It’s the future and we’re all cybernetically enhanced human beings. Whether it’s a replacement limb, better eyesight, or even neural access to the Internet, everyone’s jacked in and everyone’s just a bit anxious about how far humanity can go. At what point does an enhanced human become a robot, not human at all? For Ghost in the Shell lead character Major (Scarlett Johansson), this is a highly personal question as she learns that her brain was all that was salvaged from a tragic terrorist attack and that it’s embedded in a completely humanoid robot. Is she then still human?
The original Japanese manga story is set against a backdrop of pre-Millennium cynicism towards corporations and the government and was brilliantly adapted to the big screen in the gritty, violent 1995 animated feature. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell become one of the best examples of sci-fi thrillers from that era and is widely regarded as one of the best cyber-punk films. Certainly, it was an inspiration for films like the existential The Matrix, Robocop and similar films addressing whether there’s any humanity left in a human/cyborg melding.
The story operates on many levels, exploring who controls whom and who has free will – and whether free will (or the perception of free will) denotes a level of humanity or not. Major (Johansson) and her increasingly cyber-enhanced partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) are cops who work for Section 9, the anti-terrorist division of a futuristic Japan. After a series of attacks that seem to hide neural hijackings, they identify their enemy: The Puppet Master (Michael Pitt). Somehow he’s able to get into people’s neural implants and control them from afar.
But of course the entire subtext is the existential question of existence itself: Can The Puppet Master control Major when she’s already becoming increasingly skeptical of “her” memories and thoughts? Or is she already a puppet of Hanka Robotics and the scientists — notably Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) — who created her? There’s a fantastic scene in the film Blade Runner, a film that also wrestles with this very same question: replicant Rachael looks at photos from her childhood and remembers the scene portrayed. Or does she? Was it her childhood? Was she ever a child?
And so we get to the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. Bad news first: it’s a brilliant movie that’s so dazzled by its computer graphics and visual effects that the entire storyline of identity is almost lost in the shuffle. Powered by a non-stop parade of dark rooms and half-illuminated fight scenes, we never really get to see Major stare in the mirror and wonder what she sees, ask Dr. Ouelet about her childhood, or even banter with partner Batou about her past. If she had one. As the film proceeds, it becomes more about the overt story and less and less about subtext, and that’s really too bad.
The visual elements of the film are nonetheless extraordinary and clearly demonstrate a truism in modern Hollywood: if you can dream it, you can put it on the big screen. From an always wet, neon-infused urban landscape with tenement-like apartment complexes and 15-story tall holographic advertisements to a multi-level roadway complete with holographic signage, it’s what we’ll see when the sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, comes out later this summer.
Johansson is perfectly fine as Major, playing a not-quite-human character in exactly the same way she did in The Island, Under the Skin and Lucy. She’s beautiful and knows her karate kicks, delivering satisfying fight scenes (as she also does in the Avengers series). Asbaek was a more likable, more human character as his partner in crimefighting for Section 9, but for a film that is ostensibly about our humanity versus our appearance and actions, there’s surprisingly little heart in Ghost in the Shell.
When the secret of both Major’s and The Puppet Master / Kuze’s identities are revealed, it feels almost inevitable, a logical consequence of the jaded cynicism towards corporations as embodied by Hanka. And that’s too bad, because in the original story, Major’s original identity provides a real wallop to the reader, a “What the…??” moment that casts the nuances of the preceding story in a different light.
If a film can be reviewed based on its production, then Ghost in the Shell is undoubtedly a splendid live-action update to a beloved anime film. There’s much to be amazed at even if many of the scenes are cribbed from earlier sci-fi thrillers (including the recent remake of Total Recall that also seems to have been a significant inspiration for director Rupert Sanders. But Ghost in the Shell could have been quite a bit more, an existential exploration of what it means to be human in an era when we’re all wondering this very question…