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Film review | Ghost in the Shell: More shell than ghost, but that’s alright

Ghost in the Shell has made its arguably inevitable leap to the live action big screen experience • 3/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
11 April 2017, 7:36am
Scarlett Johnasson is part human, part robot in this entertaining but wholly Americanised take on the classic cyberpunk anime
Scarlett Johnasson is part human, part robot in this entertaining but wholly Americanised take on the classic cyberpunk anime
Based on a Japanese manga of the same name which subsequently spawned a multimedia franchise – the most notable of which is the full-length 1995 anime directed by Mamoru Oshii – Ghost in the Shell has made its arguably inevitable leap to the live action big screen experience, with an American-friendly slice of cyberpunk eye candy from Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. 

Much to the chagrin of all those who believe Asian actors deserve a level playing field in the contemporary mainstream cinema landscape, its star – Scarlett Johnasson – is also very much an American-friendly face. 

But this potpourri of international flavours may just be what makes this flawed but visually stunning re-tread of the ‘man vs machine’ trope a more than worthwhile pre-summer blockbuster.

In the near future, Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is said to be the first of her kind: a human who is cyber-enhanced to be a foolproof anti-terrorist killing machine – as commissioned by the head of the Hanka Corporation, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and midwifed by the scientist Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). When a new cyber-terrorist threat appears on the scene, Major is determined to stop it against all odds. But the deeper she delves into the machinations of the shadowy figure who manipulates the ubiquitous cybernetically-enhanced individuals to its will, the more she starts to question the narrative about her past that’s been fed to her. And when the ‘glitches’ that supposedly reveal her true memories begin to intensify, she begins to question whether she’s on the right side of this battle at all.

Where the original anime is often held up as an exemplary piece of pop art – boasting shoot ‘em ups against dazzling dystopian backdrops while offering up plenty of cheesecake eye candy, as well as being a somewhat philosophical look at how humanity could be sidelined by the rise of Artificial Intelligence – Sanders’ film, penned by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, takes a far safer and more Hollywood route with its storytelling. 

Geisha-bot: Ghost in the Shell presents a deliciously designed world
Geisha-bot: Ghost in the Shell presents a deliciously designed world
Much like The Matrix was back in the day, this less an edgy work of politically engaged and philosophically engaging cyberpunk, and more of a traditional (read: Hollywood-friendly) ‘hero’s journey’ narrative with a cyberpunk gloss. The cues here are closer to Western sci-fi touchstones like Frankenstein (Major’s relationship to Dr Ouelet in particular) and Robocop (with an evil corporation as the key source of our heroes’ woes) than the more nuanced representation of mankind’s relationship with technology that is suggested by the source franchise.

And that’s okay. Sanders ensures Major becomes a heroine we can root for, with an arc we can recognise and a humanity we can latch on to. And boy, does the world she inhabits look pretty. Skylines with holograms that pop out, and an endless supply of detailed visual delight fills every frame in a multicolured, trippy frenzy that just about justifies the price of admission. 

Unsurprisingly, the casting of Johnasson as the cybernetic leading lady here more than raised a few eyebrows – it stirred up an intense (and arguably, much-needed) debate about race representation in Hollywood; specifically – even if the manga and anime versions of the Major character were not coded as Asian per se, it would have been nice for an Asian actress to step into the leading role of a project that is so deeply marinated in a Japanese milieu. 

But the fact remains that, sadly, Asian actresses with the power to draw in wide audiences in English-speaking films lie few and far between these days, and a high-budget feature like Ghost in the Shell requires true star power – i.e., Scarlett Johnasson-grade star power – to stay afloat in an increasingly risk-averse industry. 

Luckily, however, Johansson is not just big enough a star to attract audiences… she’s also becoming something of a veteran when it comes to playing non-humans. Having taken on the voiceover of another AI presence in Spike Jonze’s Her (2014) and a man-eating alien in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2015) – a role that perhaps cleaves even closer to Ghost in the Shell’s neo-Frankenstein narrative – Johansson has mastered a controlled, glazed look and vocal pitch that fits the role of Major like a glove.

While hardcore fans of the source material may be slightly miffed at Rupert Sanders’ cavalier and wholly ‘Americanised’ take on this landmark piece of cyberpunk narrative, in and of itself the live action adaptation makes for a fun evening at the movies – with a generic narrative engine that putts along unremarkably but unobtrusively, allowing you enjoy the balletic action and stunning visuals without worrying about the story all that much.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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