In The Terminator it was an endoskeleton; in Blade Runner it was a genetically engineered replicant; and in Frankenstein it was made of human bits and pieces sewn together. And now, lucky for us, it’s a new, expensive, technically superior body that looks like a super-fit Scarlett Johansson in which the futuristic Frankensteins surgically implant a human brain.
In Ghost in the Shell she’s supposed to be the first of her kind; a brain, taken from a damaged body and placed within a synthetic shell, hence the title, except that she’s not. There were many before her. The difference was, for the corporation that financed the operation, it was the first that actually worked. And in some respects, that can be equated with whole Ghost in the Shell franchise.
Those new to the character who know little of the Japanese Seinen manga series will be unaware of the lengthy history that eventually lead to the making of this new live-action version. Seinen is Japanese for ‘youth,’ but when teamed with manga it’s a description of illustrated novels aimed at men in their 50s (which helps explain this whole, kinky, Japanese cartoon thing of having young, buxom girls in revealing school uniforms, shooting people and kicking butt). For Ghost in the Shell, it began as a serialized manga in 1989, then went on to become several anime productions, beginning with what is considered the original movie, an animated sci-fi feature titled Mobile Armored Riot Police: Ghost in the Shell, reduced to simply Ghost in the Shell outside of Japan, then a TV series, and, naturally, a set of Playstation video games. For the dedicated follower aware of the saga from the beginning, the Rupert Sanders directed live-action feature is hardly the first of its kind; fans consider it a remake.
The setting is the same as the illustrated series. In what looks like a hybrid of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles and a futuristic, neon-dazzled Hong Kong with an overall feel of The Matrix, there’s a task force known as Section 9, a security police intelligence squad whose job is simple: capture criminals, terrorists and, most dangerous of all, computer hackers. Johansson is known as simply The Major, a commander in the force, once an ordinary young woman, rescued from a terrorist attack. The family was killed, but the girl, still alive, was rushed to a hospital where her brain was removed. At least, that’s what they tell her. Her body was said to be so damaged it could never have survived, but with her mind placed within a new, synthetic shell, she could live on, and serve as a counter-cyberterrorist. “There’s always this thick fog over my memories,” she explains. “I can’t see through it.”
In terms of story, the film appears to be considerably streamlined from the complications of the manga series, which may annoy those who’ve been with the character from the beginning and were hoping that a new, live-action movie would supply something more than just dazzling effects. Simplifying things is not what they want, and the end result is admittedly far less engaging, even for those new to the character. But streamlining comes with the territory when the aim is to get more than just a fan base into the theatres.
Visually, however, it’s a stunner; a glittering box of special and visual CGI effects. When the opening image reveals a slow drift through the heavily urbanized, metropolitan city, you might as well be watching the introduction to a computer generated video game, except that here things appear a little more photoreal. Though, surprisingly, the film is not shot widescreen. No doubt, the film will look overwhelmingly massive when presented in IMAX 3D, but that’s a temporary presentation gimmick. For regular theatres, a story where the spectacular visuals are paramount, having them confined within a standard frame instead of a widescreen, letterbox ratio, somehow reduces the spectacle.
In truth, it didn’t work, not for me. The continuous action is so spectacularly busy from the beginning, there are a rarely any lows to make the highs feel special; it’s a machine that just keeps firing. As a consequence, without that engagement, there’s not a moment that ever feels like a nail-biter; once again, it’s all just noisy stuff happening.
As for the issue of the casting criticism that has overshadowed the film’s production, the accusation of whitewashing is missing the point. Casting Johansson with an attempt to make her appear somewhat Asian is moot. The critical fanbase who want to see their beloved character appear exactly as she does in the manga illustrations would happen only if there was currently a female superstar of Asian origin known around the world in almost every home, and a box-office draw, but there isn’t. At least, not yet. If there was, Hollywood would cast her.
Never forget, Hollywood is an industry. It wants a return on its investment, just as you would if you were investing your fortune in something that comes with a huge, high-risk loss factor. In order to maximize both domestic and international markets, a marquee value name is required, and Johansson is definitely an A-lister. Hollywood has no interest in purposely whitewashing anything, and despite its other attacks from certain quarters stating its serves only a liberal base, the observations are wrong. Hollywood is apolitical; it’s a factory with a product to sell, and it has only one aim – to make a profit. Its risk remains with the stories it tells – story-telling is never predictable – but it knows how to cast and who audiences will pay to see. Scarlett Johansson is certainly good at this. She’s a fine, talented actor with a background not only in film but also theatre who has managed to incorporate an unexpected side career as an action heroine. Her Black Widow was well received, and she was terrific as the deadly Lucy in the 2014 film of the same name. As The Major, even though the film itself feels like a ghost rattling around inside an empty shell, her reputation for action is solidified. Even those 50 year-old Seinen manga males should be happy.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 Minutes Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)