Ghost in the Shell
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbaek & Michael Carmen Pitt
Directed by Rupert Sanders
In theaters March 31, 2017
News flash: The robots are coming!
Well, they’re already here. Actually, they’ve been here for a long time—at least in the movies, where they date back more than 100 years. But they always come back again and again, especially as special effects improve—and Hollywood recycles ideas.
The big “news” about Ghost in the Shell, though, is that it’s the long-awaited live-action remake—recycle—of a groundbreaking, classic 1995 Japanese animated film, or anime, of the same name. The original Ghost in the Shell, based on a series of popular Japanese “manga” comics, spawned a television series, several video spinoffs and a 2004 sequel that became the first animated film ever to compete for the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
But very few mainstream, shopping-mall moviegoers in America saw the original Ghost in the Shell.
That likely won’t be the case with the new Ghost, with Scarlett Johansson starring as Major, a sexy, futuristic fembot who’s basically a human brain with cyber body parts. She’s been salvaged from a horrific incident and recommissioned by a robotics corporation in cahoots with the government and the military.
New Port City, the punk-goth future world in which the movie is set, has all sorts of people walking around with all sorts of no-big-deal cyber enhancements. But ScarJo the ro-bo is touted as the first of her kind, a successfully transplanted human brain inside a 100 percent robotic casing—her “ghost” identity in a humanoid, high-tech, super-duper “shell” of hydraulics, wires, circuitry, gridwork and tubing.
Her motherly surgeon (French actress Juliette Binoche) is thrilled, but the head of the robotics program (Peter Ferdinando) is a bit more pragmatic and bottom-line: “She’s a weapon, and the future of my company.”
So Major is assigned to a team of cyber-warfare operatives (including Danish rising star Pilou Asbaek, who plays Eruon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones), and you can guess what happens next—a lot of run, run, bang, bang, boom, boom. Major’s mission is a bit murky—there’s someone out there named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) who’s got to be stopped before he…oh, whatever.
But man, everything sure does look amazing.
Some of the sequences are eye-popping, even gorgeous—like the geisha robot assassin that turns into a wall-crawling “spider,” and the stunning backgrounds that seem almost alive. New Port City is a spectacular, sky-high, computer-animated neon playground teeming with gargantuan, 3-D holograms of people, fish and bubbles—it looks like Manhattan, Tokyo and Las Vegas all went out, got drunk, dreamed of being at the bottom of a big aquarium and woke up inside a videogame arcade.
The movie brings up issues of consciousness, artificial intelligence, memory, mutations and just how far corporations (or governments) could, should or would go into the lives of people who can’t stop them. If it seems kind of familiar, it’s because we’ve been there before in Blade Runner, The Matrix, Robocop, Ex Machina, A.I. and Minority Report. Remember TV’s The Six Billion Dollar Man? And more recently, even HBO’s Westworld beat this remake, and a lot of its ideas, to the draw.
Johansson—or her voice—played a disembodied computer operating system in Her (2013). In the haunting art-film Under the Skin (2013) she portrayed a space-alien succubus stalking Scotland for men to kill. She was a super-powered warrior, juiced up by an accidental overdose of drugs, in Lucy (2014). In Marvel’s Avengers franchise, her character of the Black Widow has a backstory that includes biotechnological and psycho-technological enhancement.
So she’s got some experience with characters who are modified, amplified, not all here or not all there. She’s suitably “blank” and super-charged as Major, haunted by blips and glitches of memories from her mostly erased past. But I suspect most fanboys who flock to Ghost will be far more interested in her shell—the slinky-dinky, sculpted, almost nude-looking bodysuit that passes for fashionable female cyber-wear in New Port City.
Ghost in the Shell gets in some nice, more subtle touches, however. In a movie full of far-out sights and explosive action, a quiet, subdued scene when Major goes to the apartment of a grieving mother is filled with understated sorrow—and loaded with deeper clues. Veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano gets a laugh when he scolds a would-be attacker, “Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.” A scene where Major gently engages a prostitute just to remember the feel of human flesh is heartbreaking—and makes you wonder what was perhaps cut for the movie to get a PG-13 rating.
But overall, this Ghost seems a bit late in the game—after all, it’s a movie based on a movie based on a comic book that came out more than 25 years ago. It’s got a shiny, great-looking shell, to be sure, but the ghost inside isn’t really anything new.
Sorry, ScarJo—cool bodysuit, though.