This science fiction movie had controversy saddled to it before its release, all tied up in how authentically or not these filmmakers would treat the Japanese source material. This was especially so given they’d hired several European actors, such as Scarlett Johansson and Juliette Binoche.
The story is set in the future, where human life and artificial life are being tampered with and interwoven increasingly tightly. Humans can talk to each other through their minds. They can put a finger in a small console and transmit feelings and information to another human’s brain. It’s heady stuff, excuse the pun.
The central character is Major Motoko Kusanagi, played by Johansson. She is said to be the first of a new breed, a human mind in an entirely artificial or cybernetic body. The “ghost” of the title is her mind, or soul, in this cybernetic frame, the “shell”. Is she a human or a product? The Hanka Corporation which paid for her creation wants to turn into a weapon. She’s part of a special crime fighting unit, and they are soon despatched to hunt for a criminal who’s killing the Hanka scientists who created her. During all this Motoko is forced to question just how real her memories are of her former life. And this “what it is to be human” question is at the core of the story, as it has been in many science fiction tales before it. I gather this theme is strongly played out in the original Japanese animated movie and graphic novels.
So if you’re a sci-fi buff this all bodes well. But I found the film faltered in its execution. It felt like Ghost in the Shell was trying to be both a serious science fiction movie and an shoot-‘em-up action thriller, and it didn’t quite gel. Certainly the actors for the most part play it like the latter. Johansson, with five outings as the kick-ass Black Widow Natasha Romanov under her belt in Marvel movies, can do action, no problem. The rest of her crime fighting crew have a similar comic bookish flavour, with Danish actor Pilou Asbaek ,as Batou, playing the archetypal hard on the outside but soft underneath sidekick.
The action is well delivered on screen, but it’s probably not a whole lot different from other similar films. Ghost in the Shell does better in bringing to life the idea of how a cybernetic body and mind might work and look, but even this is not that far removed from scenes we saw years ago in The Matrix.
The story develops in a fairly predictable arc, and there aren’t too many surprises with the way Motoko’s motivation changes.
The other issue with the film is its interpretation of its Japanese origins. I found this all rather muddled. Johansson plays a character with a Japanese name, and her hair and make-up are done with what appears to be tilt towards Japanese style. But everyone knows she is not Japanese. But her mother is played by a Japanese woman! Was her father European? Nothing is said about this.
Motoko’s crime fighting squad are an international group, who all speak English. Their boss, Aramaki, is played by Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano. He speaks in Japanese (with subtitles) throughout the film, and is always replied to in English. The setting is an Asian city that I guess is meant to be Japanese but looks like Hong Kong. With its giant three dimensional advertisements projecting from big buildings, and crowded street stall scenes it has a very Bladerunner look about it, albeit in daytime mostly and without the incessant rain that swathed Ridley Scott’s film.
There are also some superb Japanese costumes in the film. Take all this together and it looks a bit of a cultural mish-mash. I guess that’s the way the real world is heading anyway, and that’s all well and good, but for the purposes of this movie it just leaves it with a somewhat confused identity.
Where does this leave us? Ghost in the Shell looks good, and has an impressive design and effects. The actors do a fair job, but its story didn’t feel that fresh, although I concede it started to grab my attention well into the second half of the film. The ending was for me a touch on the lame side. Not a flop, but not great. Somewhere in the middle.