Movie Review: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

*Now showing in cinemas worldwide.

My heart leaps in excitement when I see futuristic vistas that know no bounds: Images of skyscrapers pierce the sky, holographs permeate each corner, flying cars whizzing by, with our hero or heroine walking the rainy, foggy, mean streets, all as a synthesized techno-score hums moodily in the background. I cave into things like this: if they can’t get the story and themes right, they must at least get the look, tone and consistency of the film throughout right.

This is the essence of the cyberpunk genre, a place where science fiction melds seamlessly with noirish elements. The genre has seen a bit of a lull in recent years, with the only notable exception being the underrated minimalist actioner Dredd back in 2012. Now, with the Blade Runner sequel and Duncan Jones’s Mute creeping around the corner very soon, Rupert Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell brings back the genre to Hollywood in full force.

This film underlines the words ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ and the hyphen in between. It is a visually stunning experience in IMAX 3D, and it’s clear Sanders is substantially gifted in his visuals than he is with his characters. The English-language film adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s manga and Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film of the same name is a thematically shallow affair that goes nowhere near as seminal as its source materials, though Sanders and his writers do not short change the audience with this adaptation, perhaps the best Hollywood version of a Japanese manga/anime. From what I’ve seen, this is hugely respectable towards its origins, with both director and crew lovingly retaining their themes of humanity and technology merging at a price, albeit on Hollywood’s fast-food level of intelligence. Still, give it credit for not going full-on Transformers. There’s even shot-by-shot reenactments of key scenes from the anime sprinkled throughout for good measure.

Ghost… is grounded by Scarlett Johansson’s tough demeanour as The Major, whose casting is getting more controversy than her actual performance, which is sufficient and non-offensive. Many Western critics have taken issue with her casting in a role that has Japanese origins in the manga/anime, where Major Motoko Kusanagi herself looks and feels a lot more foreign and alien then most Japanese people around her. Casting Johannson was not only a box-office guarantee – it is also an inspired choice that adds to further alienate the character from humanity. There are a bevy of diverse supporting characters, such as the Major’s closest companion Batou (Pilou Asbaek), her taciturn superior (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, who I can watch reading the phone book and still be entertained), and the mysterious Kuze (Michael Pitt), whose hacking-style murders of humans integrated with technology fuels the film’s crux.

A late-act plot reveal diverts the film’s arc from its original murder-mystery-cum-what-is-humanity plotline and explores the Major’s past. It is a bold strategy that will certainly offend a lot of viewers, but it adds to the character’s humanism and gives double meaning to the terms “Ghost” and “Shell”. Sanders and Johannson handle this change with ease while never allowing the film to stray away from its tech noir roots, though I admit the film loses a lot more intellect once this plot twist is revealed.

Nevertheless, in a season full of bland Hollywood CGI candy, here’s a true sci-fi film that provides a lot of thought provoking eye candy, tailor-made to be savoured on the IMAX screen, no less. Would it tick off a lot of politically correct viewers? Perhaps. But take the supposedly offensive context out, and the message of identity and consent is lost, and all that’s left is the shell.

[★★★½] out of [★★★★★]

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