Ghost in the Shell

Posted: April 8, 2017 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed by Rupert Sanders. Starring Scarlett Johansson, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche and Michael Pitt.

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Cue bionic woman theme tune…

It is the near future and the majority of humans have been enhanced with cybernetics. The leading cybernetic company is Hanka Robotics, and they have taken such augmentation one step further by placing the brain of a human inside a completely mechanical body, or shell. The test subject is a young woman who is apparently the sole survivor of a terrorist attack. With little memory of her life before the new hybrid (Johansson) is renamed Mira Killian and assigned to Section 9, an anti-terrorism organisation led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi).

A year after her rebirth Killian is now a Major in Section 9 and a trusted, if sometimes unpredictable, officer. She has been experiencing glitches however, flashbacks from her previous life. Dr Ouelet (Binoche) one of the team who created the Major, assures Killian that these are nothing to worry about, and with the Major’s consent she deletes them.

When a mysterious hacker known as Kuze (Pitt) begins killing Hanka scientists Major and her partner Batou (Asbæk) begin an investigation, but the closer Major gets to Kuze, the more and more Major learns about her past life, and realises that not everything she was told was true…

 

The first thing to say about Ghost in the Shell is that I’ve never seen the original, so I have no Amine axe to grind. The second thing to say is that the film looks gorgeous, but I’ll come on to that later.

As I said, never read the Manga or seen any of the Anime but one can only hope it’s better than this. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a terrible film, it’s just very forgettable.

I don’t want to get into the issues around whitewashing, about why Hollywood felt this needed Scarlett Johansson rather than a Japanese actress, frankly I’m not sure that would have made it any better as the problems are in the script and realisation rather than in the performances, which vary from very good to a trifle average but are never awful.

Johansson is a good actress who’s proven before (Under the Skin, Lucy) that she can convince as someone who’s not quite human (or in the case of Under the Skin someone who’s note remotely human!) I think she’s acted better than she does here, but I do think the material she had to work with didn’t help. The main problem with Ghost in the Shell, and it seems odd to say this given the increasing prevalence of the internet, of hacking and technological enhancements, is that it feels dated. We might be on the verge of a real-life cyberpunk world, but cyberpunk films have been around for quite some time now, and one can’t shake the feeling that this might have played better in the nineties. As it is it feels derivative of things like The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days etc. Now you could argue a lot of those earlier cyberpunk films were themselves derivative of Japanese Manga and Anime, but that’s irrelevant when this film just brings nothing new, nothing interesting to the table.

Watching it you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen it done before, and done better. Want a better future city detective story, watch Blade Runner, want a better examination of what it means to be human/sentient, watch Ex Machina or Under the Skin, want a better action film, well watch quite a few things, several of them this year alone.

The storyline is pedestrian and the film provides zero surprises, if you haven’t figured out what’s going on inside the first ten minutes you need to see more films. Of course, plenty of films can make a predictable storyline work, and not every film needs twists and reveals, but likely those films would have had something else to say. For a film about a woman whose brain is stuck in a robot body the film doesn’t have enough to say about the nature of humanity. It tries, but for the most part attempts at addressing this are superficial at best, or speedily got past; classic example is when Major wakes up for the first time and Dr Ouelet just flat out tells her. “Hi there was an accident but we saved your brain and stuck it in a metal shell.” Way to break it to her gently!

Which is another thing, just how many times the words “Ghost” and “Shell” are used. Seriously, we get it Hollywood, no need to whack us over the head every ten minutes.

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Batou’s laser eye surgery wasn’t what he was expecting!

On the plus side the cast is good. Johansson imbues the role with a curiously appropriate physicality that takes a little getting used to, but Major isn’t remotely Black Widow. Asbæk makes a great foil for her, and their partnership is one of the best things about the film, and whilst he doesn’t do a whole lot, Beat Takeshi has an iconic cool about him, as if Dirty Harry got old and became the police chief.

Oh yes, and the film looks gorgeous. The cityscapes are magnificent and the costume and character designs are exceptional (you can see where the time and money went, and it wasn’t on the script) but even here the film is flawed. The city never feels real, it certainly doesn’t have that lived-in look that LA had in Blade Runner, and for a sprawling metropolis I kept wondering where all the people were? No street scene seems to have more than a handful of extras and the roads seem surprisingly clear. You could say the same about Blade Runner but at least there’s a reason for that, in that most people have buggered off off-world.

In the end this film is well named, because it’s a beautiful shell that, sadly, only contains the ghost of anything interesting.

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“What did you just say? How very dare you!”

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Comments
  1. Redhead says:

    I saw one of the anime movies years and years ago. I don’t remember much, except being rather bored. When ads for this movie came out, I thought to myself “people who were really into the anime/manga might go see it, I can’t imagine anyone else will care about it”. regarding ScarJo, I’ve really liked her in some movies I’ve seen her in, in others she’s just blah and wooden.

    • starkers70 says:

      I’ve never been a huge Anime fan, but I am now tempted to take a look at some of the original GITS. Even though I’m a fan I know what you mean about ScarJo. I think too often she’s cast in these cold emotionless robot/alien parts. She does it very well but I do believe she has more range.

  2. Kibbin says:

    As someone who has seen the original and a few of the follow ups a long time ago I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. The original is a cyberpunk story about what it means to be human and alive, this is a paint by numbers Hollywood stab at starting some big budget series in the vein of super hero movies. This does a lot less questioning than the original does and that was form the nineties.

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