***1/2 out of ****
(for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)
Released: March 31, 2017
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando, Michael Pitt, Chin Han
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March 2017 was anchored by a live action adaptation that wasn’t as good as the original animated classic. It ended with one that’s better.
Ghost In The Shell is substantially superior to its revered 1995 anime predecessor in every respect; both are based on a Japanese manga graphic novel series. It’s also the best Wachowskis movie in nearly twenty years, released 18 years to the day after The Matrix, and those siblings didn’t even make it.
For starters, this take on the popular futuristic dystopian fable is actually about its titular heroine Major, a human/robot hybrid (played here with grit and heartache by Scarlett Johansson). In the original anime, Major was barely a supporting character in her own movie.
From there, director Rupert Sanders takes what had been a muddled narrative that lost track of its central figure (while also barely scratching its ethical surface) and turns it into a visual blitzkrieg of sci-fi wonder that thoughtfully, seriously wrestles with a version of our seemingly inevitable future: a world in which humanity and personal identity are compromised, and consciousness is just a commodity used to empower synthetic robots – when it should be the other way around.
In short, this Ghost is very much alive. But in a character-rich irony, it’s the ghost that’s haunted.
Major is a pistol-packing agent with superhuman powers, not the least of which is controlled invisibility. She’s superhuman because, for the most part, she’s not human. Her shell is the latest development of cyborg technology, an entirely robotic body that houses an actual human brain (and spirit?) in its head. That brain is from a woman whose body did not survive a lethal accident, although memories of her former life have mostly been erased as a result of the process. Without a sense of her former self, Major is lost in an existential void of not knowing who she is.
Her personal struggle is the subtextual (and soulful) underpinning to a plot about Station 9, a government agency that battles the world’s most dangerous criminals. Major is their most advanced asset. A new secret terrorist force has emerged with the ability to hack into people’s minds, threatening innocent citizens and the very nature of society itself. But as Major and her partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek) get closer to the truth – and her origins – they begin to discover just how corrupt the whole establishment system is.
Ghost In The Shell strikes a smart balance between action and character, allowing each to inform and motivate the other. The best example of how this improves on its source are the two new characters absent from the original. The first is Dr. Ouelet, played by Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche, the creator and mentor to Johansson’s Major. Rather than a duplicitous scientist who’s manipulating Major according to her superior’s greedy goals, she is a tortured mother torn between her corporate responsibilities and maternal care for what she has made, and wrought.
The other is Kuze, an earlier and failed incarnation of what has been perfected in Major. He’s a character pulled from later volumes of the Manga series, now incisively woven into this narrative. Not only does he take the place of the original’s Puppet Master, the mysterious terrorist hacker, but Kuze (poignantly portrayed by Michael Pitt) becomes a much more complex villain, even empathetic, as we begin to see him and his plight as a tragedy of techno-human evolution, betrayed by the people he was convinced to trust.
Kuze and Ouelet serve as provocative catalysts for Major’s journey and arc, as does the richer interpretation of the crucial garbage man character, expanding the ethical debate that this premise raises – much more than the lauded anime ever did – in effective, heartbreaking ways, as does Major’s new (and inspired) backstory.
Aesthetically, Sanders borrows from several landmark influences beyond the source Manga (even as he replicates many of the anime’s most iconic shots and sequences). This cyber punk world owes as much to Blade Runner as anything, especially in the vibrant yet seedy cityscapes. Vehicles are designed via a 1980s version of the future, as are many other aspects. It all comes together in an eye-popping futuristic palette that mixes the practical and the digital seamlessly, and it’s all juiced up with slickly staged action set pieces.
As far as the cries about this movie’s supposed whitewashing (i.e. casting Johansson and others in originally Japanese roles), the PC uproar is as exhausting as it is intellectually short-sighted. The amalgamized Asian city depicted here reveals a world where race is as fluid as gender, where every city is a melting pot (Asian, English, French, and others co-mingle, as do their languages), and it’s all intentionally there as a fabric of the movie’s predominant theme of blurred identity and the emotional / psychological / spiritual confusion that all this blurring creates.
If anything, the white villain pulling the strings here makes the exact point about cultural appropriation that the Social Justice Warriors think they’re defending. The very basis of the whole movie is about stealing and warping identity without consent. I mean…duh.
But don’t take my word for it.
I’ll leave you with the words of Mamoru Oshii, the director of the original anime and its sequel. Oshii defied the moralizing rants of identity politics and defended the casting of Johansson, saying:
- “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply”, and also stating, “I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.”
What’s Japanese for “mic drop”?