It’s been almost three decades since the introduction of GHOST IN THE SHELL – and a lot has changed since then. When the Manga was released in 1989, our zeitgeist was struggling with its attempt to find humanity in a burgeoning corporate, technology-driven landscape. It became a sensation, spawning a hugely popular Japanese anime feature of the same name in 1995. Mamoru Oshii’s classic was high on atmospheric visuals, indelible characters and existential angst about finding identity – specifically the female identity. In retrospect, however, it’s also problematic as it’s laden with expository speech dumps, a partially confusing narrative and cultural (yes, regressive) stereotypes. Essentially there’s a lot to fix there if anyone were to hit the reboot button. And sure enough, someone did. Director Rupert Sanders’ live-action iteration solves some of the problems of the anime, but creates a few new sticky situations of its own. This perfectly entertaining, engaging, modern interpretation is almost as smooth and sleek as the curves on star ScarJo’s Kurt and Bart thermodynamic bodysuit. Almost.
Our heroine (played by butts-in-the-seats casting choice Scarlett Johansson) is known as a different entity to different people, though she has no idea who she really is. She’s a cybernetically-enhanced creation – part of “Project 2571,” which entails a human brain housed inside a robotic, human-looking frame. Essentially the human soul is the “ghost” in the robotic “shell.” To Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), she’s “Mira,” the humanized creation/ substitute daughter the kindly doctor never had. To Hanka Robotics’ Mr. Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), she’s a corporate automaton, one that potentially could be weaponized. To her boss Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, who steals every scene he’s in), she’s “Major,” a daredevil elite agent of New Port City’s Section 9 cyber-crime unit. And to us, the audience, she’s our capable, intelligent, bad-ass avatar on the road towards self-discovery. When a threat befalls a few of the doctors Hanka employs, Major and her doggo-loving partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk, a.k.a. the Danish Joshua Jackson) are tasked to take down vengeful, murderous hacker Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who’s staunchly anti-Hanka Robotics.
Perhaps the biggest “ghost” haunting the picture is the controversy over the lead’s race. Yes, it would’ve been awesome to see a studio make a ballsy, committed choice by making a star out of an under-appreciated Asian actress. Sure, its mentality reminds me of this speech from CHASING AMY about Darth Vader’s pallid palette. But studio execs are about their bottom line, which means putting a proven entity in the lead role to get butts in the seats. That said, the dollar-driven studio cop-out (otherwise known as “whitewashing”) isn’t what’s most concerning to me. It’s the permeating male-gaze-exploitation of Johansson’s body. Sanders’ restraint seems to be in that he didn’t put nipples on her skin-tight, polyprene-like bodysuit. The camera glides over her body on more than one occasion, revealing skin-like texture, hoping to evoke a cheap visceral sensation. While I’m very aware the Manga and the anime are like this too, it’s modern times and some sensitivity is needed. This is a modernization after all. Then again, Johannson seems totally in command, so I must respect her decision.
Sanders’ film does improve on the original in numerous ways, while also paying respectful homage by utilizing its iconography. Neon, projected billboards (a la BLADE RUNNER in obvious design influence) fill these characters’ literal worldviews, pressing down on and even walking alongside them. Fan service isn’t overbearing, but enough to bring joy, whether it’s in Sanders’ framing and staging, recalling Oshii’s breathtaking, groundbreaking visuals, or in his use of a character (like Batou’s basset hound, Gabriel). Though it’s tangibly missing the ethereal, atmospheric sense of the city (like this montage in particular), we do get a strong sense of its seedy underbelly though the blue-gray hues of Jess Hall’s cinematography. The auteur’s representation of being in Major’s shoes is interesting. From her getting hacked whilst inside a decimated, compromised geisha robot, or reliving a flashback from inside her brain that clues her into her true identity, we get a sense of the emotional drive. Nevertheless, despite these strong visuals, the narrative’s third act devolves into a much more generic and predictable storyline.
Some of the scenarios have been altered, but their thematic sentiments remain – maybe far too subtly. Though I would’ve preferred a richer, more philosophical deep dive into Major’s neuroses and existential angst, I’m just happy what’s there wasn’t overly verbose. It’s there, but the filmmakers sort of shrug off any profundity to potentially be had – least of all one about racial identity. Then again, I probably shouldn’t expect UNDER THE SKIN-levels of examination of the female psyche out of a mass-marketed studio tentpole – and neither should you. There are heady concepts about the soul and memory, but those fascinating topics get reduced to trite Americanized platitudes like, “It’s not your memory that defines you. It’s what you do that defines you.” As it stands, the film comes across as a white woman woke allegory that’s only half-awake.
3 out of 5
GHOST IN THE SHELL opens on March 31.