Scarlett Johansson’s Major drops in on an ambush of enhanced humans and hacked robotic servants. With a digital skin suit that makes her invisible she takes out the cyber crooks with one precise shot after another before plunging into the fray with blindingly fast take downs. No Tony Stark has not equipped a cyber-punk Black Widow; Major is a human/cyborg member of Section 9, a tactical response team in a futuristic Tokyo, protecting an increasingly technologically enhanced human racefrom an underworld exploiting and hacking their bodies.
“Ghost in the Shell” was originally a manga by Masamune Shirow and writer Kazunori Itō and director Mamoru Oshii adapted the comic to the screen. Motoko Kusanagi or the Major and her team in Section 9 must hunt down a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master (or Kuze as he’s known in this film). In essence, that hunt for the hacker is the momentum of the film, but the investigation is as much about Major exploring the shrouded events that brought her soul or ghost into this robotic shell.
"Ghost in the Shell” melted minds in ’95. The questions of what a soul faced with an upgradable body went on to influence the film that ultimately eclipsed it; “The Matrix.” The Wachowski’s synthesised cyber-punk and explored technological symbiosis in an epic - and one could argue - genre defining way. Very recently Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” fused the ethics of ’man as god’ and the morality of artificial intelligence with such effortless perfection. The current live action “Ghost in the Shell” could not simply ‘copy / paste’ the animated film into live action because it’s 22 years too late. We won’t play the maddening and pointless game of 'spot the differences' list making between the original anime and the current film (because there are a lot). In essence the animation was a premonition but the live action film validates and reinforces that the predictions are uncomfortably close to our reality. Human enhancement and integration with technology used to be an affront, but in 2017 it’s not only plausible but probable.
Marvel’s missed opportunity to capitalise on the currency of Johansson’s character Natasha Romanov/Black Widow feels like the star’s motivation for this futuristic franchise builder. Writers Jamie Moss and William Wheeler source content from the original manga, anime sequels and a series (which unfortunately I have not seen). According to Wikipedia the later series focused on Section 9 whose brief was: “counter-terrorism operations [and] cyber-criminals in each scenario [required] the diverse skills of Section 9's staff to prevent a series of incidents from escalating." With Takeshi Kitano, the legend from "Battle Royale" playing Section 9 head Aramaki, we see all the foundations laid for this diverse ensemble that seem to have been enhanced to a point beyond language (even occasionally communicating telepathically). It's a refreshing experience to see subtitles for the benefits of the audience and not the multi-national characters.
This live action “Ghost in the Shell" is a buffet of neon and attempts to expand a world dominated by screens into a world whose textures are the living graphics. Director Rupert Sanders, the man behind K-Stew vehicle "Snow White and the Huntsman,” is a vibrant melting pot of styles. There’s homage to the original anime, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”, and of course there are inescapable comparisons to the canonical films of the cyber-punk genre such as “The Matrix” and “Blade Runner.” The moments where Sanders haunts Major with visions that burst to life like real world obstacles are the biggest highlights of the film. The paranoia of cyber thrillers, which is altogether absent for most of the film, comes to life in moments where one has to consider what it’s like when your mind glitches out They begin to question the nature of Major’s reality and in turn the reality of everything we’re viewing in this futuristic world..
The Major is this sensual but de-sexualised entity, that accesses capability by revealing her body. Scarlett Johansson delivers a really bunched up and rigid physical performance that characterises Major’s continued acclimatisation into a robotic shell. Johansson really throws herself into the character. Pilou Asbæk’s Batou plays off Johansson well by looking like the burly protector and acting like the reminder for humanity. Michael Pitt’s Kuze haunts the film. The character has the ability to inhabit and manipulate anyone with a certain level of enhancement (including Aussie Daniel Henshall in a brief but significant cameo). Pitt is one of those performers with raw magnetism and a creep factor that just makes your skin crawl.
Analysing "Ghost in the Shell" from a sociological perspective is a little more complex than tweet length accusations of "white-washing." Obviously diversity and representation are not just important, but critical for the future of T.V and movies. Furthermore the complex business of international film financing, (especially in the dominant Asian market) makes the journey of "Ghost in the Shell" from anime to live action a fascinating potential case study. Anyone who thinks that the same "Ghost in the Shell" film would have been made without the primary female actor from one of the highest grossing movies of all time ("The Avengers") as your lead; you're just wrong. The filmmakers absolutely had an opportunity to tackle the casting with some fascinating commentary on cultural imperialism or definitions of beauty and perhaps imply a European/White beauty paradigm. Dr. Ouelet played by Juliette Binoche, a kind of female ‘Dr. Frankenstein’ character, brings ambivalence to the designer or creator. Her complex relationship with Major takes a back seat to her attempts to reclaim her former human identity.
“Ghost in the Shell” is a futuristic action movie first; and a cyber-punk technological paranoia thriller second. For Scar-Jo’s and the sake of the underappreciated lady action star, it’s worth a watch.
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.