Ghost in the Shell

ghost in the shell

Ghost in the Shell is a live action remake of the 1995 manga cult classic, directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.

The story takes place in Tokyo in the not too distant future where technology has advanced to the point in which human bodies can be cybernetically enhanced with robotic augments. At the start of the movie we witness the creation of Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first human brain to be successfully transplanted into a robotic body – the ghost in the shell of the movie’s title. Major is essentially robocop – becoming a special agent working for the government tending to cases involving corporate espionage and Tokyo’s seedy crime ridden underworld. In this case the story involves Major tracking down a terrorist entity working from the shadows who is able to hack into the minds of other people. The closer she gets to the puppet master the further the line between human and machine are blurred, the further she questions her own past and genesis.

The ‘problem with the AI conscious’ has been a popular conceit of science fiction. The original Ghost in the Shell is a huge landmark in this sub genre. When the Wachowski’s were making The Matrix, they considered the manga to be essential viewing for all it’s cast members to help visualise the philosophy and its cyberpunk aesthetic they were going for. Obviously, science fiction has moved on to explore this subject in new and interesting ways, from the Matrix to Ex Machina. As the world gets increasingly automated, with drone warfare and discussions of robot tax being integrated in all future automated activity, as robots slowly makes the jobs of humans redundant. The questions posed by the genre only grow bigger and will one day be no longer the subject of science fiction.

As with the recent remake of Beauty and the Beast, Ghost in the Shell feels like a retread of the original animated classic but it can’t quite replicate the genius of that story nor the way it was originally told. The main difference is that the animation focused on more on what Major was becoming, whilst the live action goes back to question her past, which feels like the safe option of a story we’ve heard before (Robocop for example). It doesn’t really invent anything new, it doesn’t offer up anything more interesting to what was in the original story either.

Watching the latest version of Ghost in the Shell kept reminding me of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchman which also went to great lengths to replicate the imagery from the panels of the graphic novel but not really doing anything to truly make it more than an cinematic motion comic. Yet at the same time, Ghost in the Shell is amazing to look at, especially in it’s depiction of a cyberpunk future Tokyo.

Scarlett Johansson has been something of a sex symbol throughout her career. Yet after Under the Skin and to a lesser extent her involvement in the Avengers movies, Johansson seems to have picked roles of characters who feel alien within their own bodies, and are therefore are slightly asexual. With Ghost in the Shell, there are more than enough similarities with Under the Skin, Major is largely emotionless, very much defined by her physical appearance and her internal technological pieces that allow her to hack into other people and interfaces. Major has this weird way of walking, as if top heavy – it feels deliberately stilted and I was never sure if it completely worked.

Since the start of production, there has been controversy surrounding Johansson’s casting within this classic Japanese story. The role of major being given to this Hollywood actress rather than a Japanese actress. I think partly there is an interesting idea behind it, that Major’s body and appearence is manufactured to look a certain way. It’s interesting that the Japanese government may pick the look of a more Western female to be a part of their law enforcement brigade, but it’s never really built on in a meaningful way.

There are things that I really liked about Ghost in the Shell. Most notably the visuals and some of the set pieces, though most are lifted straight out of the animation. It did fall flat to me, as it tends to be very exposition heavy, and you’ve seen this story being told before, even outside of the original source material. It deals with cyborgs and feels very machine like in it’s progression.

All shell and no ghost. Ghost in the Shell looks stunning in it’s depiction of a Bladerunner-esque cyber punk world but it can’t help but feel hollow and overly robotic in it’s classic story of man vs machine. The territory it tackles is pure Robocop, but I wouldn’t even rate it higher than the 2014 Robocop remake. This might sound outlandish, but I believe that movie more effectively dealt with the idea of a man becoming a machine, even whilst it took a great piss over the genius of the 80s original. 

I do not give my consent then.  But hey, there’s never been a better time to check out the original animation.  

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