgets to be entertaining

I don't care if films are a mess, so long as they're entertaining. I've always said this. I'm not fussed if a film is a total shambles with sloppy performances, dodgy writing and a thin plot - as long as I'm entertained by it, I can grant it some levity. Sure, a film like that is hardly gonna warrant a place on my year-end list, but if a good time can be had with it, I'll be satisfied.

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders, follows a lot of this categorisation. Supporting performances are indeed sloppy, the plot is indeed thin and the writing is indeed dodgy. But it also makes one other mistake - it forgets to be entertaining. Ghost in the Shell is a complete mess of a film, but it should be one you can at least have some fun with. Unfortunately, the material's been zapped of any enjoyment and replaced it with little else. It's a seriously dull, depressing two hours of cinema.

In the future, technology has advanced to a level that allows humanity and cybernetics to merge together. Most people are technologically advanced in some way or another, it's kind of the norm. Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is used in a secret experiment: her brain and consciousness, rather than an AI, are placed inside an empty body (or shell). The secret programme aims to craft a new wave of anti-terrorism soldiers, but around a year after her activation, Killian (now known as Major due to her high rank) is more interested in learning about who she was before the experiment, and attempts to uncover her former life.

Ghost in the Shell, like its source material, is set in futuristic Japan, so it's naturally stunning to look at. The neon soaked colour palette fuses effortlessly with well rendered CGI, creating a world that, at least visually, looks and feels lived in. The film's futuristic setting is used well: giant holographic people have partially replaced billboard advertisements, invisibility is frequently used in combat.

The issue is that the film, while pleasing to look at, rarely makes use of its visual design in relation to narrative or character development. The opening act perfectly showcases the film's aesthetic style, but after we're filled in on what's happening with Major now, the story falls flat for far too long. Speaking of Major, Johansson is totally wasted here. Perfectly cast for her uncanny ability to fit this kind of world perfectly, her performance is reliably good but the film's script offers her little to play with.

A sequence in the middle act finds Major confronting someone from her past, and Johansson rings every ounce of emotion from the scene, perhaps overly so since it's the only chance she's given to allow Major to feel anything. Despite all the eye popping visuals and futuristic technologies littered either side of it, it's the film's most assured sequence by a long mile. It's the only time it surpasses "cool CGI flick" status and finds some focus, some history, some feeling.

Outside this one moment, though, there's little else here worth salvaging. The film's story never really takes off, something about the structure feels awkward and misjudged. The whole final act seems suspended in some kind of weightlessness, as if no one really planned how long each scene should last and just played it out until it ran dry. The characters are rarely expanded on either. Major's longing to discover her past doesn't go further than uncovering memories and people, never locating human feelings or emotions. For a story about finding the human amid the robot, it all feels far too procedural.

Besides a thrilling opening sequence featuring robot Geishas, even the action side of the film can't help but disappoint. The trouble is that Ghost in the Shell never finds anything new or exciting, which wouldn't matter too much if it wasn't set in an awesome looking futuristic city. Plenty of interesting ideas and set pieces are wasted - invisibility is never not cool in films, but here Major rarely uses it, and whenever she does the scene always seems cut short or lacking in energy.

This is the area that bugged me the most, too. If Ghost in the Shell's narrative and characterisations were sloppy but the action worked, I'd happily dismiss it as a fun B-movie. But when there's so little to enjoy across a nearly two hour trip to futuristic Japan, a world that features cyberpunk soldiers and robot freakin' Geishas, it's tough not to feel a bit disappointed. There's just no life or spark behind all those dazzling colours.

In A Sentence
An eye-popping colour palette and a game Scarlett Johansson can't save Ghost in the Shell from being a slow, uneven and woefully dull attempt to kick start a franchise.

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