By Keith Uhlich
Ghost in the Shell
Dir. Rupert Sanders, U.S., Paramount/DreamWorks
[This review contains spoilers.]
The ghost is the (eternal) soul; the shell the (tenuous) body it inhabits. That's all you really need to know about any filmed iteration of Masamune Shirow’s popular cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell—serialized between 1989 and 1997, and eventually published in three volumes—which have tended to favor sleek visual stimuli over comprehensibly expressed ideas. The evocative title, inspired, in part, by Arthur Koestler's 1967 tome The Ghost in the Machine, which itself was referencing a phrase coined in 1949 by philosopher Gilbert Ryle, is the deepest thing about the many, primarily animated movies and TV series spawned from Masamune's work. Most everything else about them is gorgeous, yet obscure.
An incoherent text can offer profound pleasures, of course, and getting lost in the onscreen density of the world of Ghost in the Shell is the prime enjoyment. Writer-director Mamoru Oshii's iconic 1995 anime adaptation (a major inspiration for the Wachowski sisters and their then-nascent Matrix trilogy) and his thrillingly opaque, deeply personal 2004 sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence—which name-drops Buddha, Descartes, Richard Dawkins, and French symbolist writer Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, among others, and features an ultra-violent battle involving acrobatic gynoid sex robots—remain the series' gold standards. But the first live-action take on the material, a big-budget Western production from Paramount and DreamWorks, is a worthy addition to the canon (like a very special episode of the television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), if still exceedingly dubious in a number of its particulars.
The major issue first: right from the initial casting announcements, controversy swirled around the hiring of Scarlett Johansson as Major, Ghost in the Shell's existentially inclined, cybernetically enhanced protagonist, who works for the near-future counterterrorism agency Section 9. In all other versions of Ghost she is Major Motoko Kusanagi. So what was this quite Caucasian actress doing playing a Japanese character? The Twittersphere and click-trolling pundrity screamed "whitewashing!", spotlighting a very real problem; though, as per usual in our going-off-half-cocked society, their arguments would be better dealt with by first seeing the movie. Nevertheless, it's doubtful that the workaround to this issue concocted by director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and credited screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger will do much to alleviate all the pre-release concerns.
Basically, this Major is the "ghost" of a Japanese girl—an anti-government rabble-rouser also named Motoko Kusanagi (Kaori Yamamoto)—implanted in the lily-white "shell" that is ScarJo. It's a clever conceit, very much attuned to Johannson's history as the go-to female übermensch in films like Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy, and very knowing in its acknowledgment of this Ghost as a reappropriated work of art, one culture somewhat forcefully consuming another. A key line of dialogue, repeated throughout, has Major saying "I give my consent" to anyone who wants to tinker with her cyborg body. Though as she later discovers, this is an intentional illusion of control meant to keep her docile and unquestioning—an embodiment, of sorts, of the conundrums facing an audience inundated with disposable mass appeal products. (And, perhaps, mass controversy? All publicity being good publicity and all.)
Despite their knowingness around these issues, the moviemakers do not seem to be actively analyzing them. It doesn't help that the body-swapping twist, one of the central mysteries of the remake, is glaringly obvious from the first moment Major experiences a glitchy vision of a Japanese pagoda, a virtual remnant of the life that was stolen from her by the diabolical Hanka Robotics corporation, which is out to create the perfect bionic organism. Yet it's not like the other Ghost in the Shell stories had especially elegant storytelling, or much of a lucid worldview. They're more repositories for amorphous anxieties brought on by the Internet age. Can humanity survive the ever-evolving technical onslaught? Or will the machines replace us, becoming our new masters at best, our annihilators at worst? There's a heady, obsessive quality to the way both Masamune and Oshii approach these questions, the former with his copious footnotes and whiplash shifts in tone, the latter with his surrealist moodiness and unapologetic inscrutability. And both with an aesthetic—especially when it comes to the portrayal of the quixotic melting pot that is New Port City, the tale's primary setting—beyond compare.
By contrast, Sanders only has the visuals. He's of the Joseph Kosinski school of artists who prize design above all else (this Ghost would fit nicely on a double bill with Kosinski's own hollow yet still captivating reimagining of a popular sci-fi property, Tron: Legacy). The images can't help but feel derivative of both Masamune and Oshii's efforts, to say nothing of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, from which Sanders cribs and slightly reworks his most eye-catching conceit—skyscraper-tall virtual advertisements that move in, around, and above New Port City like pixellated kaiju, hawking everything from soft drinks to sneakers. But that doesn't dilute the frequent joys of cinematographer Jess Hall's compositions, which come off like in-motion comic panels that you'd like to press-and-pull from the screen with Silly Putty.
Those childish pleasures extend to the old pros in the ensemble, namely Juliette Binoche as Major's creator, Dr. Ouelet (lending the same sort of resonant pathos that she brought to Gareth Edwards's American redo of Godzilla), and the incomparable 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano as Major's terse Section 9 superior Aramaki. Kitano's presence is especially welcome: he speaks in his native Japanese, apparently a contractual demand on his part, though one that bears some knotty and poignant thematic fruit (his English-speaking counterparts understand his every word, no hesitation) and allows Sanders to have some architectural fun with the subtitles, plastering them in every corner of the screen.
ScarJo may be the star (and she's pretty perfect in this context), but Kitano is treated like royalty, getting an action scene all to himself and a primo kiss-off line ("Don't send a rabbit…to kill a fox"). The rest of the characters, almost all of them from the manga and its offshoots, feel like sops to fans by comparison, the most well-rounded being Major's devoted hulk of a partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), the flimsiest the A.I.-averse cop Togusa (Chin Han), who really should be more of a Luddite foil to Major. The shallowness extends to the main villains: corporate shill Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) is a one-note embodiment of moneyed evil, mainly here to seethingly pilot the "spider tank" that figures in the climax of the 1995 Ghost. And as Kuze, the cyberterrorist who quite literally gets under Major's skin, Michael Pitt (monikered here as Michael Carmen Pitt) slinks around the noirish edges of the frame like a steroidal (and androidal) Marlon Brando, which isn't as fun as it sounds—he's more Method than he is madness.
One scene in particular points to both the intended provocations and the cowardly evasions of this Ghost in the Shell, a seductive encounter between Major and an apparently human prostitute played by the stunning Ghanaian-British model Adwoa Aboah. The tensions here are very potent—the Sapphic charge between the actresses, the way Sanders shoots the sequence as if it were a fashion spread, again playing with those levels of self-awareness with which the remake, at its best, attempts to engage. But just at the point when the scene appears to be going somewhere (say, Major using machine-on-man intimacy as a way of engaging with the fleshly spirit that lies dormant inside her), the film cuts away and never refers to the encounter, or the emotions underlying it, again. For all its surface delights this is, sad to say, the film's overarching objective: to deny complexity in favor of spectacle. (Not to mention, maintain that PG-13 at all costs.) The thorny intricacies of Masamune and Oshii's Ghosts are, finally, lost in translation.