Ghost in the Shell – An Exhilarating Sci-Fi Romp That May Ruffle Purist’s Feathers

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures

Ghost in the Shell Plot Summary:

In a future where synthetic humanoids are used for government programs and policing, Scarlett Johansson plays Major Mira Killian, a woman whose brain has been placed into a cyborg by Hanka Robotics to be transformed into the ultimate super soldier. After a cyber terrorist’s plot to murder members of Hanka is uncovered, Major investigates and descends down a dark, psychological rabbit hole that leads to discoveries about her own past.

Ghost in the Shell is based on a Japanese manga by Masamune Shirow — though obviously more comparisons will be made to the 1995 anime adaption directed by Mamoru Oshii. To say this is probably the best live-action adaption of an anime or manga isn’t exactly holding it to the highest of standards. However, for all intents and purposes, probably this is the best film of it’s kind, at least as far as American adaptations are concerned, anyway.

The film manages to improve on all the things the anime did that made it…well, frustrating.

With all due respect to Mamoru Oshii, his film was ambitious, but it jammed its themes of evolution and technology down the viewer’s throat to point of exhaustion. Drawn out scenes of characters philosophizing about what the film is trying to tell it’s audience drone on and on. This version understands that subtext and commentary are most effective when hidden just below the surface. It believes its themes and its stories to be of equal importance, but presents them both differently. It doesn’t continuously insist upon it’s own greatness in the way the anime did, which made it completely annoying and overbearing.

The film does owe a good amount to the anime, though – don’t be mistaken. Its overall visual style is taken straight from the frames of the original, and there’s even a number of recreations of the some of the anime’s most iconic shots. The colorful, vibrant cinematography by Jess Hall and the CGI work are both excellent, and they blend together seamlessly helping to create some of the best sci-fi world building I’ve seen in a studio blockbuster in the last couple years.

It’s kind of like wandering around and exploring in a video game — every frame is just filled with so much stuff. Rarely does a moment go by where we don’t look at something in the background and say “Oooh, I wonder what that thing does.” It’s not only a shining example how to make a live-action adaption of a cartoon look like something other than muddy concrete, but also of how a film can have tons upon tons upon tons of computer-generated effects and still work effectively as a believable environment.

Johansson turns in some of her best work as Major Killian — a highly skilled, very able government operative, with a lonely, lost soul (or, in the context of the film, a “ghost”). This isn’t the first time Johansson has played this type of part – many might remember 2014’s sci-fi horror masterpiece Under The Skin. In that film she played a nameless alien programed to be a ruthless predator, but **SPOILERS** by the end of the film had come to terms with what it feels like to be a human being in search of meaning. Similar stuff here, but this time she’s had her humanhood robbed from her by a corporation – the one to which she pledges utmost allegiance.

She’s great at acting with her face — there’s a pivotal moment in which her and Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her right-hand man are having a conversation on a boat. After the revelation has come that she has had her identity stolen from her, he asks her, full of guilt by association, “Do you still trust me?” A simple pause in body movement and subtle furrowing of the brow says heaps more about what a character is thinking than any extended scenes of torpid, mind-numbing philosophical musing ever did.

Also to be praised is Takeshi Kitano, who is an absolute badass as Chief Aramaki, the gun-toting, one-liner spitting, no nonsense-having boss of Hanka’s Section 9 district. Kitano, a legendary actor and director in Japan, and now in his 70s, is the perfect choice for a character who still likes to do business by the books, even when the world around him has advanced far beyond his mindset. Somehow the crazy world in which our story takes place makes what might normally be called an over-the-top, exaggerated performance into a realistic, gritty one.

Juliette Binoche is also great as Dr. Ouelet, the primary engineer of Section 9’s Project 2751, the experiment which spawned Major Killian into existence. It’s not among her greatest performances by any stretch, but after 2014’s Godzilla, it was refreshing to see her present in a blockbuster like this for more than 5 minutes.

The weak link in the cast, unfortunately, is also one of the biggest improvements from the anime. Rather than a sentient entity known only as The Puppet Master, our villain is Kuze. Played Michael Pitt, Kuze is a failed experiment of Hanka’s 2751 now seeking revenge on those involved for ruining his life by turning him into a tortured, broken machine with no identity. It’s an improvement over the anime because instead of a cryptic god-like being with unknown motives, our antagonist is a now a more relatable one, with a hole in his heart where we can put our sympathy. It’s unfortunate because Michael Pitt’s performance simply isn’t very good. The little amount of screen time he has he spends dragging his feet around and drooling his lines out like he doesn’t even know what movie he’s in.

One thing Ghost In The Shell never lets go of, above everything else, is what it’s about underneath. For all it has in rip-roaring sci-fi action and explosive, colorful CGI it also has in what it means to say it’s audience, or rather, what it wants us to think about. Should we be afraid of a future in which all technology can be hacked simply by somebody who’s smarter, perhaps quicker than everyone else (or are we already there)? At what point does an over-reliance on technology result in a loss of character, or better yet, a soul? What does it mean to keep on living if you can never really know where you came from? It has a lot to say, certainly, and I get the feeling this will be one of the movies in which the conversation becomes longer and more complex with repeated viewings.

It’s not a movie for purists, though. Diehard fans of previous Ghost In The Shell properties like the manga and/or the anime will likely be at odds with some of the liberties it takes. But, newcomers will be treated to a flashy, exhilarating sci-fi action romp with brains the same size as its muscles. As for me, I went in low expectations having been supremely disappointed by the anime, and I was joyed to come out of the theater having seen what I believe is the best film of 2017 so far. It’s really just a grab-bag of awesome.