Film review: Ghost in the Shell **.
I wish there were more to explore or reveal about Ghost in the Shell , but in fact even the poetic-sounding title gets explained in the very first scene. Your mind, or ghost, has been placed in a new body, or shell, says scientist Juliette Binoche, just about managing to resist Dr Evil-style air quotes. She's talking to Scarlett Johansson, a cyborg known only as Major -- the first of her kind, though the setting is a near future where most people pay to be artificially 'enhanced'. "You're what everyone will become one day," Major is told. "You don't know how lonely that makes me feel," she replies.
We don't know how lonely it makes her feel either, because Johansson -- a fabulous actress who's recently put her warmer side on hold and specialised in playing superior lifeforms in Lucy , Her and Under the Skin -- gives a fairly opaque performance, albeit with a brief filial reunion echoing the phone-call-to-Mum scene in Lucy . Female action heroines are no longer a novelty but the default style is to make them cold and inhuman, lest they seem 'feminine'; Major is very much a super-being, at one point beating up an entire roomful of thugs while handcuffed to a metal pole. Still, Johansson could've done more, when you compare Milla Jovovich's uncanny ability to imbue the equally brawny Alice with muted yearning and a sense of humour in the Resident Evil movies.
At the other end of the scale is Binoche, who acts like she's hoping for a Cesar nomination and is all the better for it. The other incongruously arty cast member is Takeshi Kitano, the cult Japanese actor-director who speaks all his lines in Japanese -- even when answering questions in English -- and is obviously here as a conscious echo of the original Ghost in the Shell , the Japanese anime that became a hit with the cognoscenti in 1995 (even the word 'anime' seems to belong to the cognoscenti; it's not a cartoon, man, it's anime). I watched the original recently, and I reckon it struck a nerve in the 90s for two reasons: (a) its impressively expansive, Blade Runner -ish look, and (b) its excitable technophilia -- those were the brink-of-the-internet days when we all said things like 'information superhighway' -- typified in the melding of (wo)man and machine.
These are also the main selling-points in the remake -- and indeed the look is even more impressive, all the more so for being live-action rather than animated (the film cost an estimated $110 million), just as the human/mechanical interface is explored a lot more thoroughly than in the 90s Ghost , maybe because science fiction has moved a lot closer to reality in the 22 years since. Major is defined by her memories, or what few she has (are they even real?) -- and there's also a question of privacy, since her whole inner life, her thoughts and desires, are expressible in code, hence can be viewed and deleted. This can only be done with her consent, a witty reminder of our own world where we 'consent' to online cookies and terms of service several times a day -- and Major's consent turns out to be just as bogus and meaningless as we suspect ours is.
Ghost in the Shell teems with such shrewd futuristic detail; enhancement allows people to install cyber-livers so they can drink more, or to smoke without getting cancer (cigarettes are back in fashion in the future). The film is also gorgeous to look at, its urban landscape studded with holograms -- fish float at street level, a seedy bar offers holographic dancing girls for patrons' entertainment, skyscraper-sized holo-people adorn the skyline at night -- and jumbles of neon. The blurring of man and machine isn't just a design element, it underlies this society in the way of our own nameless modern alienation. "You're human?" Major asks a hooker, though what looks at first like a possible lesbian encounter turns out to be more existential: she just wants to know what 'human' feels like, for the sake of her own precarious consciousness. "How do you know what's a glitch," she asks Binoche poignantly, "and what's me?".
The problem, really, is plot -- which shouldn't be a problem, since we don't watch expensive sci-fi action for the plot, but at some point it's hard to ignore just how crushingly predictable and empty Ghost in the Shell is. Tough yet vulnerable heroine, check. Corporate shark who thinks of Major as "a weapon", check. Heroine finding out about her past, check. Disgruntled cyborg as villain (like the replicants in Blade Runner ), check. One can still enjoy familiar cliches when they come with juicy performances -- see this week's Triple 9 , which is to lurid crime movies roughly what Ghost is to cyberpunk -- but everyone (except Binoche) seems flattened here, as if directed not to distract from the glittering production design; in the end, the film is just surface-level. Fantasy, reality, "it's all the same," shrugs Major's comrade Batou: "Just noise". Sadly true.
DIRECTED BY Rupert Stevens
STARRING Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche
US 2017 107 mins
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