Director : Rupert Sanders.
Year Of Release : 2017
Principal Cast : Scarlett Johansson, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando, Kaori Momoi, Lazarus Ratuere.
Approx Running Time : 99 Minutes
Synopsis: In the near future, Major is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals.
One of the aspects I love about hard science fiction is its dissection of the nature of what it means to be human. Either through robotics, cybernetics or some quasi-possible integration between humankind and machine, the subject of identity, or self, is a well travelled pathway for storytellers looking at futurism through a prism of concern. Ghost In The Shell, an anime franchise that’s become synonymous with the genre globally thanks primarily to its narrative encompassing such intellectual heights, has had a Hollywood re-imagining long in gestation, beset with controversy – although we’ll leave the “whitewashing” stuff for another time – and fractious with Western fans. While I’ve only ever seen the original film (which itself was based on a manga comic series), I’m familiar with it enough as an overarching thematic statement in popular culture to hazard a guess that this 2017 version, while spectacularly beautiful and certainly focusing its considerable energies in the right direction, will go down as an “admirable failure” despite director Rupert Sanders’ (Snow White & The Huntsman) best efforts.
Scarlett Johansson leads the cast as Major, a human brain encased in a cybernetic body designed as the perfect weapon. Together with partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), she works for Section 9, hunting down cyber-criminals intent on bringing down society as they know it. When one known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) begins assassinating members of the Hanka Robotics Corporation, Major and Batou are tasked by Section 9 chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) with uncovering his identity and bringing him down.
It’s hard to fathom how influential Ghost In The Shell has been on much of popular sci-fi since it arrived in the late-80’s. Elements of epochal genre films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ex Machina, and to some extent Metropolis and Total Recall, can be found scattered tangentially in Ghost’s humanistic search for identity. Major’s humanity is hidden beneath layers of complex technology, similarly to modern day humans and their online activities – and although Sanders delivers a hauntingly beautiful film, and Johansson digs deep to give Major some empathetic layering, 2017’s Ghost In The Shell feels unnaturally cold, devoid of the passion it so obviously ascribes to achieve.
I think part of the problems I had with the whole thing is that the screenplay, while ostensibly point for point a direct reprise of the original film in most respects, handles the obvious moral, ethical and philosophical aspects of the premise rather clumsily. Whereas the original film cut through the ideologies present with slick animation, Sanders’ CG-infused effort hurtles through sledgehammer tactics to make its point. So much so, it makes its point far too often, and far too heavy-handed. You can see where the filmmakers were heading here, trying to draw out Major’s loss of memory and humanity and make her feel like a lost soul, a tortured puppy trying to regain something she can never again have, but it’s overwrought. Not helping is the thunderous musical score, by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, which bludgeons the viewer to death with a “you WILL feel something goddamit” sense of electronica.
Ghost In The Shell’s visual style is, nonetheless, exquisite, as you’d expect from a big-budget Hollywood production such as this. This version of Ghost reminded me a lot of the aesthetic used by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner, a paradigm of dystopia and utopia wrapped in a world not too dissimilar from where our own is heading. The urban wastelands and the towering skylines collide in a vista of pavement, concrete and human isolationism, echoing Major’s own mental state, and Sanders’ conjures up a world that feels lived in and tangible, in spite of its digital enhancements. Think of it like a mix of Spielberg’s AI (of which this film has significant DNA) and the anarchic Mega Cities of Judge Dredd, and you’ll about hit the mark. Sanders’ team in design and CG outdo themselves with a remarkable representation of the manga comic’s distinct setting, and although modern computer technology allows for more “slickness” than the original film, I’m glad to see much of the original’s touchstones are kept intact (such as the clothing of invisibility, which I always felt was underused).
Where the original Ghost In The Shell left much unsaid and only hinted at, Sanders’ film feels the need to explain everything, to stretch out once-subtextual concepts and bring them into focus. In doing this, the Hollywood version removes much of the mystique the property enjoys (at least in my opinion), and while I understand you need a film that is understood by a lot of very dumb people to make some money, I wish the filmmakers had leaned more into the abstract than they otherwise do here. Explaining everything undermines much of what makes audiences connect with a story; how bad would it have been if we hadn’t had to discuss elements of The Matrix to figure it out and instead had it all explained to us?
In spite of my nagging concerns with the film, I really did enjoy this one. I’m probably not going to be in a rush to revisit it soon, and I would posit that the discussion around the movie won’t be so much thematic as it will be about Johansson’s rather snug form-fitting costuming, but if it’s on the telly I’ll happily sit and enjoy it again. Unlike his previous film, Sanders has brought a sense of elegance and romanticism to the property, and his keen eye for dazzling widescreen eye-candy makes even the toughest HD screen wilt in fear; if only I could connect with the story being told in a manner than made me want to see more. Entertaining, sure, but I so desperately ache for what this film could have been.