PARAMOUNT PICTURES (2017)
Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi Kitano, Peter Ferdinando
Based on the hugely popular 1995 anime production of the same name, Ghost in the Shell already carried a reputation and expectations well before release – and that was before the infamous “whitewashing” scandal caused by casting Johansson in the lead role.
Much of the movie’s release centred on this and not the release itself, which is partly a shame due to the movie’s central message of self-identity and the fact that the key protagonist is, well, a cyborg – an interchangeable AI robot. With all of the pre-release controversy, could Sanders respond with a great movie to silence the detractors? Sadly not.
Set in the near future, where global technology has enhanced a HELL of a lot, in a world where humans and robots are moving closer and the lines are blurring, Hanka Robotics has created the world’s first cybernetic body with a human brain (in place of AI ). A young woman, Mira Killian (Johansson), is selected to be the subject after her body is damaged irrefutably in a cyberterrorist attack, an attack that claimed the lives of her parents. Upon seeing his new creation, the CEO of Hanka, Cutter (Ferdinando) assigns her to his counter-terrorism unit, with plans to make her the world’s deadliest soldier.
She attains the rank, and nickname, of Major working in Section 9 with Batou (Asbæk) and Togusa (Han) successfully thwarting various terror attacks, until one day Major comes face-to-face with a mechanical geisha that leads her to Kuze (Pitt), a cyborg wreck that holds the key to Major’s survival.
Though based on 1995 original, the movie deviates slightly from the original material – mainly including the Major’s initial identity and the conclusion. Following the aforementioned scandal, hardcore fans were further enraged. With the original aside, as its own movie, Ghost in the Shell is a pretty soulless dive into the ideas that AI will become a reality in the near future. There are things to like and also lots not to like. On one hand, the derivative nature of the movie (pulling from Blade Runner, The Matrix...) stops the movie from having its own identity (ironic, considering the movie’s message) and provides a shell without a ghost. On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson is in a nude bodysuit for a portion of the movie.
A bodysuit does not make a good film, though. Johansson, for all of the films flaw, creates a compelling character and her cyberpunk cyborg is engaging enough to carry the movie – there’s nothing wrong with her performance. Likewise, Asbæk carries a surprising soft touch in his role as the grizzled muscleman and operative. I initially thought the villain of the piece, Kuze, carried a decent threat – lurking in the shadows, face concealed and hacking away with his cyber connectivity, but as the story changed so did he, and I was less interested.
The movie’s best moments are the quieter interactions between characters – either in the grimy underbelly of Japan or the clinical, sharp laboratories. Johansson and Asbæk have a good connection, and when there’s less going on around the characters, a better story emerges. When the movie is in-your-face, my word is it in-your-face. The cityscape is transformed with bright, neon lights everywhere, huge projections of humans and...goldfish, digital road markers, and something bright and fluorescent wherever you look – after a very short time, this became an attack on the senses and in certain scenes, my eyes were drawn more to these than what was happening in the actual story. They look cool (and mental) but it is hugely distracting.
Unfortunately, the movie is not gripping enough throughout. The opening terror attack is the movie’s best action set piece, and after that it meanders along with lots of cryptic talk of humanity, chasing a less-than-compelling antagonist and providing a poor, overused convention (corporate company is EVIL!) It tells us that our memories and our past is not what makes us, they’re not important, but it’s what we do that makes us – I’d argue that without your past, you wouldn’t be in that position to do anything, but alas, silly idea. It doesn’t hit the mark when trying to answer the questions around the concept of ‘collective consciousness’ and what constitutes being ‘human’. The subtext and visuals can’t make up for a flawed movie – the first half was decent, but it soon fell away after that.
Ghost in the Shell delivers a dazzling spectacle (in parts) and a great performance from a brooding, dark haired Johansson but it fails to deliver a compelling story that lives up to expectations. As its own movie, it still falls short and is dull in places. It could have been so much more.
Maybe in the future, a cyborg could have a go at directing a new adaptation?
July 7th 2017