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Film Review: Ghost in the Shell, Formidable and Visually Stunning

Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In a novel approach to reviewing this film, I’m going not going to compare it to the groundbreaking 1995 anime of the same name or the manga comic that was the source material for it. Instead, I’m going to review the Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) directed, live-action Ghost in the Shell as its own entity and judge its success or failure as a film on traditional cinematic measures, like a comprehensive story that I should be able to appreciate whether I’m familiar with any of the previous works with this title or not, fully-rounded characters, and a visual landscape that suits the mood of the overall piece. Call me crazy…

Although it seems to borrow heavily from other science fiction film touchstones like Blade Runner or the Resident Evil movies/video games, Ghost in the Shell still manages to find ways to be unique and original with its treatment of the relationship humans will have with technology as we move into a future where “enhanced” humans will become the norm. Whether as a medical tool to replace failing body parts or as a next-level plastic surgery, the world of these movies sees the combination of flesh and robotics as something inevitable, creating a blended world that is not only a melting pot of races and cultures but of human and technology. The screenplay (from Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, working from the manga by Masamune Shirow) does a nice job showing the seemingly limitless ways in which this phenomenon can be used and abused.

As the story opens, we find that the next step of development for this synthesis is to transplant a human brain into an entirely robotic body, bringing with it all the memories and personality traits (known collectively as its “ghost”) of the original host. The first such successful transplant occurs with a character named Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is told she was a refugee coming to this new country (presumably Japan) with her parents who died on the boat ride over. She was saved, but the only way to save her was the transplant, overseen by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Almost as soon as it appears the experiment worked, the head of the robotics company that developed the tech, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), decides Major would make the perfect weapon.

Jumping ahead a year, Major and her sidekick Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbæk from Lucy, A War, and The Great Wall) are part of a government-run deadly counter-terrorism group (run by Aramaki, played by the legendary Takeshi Kitano), currently tracking down an enemy who had been murdering scientists who developed the very technology that resulted in Major. But the closer they get to capturing him, the more Major finds out about her past and the more she begins to doubt her mission and the people she’s working for.

Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In it’s live-action form, Ghost in the Shell is still a pretty formidable work. As a visual exercise, the film builds a universe that is both somewhat familiar yet utterly new. For example, there are no flying cars, but there are levels of highway that extend as high as most skyscrapers and there are several dozen examples of enhanced humans and robots that really impressive from a design perspective. Director Sanders is a former visual effects artist and his team have clearly put a lot of time and work into certain production and character design elements of his piece, and it makes a huge difference in strengthening a film where the story is something lacking. There is never much mystery about who the true bad guys are here; nor is there little doubt in that the “terrorist” the team is chasing (a character called Kuze, played by Michael Pitt) is attempting to let the truth be known about the robotics company and Major’s true past.

Johansson is great at handling the physical aspect of the action sequences, but she also adds an melancholy layer to Major, who is meant to be largely emotionless about her work and her life. It does seem a little strange—and maybe more than a little creepy—that when we see Major in all her glory, she looks sort of naked. It’s nice to know that even 20-some years after the first film, we can still rally to sexualize robots for an audience, even if nobody in the film even mentions it. Hooray for the future, I guess? I especially liked the relationship between Major and Batou, who take on a more brother-and-sister pairing, but still find non-sentimental ways of supporting and protecting each other when necessary.

Ghost in the Shell doesn’t so much end as it does sputter and stop. It leaves the possibility open that more of these films can be made, and maybe now that we’ve moved beyond the original story aspects of this movie, a second part might be more adventurous in the story department. And to address the concerns of the “white-washing” of these Japanese storyline, the idea that Major appears to be a white woman in this culture is actually a key element of the plot, one that is openly addressed and dealt with. See the movie before you criticize; that’s a general rule of moviegoing, not just a suggestion for this work. And while there are some issues with pacing and tension building, for the most part Ghost in the Shell is a worthy effort that questions what it is to be human and the role of technology as we move forward. At least you can’t say it isn’t asking big-picture questions.

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