Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Dir.: Rupert Sanders
The science fiction genre owes a tremendous debt to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Ever since Blade Runner–the film based upon the novel in question–was released into theaters, there has been a basic template for cinematic, urban sci-fi that many films have followed and attempted to emulate. The film was an influential cult classic that, while it did not receive the critical acclaim upon release that it has grown to acquire in recent years, it influenced a growing generation of artists. One such artist, Masamune Shirow, took notice of the film, and created a manga which highly borrowed from Dick’s source material. Ghost in the Shell was a huge hit in Japan and a cult phenomenon abroad, so it was inevitable that there would eventually be a live film adaptation to bring the franchise full circle. With an international cast, beautiful CGI and well-executed cinematography, the film adaptation does a mostly effective job at combining the source material’s narrative with the iconic visuals and an ominous, restrained score.
Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a young woman whose body is destroyed, but whose brain–and soul, or ghost–survives, and is implanted into a completely cybernetic body. The film’s main conflict lies in the question of Major’s humanity, and whether mankind, with its newly invented cybernetic implants, qualify as being more human or more machine. Taken straight from Dick’s book, the theme of the loss of humanity in the face of technology is explored through several different characters, the most of which are vibrant and complex.
Most are vibrant and complex. This is one of the main complaints I have about the narrative in general: the Hanka corporation characters are severely underdeveloped compared to the Section 9 characters. Related to this, the third act displays a highly generic set-piece climax. The slow pace that the film perpetuates does well to build the characters, but since the focus is on Section 9’s agents, the Hanka corporation’s motivations are kept singularly, boringly evil. While Major and company are able to justify their operations with logic and cause-effect repercussions, the villains of the story remain obstinantly ill-defined and uninteresting. It’s a shame considering how charismatic and well-casted the Section 9 crew are, as they all have decent chemistry and they all put in decent to good performances.
This film’s acting was one characteristic that I had low expectations for, and I came away pleasantly surprised. Johansson and Michael Pitt steal the show as their respective cybernetic characters. They both combined the restrained performances necessary to accentuate their machina, with the former providing an action role much more nuanced and focused than that of films like Lucy. The supporting cast each provide flavorful nuances to their characters, with the exception of the Hanka CEO; then again, this lack of strong individualism could be attributed more to the writing and to the source material than to the actors' ability. The villainous characters never reach the ambiguous highs of its literary influences, but Pitt’s performance does carry some of the more important thematic reveals. Still, this story is Major’s show. Perhaps the character development was more well placed in the anime and manga, but in this film, it is at its strongest when it is centered on Johansson’s performance. While I never felt like the film tried too hard to provide sheer unabashed fan service, I did feel like there were a few too many characters thrown in, and it diluted the experience just a little bit.
The greatest achievements of this film lie in the technical prowess displayed from the camera and from the score. The cinematography and effects of this film are gorgeous, and like Blade Runner before it, Ghost in the Shell provides a beautiful world full of visual wonder ripe for the viewer to get lost in. But while the former Ridley Scott film focused on noir imagery and grime, Ghost’s city shows more of a sublime, perfectionist quality, intentionally skewing the wonders of the visuals that technology can provide with the narrative that scolds those who rely on it to live their lives. The score also provides an ominous feel, though it is used sparingly. I appreciate films that know when to provide ambience in their score and when to peel back, and this is one of the best scores I’ve heard so far this year in this regard. The action is well-punctuated and filmed, but not overbearing, and the slow pace of the events on screen compliment the visuals perfectly, letting the viewer take in the splendid set design, costuming and visual effects. There are at least a dozen shots in this film that could serve as portraits or large desktop wallpapers, as some of the wide-angle skyline views provide the scope that makes the film much more of a worthwhile cinematic experience. This is a film to see in theaters if you have the chance; the visuals and the score alone are worth the price of admission.
Whereas I cannot speak as a fan of this franchise, since I have not seen the anime or read the manga, I can say that I had a good time watching Ghost in the Shell. It’s one of the better live action anime adaptations to come out into mainstream American film market, though the bar was very low set by the likes of Street Fighter and Dragonball: Evolution. Ghost in the Shell is by and large a successful sci-fi film that combines conspiracies, action, intrigue and humanity in exciting and interesting ways. With a great performance from Scarlett Johansson, and expert directing, score and cinematography, I’d recommend this film to anyone but the most high-brow cinephiles. This film may not provide the best science fiction that the genre has given, but its influences are sound and its heart is in the right place. It’s well worth the price of a ticket.