Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Masamune Shirow’s beloved Ghost in the Shell (first published in 1989) is the latest Japanese property to undergo a live-action adaptation, the material previously remodeled into a critically acclaimed and fanatically praised anime movie back in 1995, the film directed by Mamoru Oshii. See, what made Ghost in the Shell so groundbreaking, and such a world-wide phenomenon was its multi-layered storyline, which explicitly contained writer-illustrator Shirow’s feelings towards certain sociological and philosophical concerns, the narrative highlighting consequences that might arise in the wake of extreme technological advancements while exploring themes of consciousness, identity and humanity (more specifically, what defines or makes one human/ the value of the physical body) — notions that were considered to be pretty darn revolutionary back in the day. This was all pre-Internet, remember, where post-21st century sensibilities and developments were not taken for granted — to think, the word ‘hacking’ (which was a scary thought within itself) was not part of our everyday vernacular.
Due to the ever-growing popularity of both the Ghost in the Shell manga and its animated incarnation, several sequels, television series, OVAs and video games spawned soon after, the material eventually landing in the hands of various Hollywood moguls, who seemingly set out to translate (or re-boot) the masterwork into a mega-budget, silver-screen extravaganza, filmmakers opting to make it more accessible for Western audiences too, no doubt. Alas, the project was stuck in development limbo for a good ten years — heck, even Steven Spielberg was rumored to be attached to it at one point — this decade-long hold-up standing as the new Ghost in The Shell’s ultimate undoing, the movie’s ‘then radical’ moral, metaphysical and technological quandaries having since been explored countless times, cinematically speaking — umm, The Matrix (1999) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) instantly come to mind — making the entire picture, despite its spectacle merit, fell a little ‘been there, done that!’
Set sometime in the near future — round about 2029 — the movie opens up with a stunning credit sequence that follows the step-by-step construction of Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), this assembly taking place at Hanka Robotics, the ‘now’ leading developer of augmentative tech on the globe. Yes, you read that correctly, Johansson’s Major is not named Motoko Kusanagi (the title given to the Japanese character); though, this minor divergence is later addressed (and rectified) in the development of the story. Anyhow, with Killian’s physical remains apparently destroyed beyond repair in a near-fatal cyberterrorist attack, her ‘mind,’ or brain — her only salvageable organ — is inserted into an artificial body, or ‘shell,’ Killian chosen as a test subject to inadvertently become the world’s first human-AI integrated super soldier. Some years later, Killian has attained the rank of ‘Major,’ now working as part of an anti-terrorist task force called Section 9, alongside her more-than-capable squadmates — including the ivory-haired Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han), the only crew member without a cybernetic enhancement — this elite unit entrusted with hunting the various cyber-crooks who jeopardize the state and safety of their unnamed (pan-Asian) cyberpunk megacity, this division headed by the gruff and wily Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano).
After successfully thwarting a terrorist attack on a Hanka business conference, masterminded by a mysterious criminal-extremist known simply as Kuze (Michael Pitt), Killian, desperate for answers, decides to ‘dive’ into the ‘head’ of a terminated rogue robo-geisha (Rila Fukushima), which had been hacked during the previous assault — Killian breaking protocol in the process. Haunted by her past, which she remembers literally none of, the Major is soon lured to a Yakuza nightclub where her special ops team are almost killed in action. Enraged by Killian’s sheer recklessness, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), Hanka’s CEO, threatens to shut the entire Section 9 down; though Killian keeps on digging for answers, deadest on bringing the unlawful hacker, Kuze (who’s able to tap into the psyche of others), to justice. As senior company researchers and scientists are systematically targeted then murdered, Killian’s swift investigation leads her to the infamous Kuze, the Major coming face-to-face with the human-cyborg hybrid who reveals himself as a failed Hanka test subject. Discovering secrets about her former self, Killian learns that her entire life as a cybernetic soldier was, in fact, a lie — she’d been stolen, not saved — and thus sets out on a mission to recover her true origins, with those who molded and fathered her now working tirelessly to pull out her plug.
Penned by Jamie Moss, Street Kings (2008), William Wheeler, Queen of Katwe (2016), and Ehren Kruger, The Ring (2002), 2017’s Ghost in the Shell is, without a doubt, a respectful re-telling in that it never strays too far from the general essence of its much-loved source material; at times, we’re presented with a shot-for-shot replica of the original anime, with a handful of ‘cool’ callouts to the franchise at large.
With that said, however, there are two major flaws with Ghost in the Shell; the first being its worn-and-withered, transparent storyline, which (today) just doesn’t seem to have the same impact it did back in the mid to late ’90s. And even then, Ghost in the Shell’s plot still has numerous similarities to far superior sci-fi-thrillers from the 1980s, movies that posed likeminded questions and surveyed comparable subject matter; Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), for instance, films that (again) explored abuse and manipulation of technology — think genetic engineering and cloning or human-robot synergy, aka the ethics of putting an man into a machine. Secondly, instead of trying to explore its existential subtext and robo-dominated culture in a clever or contemporary manner, the screenplay is overloaded with clunky exposition and predictable story beats, any sort of subtlety literally spelt out for the audience, this revamp coming off as a hollow, ‘dumbed-down’ effort.
On a technical and conceptual level, Ghost in the Shell borders on outstanding, the flick directed by visual stylist Rupert Sanders, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) — so proceedings, at least, look and sound fantastic! For one, the dense multicultural megalopolis is truly a sight to behold, this juiced-up techno-jungle drenched in flashy holograms and littered in neon blazing CGI noise, the imagery bright and poppy — and the 3D work pretty ace, too. Moreover, the gadgets, guns and gizmos are excellently realized, so too are the fantastical cyberized life-forms, the audio and production design top notch all round. And hey, the action is fairly kick-ass, the film’s high-velocity combat sequences choreographed by Guy Norris — of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) fame — with director Sanders opting to blend practical VFX with state-of-the-art computer graphics, a high point being the Major’s end-game battle against a monster-sized arachnoid tank.
Whitewashing accusations aside, Scarlett Johansson, Lucy (2014), is (ironically) rather robotic as Major Mira Killian, this central performance lacking any real depth or flair, even if ScarJo wholly sells the badassery of the role — she totally owns the sexy flesh-colored ‘thermoptic’ bodysuit. Interestingly, it was, at one stage, alleged that filmmakers were going to use CGI to alter Johansson’s appearance in order to make her look more ‘Asian;’ if this were really the case, wouldn’t it have been easier to cast an actual Asian rather than spend time, effort and money on a half-baked Eastern CG Scarlett? Seriously Hollywood! Thankfully, none of this ‘silliness’ actually eventuated.
Michael Pitt, Funny Games (2007), is mildly menacing as Kuze, the character an amalgamation of several villains from the anime, chiefly the gender-less Puppetmaster (the main antagonist in ’95’s Ghost in the Shell) and Hideo Kuze (from the second season of the TV series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG); needless to say, Pitt’s creepy, damaged-and-corrupted semi-computerized vocals and mishmash of man-and-mechanism makeup add a sense of eeriness to his overall act, it’s just a pity that Pitt’s highly skilled hacker doesn’t reach his full potential, the character hardly given any room to grow. Elsewhere, in supporting roles, French actress Juliette Binoche, Godzilla (2014), fails to impress as Hanka Robotics designer Dr. Ouélet, the Major’s programmer, this maternal figure existing merely to spoon-feed audiences expository dialogue, while other international stars ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, Fireworks Nishi (1997), and Danish-born Pilou Asbæk, Game of Thrones (2011), do their best given the sub-par script, the latter sporting some fleek, yet tiny, cybernetic eyepieces.
Attempting to communicate the anime’s many cerebral ideas and hypothesis — extremely intelligent, thought-provoking concepts that were pioneering way back when — 2017’s Ghost in the Shell almost gets lost in both time and translation, the film missing the ‘brainy’ punch of its beloved source — a bit of a shame really, seeing as it could’ve re-energized the cyberpunk sci-fi sub-genre. Boasting an undeniably alluring ‘shell,’ Rupert Sanders delivers big tech-noir visuals but without any sort of weight or soul, the movie a classic case of style over substance. Look, if you’ve dabbled in the anime or manga before, I’d say check this one out as a point of interest, but if you’re a newbie to the Major’s story, stick to Mamoru Oshii’s magnum opus instead. You’d be better off for it.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner