Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano
Based on the acclaimed manga of Masamune Shirow, Ghost in The Shell shows a near future for Japan where the bonds of flesh are no longer the limiter for humanity they used to be. It was one of the quintessential cyberpunk works of the nineties, and saw translation into a blockbuster anime. Finally, decades later, The Major makes her live action debut on the big screen, however she has been re-imagined a bit since the last time we saw the character.
Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) works with counter terrorism organisation, Section 9, to halt the rise in cyber augmented crimes that threaten public security. She herself is the first of a new evolution in humankind, the first transplant to a fully cyborg body. However as the scientist that created her are murdered and their brains hacked, she begins to suspect that her own past may have something to do with the case.
Visually Ghost In The Shell is spectacular. The futuristic cityscape goes well beyond the vague Blade Runner inspiration that is so common in cyberpunk, creating a believable environment, saturated in colour and alive with computerised advertising. That care and reliance on practical effects (many by Weta workshop of Lord Of The Rings fame) and seamlessly melding that computerised effects, demonstrate a level of quality that enhances the immersion. The end result really does deliver, making you overawed by the technical wonders placed on the screen. It is a living world full of cyborgs and shadowy corporate conspiracies.
Yet you can’t judge a Terminator by it’s fleshy body builder cover. There are a few glitches in Ghost In The Shell. The Major is the i-phone white of combat cyborgs, now changed to Mira Killian rather than the original Motoko Kusanagi. Although there are some explanations offered in the script (that actually make a great deal of sense), this is just justification after the fact. The main reason is commercial whitewashing, and considering the public backlash this film has been getting based on that, perhaps that may have been a mistake. Which is a pity as The Major is a strong female protagonist in a film that passes the Blechdel quest. Johansonn steps well into the Major’s combat boots, not just displaying her characteristic calmness under fire, but also mimicking Kusanagi’s square shouldered firing stance, and solid yet lithe movement.
The second issue is the shadow of it’s vaunted predecessor. The 1995 animated film is considered a classic of both Anime and the Cyberpunk genre in general. Other than Akira, it is hard to think of a film that had more impact breaking the Anime genre to Western audiences than this. True the series has re-invented itself in a number of iterations past that, subtly altering the characters and history as it does so. In many ways this film is just following that mantle of re-invention.
However, it does this by borrowing heavily on the ’95 version. Not just in terms of characters or themes (transhumanism, identity, and the murky connections between government and commercial interests are par for the course), but in the whole-scale re-enactment of scenes. In that way this film invites those comparisons, and the result is a sense of de ja vu. It’s not a deal-breaker, as there is enough here to garner interest, but in the heavy-handed approach this film has to some of the elements of its plot (especially those aspects of corporate conspiracy, as Peter Ferdinando’s Hanka Precision Instruments head-honcho practically twirls his moustache at times) certainly doesn’t do this version favours.
Which is a pity, as besides that sense of heavy-handedness and a few pacing issues, there is something here beyond the spectacle. Besides Johansonn’s superb outing as the major, there is also ‘Beat’ Takashi Kitano effortless performance as the chief of Section 9, and Pilou Asbeak’s stoic Bato. Ghost In The Shell comes close to delivering the goods, but needed a gentler touch in making it across the line.