Review by C.J. Bunce
This year’s first cinematic examination of life as a borg came from a beloved international favorite, Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson as “Major,” a truly badass heroine who turns a mission of criminal pursuit into a discovery of the self. Originally published in Japan as a manga comic written and illustrated by Masimune Shirow in 1989, The Ghost in the Shell went on to become an even more popular anime film series beginning in 1995. Originally titled Mobile Armored Riot Police, Shirow wanted (and eventually secured) the title Ghost in the Shell to pay tribute to Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine, which inspired his story. This year’s early spring release of the live action Ghost in the Shell is based on the manga, and its available on streaming services, Blu-ray, and DVD this month.
Any fan of cyberpunk, future Earth, replicants and borgs shouldn’t miss this one. Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) directed a visual treat, a futureworld that is not on par with the dazzle of either Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, yet it still works well, and the cinematography choices by Jess Hall (Transcendence, Hot Fuzz, Grindhouse) combined with the music of Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell (which owes much to the scores for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Tron Legacy) sucks viewers into a surreal plane in a sister realm to Tron or Source Code. Major is probably Johansson’s best lead role, too–a tempered, thoughtful, deliberate performance dotted with the action and violence her fans look for. She was well-prepped for the role, starring in as the lead in the dark world of director Luc Besson’s stylish action thriller Lucy, and it’s easy to see Johansson getting cast for this role after that performance.
Although the story begins slowly, as more pieces are added to the puzzles and plot threads the film builds to become a thought-provoking examination of the dark side of cybernetics and future technologies. The source material for Ghost in the Shell is relatively late to the discussion table for cyborgs, following after Philip K. Dick’s replicants in Blade Runner, the similarly themed man-turned-machine in Robocop, and Martin Caidin’s Bionic Man in Cyborg. More than anything, the story calls back to the Bionic Woman and Jameson Parker and Mare Winningham made-for-TV movie Who is Julia?, a story of a woman struggling to deal with the world’s first brain transplant. In Ghost in the Shell Johansson’s character wakes up after a near-death, her brain transplanted into a new (better, stronger, etc.) mechanical body as the first brain transplant subject in a world where cybernetics are now commonplace. Her doctor is played as an elegant and caring protector by Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche. But the beauty of the film is that just as it has in parts a very predictable story for its place in science fiction (following a long line of visionary medicine stories beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), Ghost in the Shell offers some satisfying surprises that sets up the story well for a superhero-esque sequel or film series.
Noteworthy performances can be found in Major’s well-grounded partner Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk (The Great Wall, Lucy, Game of Thrones), Takeshi Kitano (Johnny Mnemonic) as a representative of the Prime Minister responsible for a classic government secret organization called Section 9, and Michael Pitt (Dawson’s Creek, Hannibal) as the criminal Major is pursuing.
Surprisingly Ghost in the Shell provides a thoughtful contribution to science fiction films despite the hype. Parts of the film have a video game feel, due in part to Johansson’s robotic walk style that evokes Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft at times. But for the most part a fascinating story of discovery and the value of self shines through, and a view of borg technology that is even better than last year’s critically acclaimed sci-fi sleeper, Ex Machina. With each new film Johansson is on the heels of Academy Award winner Charlize Theron’s career path, and it’s easy to look back to Theron’s action films like Aeon Flux and see Johannson continuing her upward trajectory as a critically acclaimed actress despite all the action genre roles she takes on.