Ghost in the Shell – a review

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Scarlett Johansson pretending to be a Japanese cyborg and almost getting away with it

In the world of graphic comics I never graduated beyond Batman. I’m happy with that. There’s great literature out there; adult comics are not a substitute for challenging novels or poetic literature, certainly not the bulk of science fiction comics.

To me, Batman was plausible, he needed wires and grappling hooks propelled by a flick of his wrists to swing him around buildings, unlike Superman with his 1928 Brylcreemed quiff, and underpants on over his skin-tight suit, or Spiderman with his silly tight suit, and inexhaustible extrusions of silk. If Batman ever got sexually excited at least he could hide his tumescence in his rubber suit.

Japanese comics have a passing fascination, their aesthetic perception of a European face decidedly Japanese. On the other hand, Japanese architecture, ceramics, art, gardens, Samurai films, oh, yes, in a heartbeat. And I can appreciate gifted graphic artists create the most stunning visuals packed into a small box in a magazine. (And video games.)

That introduction is an apology for not knowing much about the cyborg heroine in Ghost in the Shell. Essentially, it’s Scarlett Johansson in a skin coloured body suit as close to soft porn as a commercial film can get without an ‘R’ rating. I’ll come back to that later.

Ghost in the Shell is a big-budget adaptation of the Japanese manga-anime classic created by Masamune Shirow. His comic premiered in the late 1980s, Mamoru Oshii’s highly influential first film version in 1995. In this new Hollywood version, a thumping vehicle for voluptuous Scarlett Johansson, director Rupert Davies has managed to replicate the surface trappings of the post-human world of the source material. But it’s so hollow you can hear a dropped pin echo before each scene. It’s all cyborg and no humanity.

Ghost keeps reminding  you of a sub-Blade Runner on ecstacy, or in storyline – a cyborg desperate to know her real human identity – a steal from Jason Bourne. Or maybe it’s a cut-down Robocop. In the middle of the film I fought off sleep. It was the 3-D version, torpor inducing, nevertheless.

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The creation of a city filled with moving advertising is truly impressive

Ghost looks good, more than good, the inner city vistas massively impressive digital work, but the confrontational fight scenes less eye catching, and extremely repetitive. A shame, too. There is a universe in which Ghost in the Shell might have worked marvellously.

Like Matt Damon heading a Chinese story, Johansson heading a purely Japanese yarn takes a lot of  consent. Quite frankly, it really ought to be an Asian actress in the lead of a well-known property that originated in Japan.

Does Johansson nail the part of “Major,” a military operative whose very human brain has been implanted inside a lifelike robot? I’m still trying to analysis that in case it’s bias on my part. She’s never convinced in any role, there’s a languor about her technique, a feeling we’re watching an also-ran in the role a more accomplished actress could have  expressed with ease. Here she’s needed for her youthfulness and her gymnastic ability. The skill Johansson has is in expression. She can twinkle an emotion with the barest of facial movements. The story calls for that skill, robots don’t emote, not even HAL in 2001 – even if this one has a soul (or a “ghost”) hovering inside her synthetic body “shell.” But like Frankenstein, the actor has to inject a humanity to gain our sympathy.

Director Rupert Sanders and his screenwriters don’t do her any favors. Johansson looks dumb half the time and bemused the rest. She does a lot of posing. (Maybe readying herself for a perfumery deal.) She strides into some of the most belaboured, uninspiring action scenes put on film in a long time. I might well have snored during those moments.

In good film noir fashion Major has a sidekick, Batou, (here played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk). There is next to no chemistry between them.  I’m not au fait with the politics on the set, but I sense they didn’t get on well as co-actors. They’re an odd physical match, he large and square, she small and doll-like. In any event, the plotting is crude and simplistic. This version, being a Hollywood super-production, holds our hand to an embarrassing degree, spelling out every plot detail and nuance, not that it contains nuance to any degree.

The story is a familiar smorgasbord of action-movie plagiarism. Major and her fellow soldiers go in pursuit of a cyber terrorist named Kuze, (Michael Pitt), who seems to hate anyone who worked for Hanka Corporation, the company that built her. If he has you in his sights you’re dead, machine gunned a few hundred times in front of witnesses, no police to be seen, no police car sirens heard. People murder each other with impunity.

The chase to catch Kuze is one long bore, but at least it’s often visually and sonically captivating. To be fair, the production design is marvellous, and the more time I spent in this urban kaleidoscope of giant dancing holograms and neon billboards, the more I was engrossed. Those graphics are award winning, the story set among them, pretty dire.

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Director Rupert Sanders – with a  camera that looks like a cyborg

Borrowing isn’t always cheating inspired by another artist’s work. Quick research unearths evidence its strongest elements are lifted directly from prior iterations of Ghost in the Shell – from the robo-geishas to the spider-tanks to the invisible fights, but in the end, it can’t be called original.

One stand out attraction: Clint Mansell’s throbbing score makes a great rhythmic correlative to the grim neon vista of the cyborg’s world. And on that subject…

We’ve seen any number of dystopian panoramas and I never fail to wonder why the people inhabiting them don’t leave, so miserable and oppressive are their surroundings, so constrained and forced their lives. Yet they hang on, shopping in lashing rain, black skies, eating junk food from stall holders in the street, dancing around skyscrapers dodging a thousands air-borne vehicles charging in all directions, including vertically.

So, what of Johansson’s cyborg, do we care about her? Speaking for myself, the answer is no. For a voluptuous woman she’s too cold. When she’s injured, her complicated arm technology exposed, we realise she could be blown to smithereens but we know her creator, a moany-faced Juliette Binoche, can put her together again in a morning between coffee break and lunch. She doesn’t get our empathy. You just wonder what she’s doing running around in a skin suit as if completely naked. Exhibitionist – moi?

Which brings me to the one thing that is innovative from the original – Major’s brain was taken not from the dying body of a drowning refugee, as we were initially told, but a young Japanese woman, an anti-technology activist named Motoko Kusanagi – which just so happens to be Major’s name in the original manga and anime series. Her rebellious future is set, she’s Jason Bourne trying to discover she’s Janey Bourne.

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An arresting image, but soon they pall in novelty and an attitude of ‘who cares?’ sets in

In other words, this is another film about loss of memory, or more accurately the erasing of memory. Strange how horrendous experiments done in Nazi camps are now the stuff of Hollywood. We accept them as science fiction, Star Wars stuff. And here’s the rub, there comes a point when you expect some elderly woman to appear who says, “Major Cyborg, I am your mother”.

  • Star rating: Two and a half
  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano
  • Director: Rupert Sanders
  • Writer: Masamune Shirow, Ehrin Kruger
  • Cinematography: Jess Hall
  • Music: Lorne Balfi, Clint Mansell
  • Duration: 1 hr 47 min
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5 Responses to Ghost in the Shell – a review

  1. diabloandco says:

    I think I can leave that one alone then!
    By the way there is an ‘out’ which ought to be an ‘ought ‘ in there.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Much obliged! (Am still checking typos.) Readers clue in, in seconds!

  3. Cellar Shark says:

    Not unlike Scarlet’s character in The Island then? Except this time she’s the lead rather than Ewan’s sidekick.
    I was about to point out another typo but I see you’ve already picked it up.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Writing an essay site and doing daily job, plus domestic chores, means something’s gotta give. 🙂

  5. jvtopsales says:

    really love it, i don’t care about whitewashing………scarlet succes to fit in the character and there’s still motoko in this movie

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