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Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell is Visually Entertaining with a Lot to Say in a Thin Script

To really discuss Ghost in the Shell, at least the way I’m going to, I’m going to have to spoil things, so WARNING SPOILERS.

In the near future, Major is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals.

Based on the classic manga by Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell isn’t anything new today. Its plot has be retread a million times at this point, Robocop being a prime example. At its core the story is about a corporation wanting to create a more perfect weapon, a soldier that has the thought process of a human but the physical abilities of a robot. “Ghost” in this case is a fancy word for soul with the shell being the robotic exterior, the futuristic cyberpunk story can easily be interpreted as a story about what it means to be human and the intrusion of technology into that. At what point with cyber enhancements do we become something else? Is it the “soul” or “ghost” that really matters. But, this live action version feels like it’s something more, “white imperialistic corporations.” The film has a glitzy surface and a shallow story that we’ve seen before, but its themes are very interesting and in some ways feel revolutionary.

Created by the Hanaka corporation Major (played by Scarlett Johansson) is part of a government task force, a very diverse task force it should be pointed out, but is still being watched/managed by Hanaka. Major is seeing glitches. She’s been told that she died in a boating incident and that her brain was transferred into this robotic body. But, is this the truth?

It’s pretty clear on that this cover story is completely made up and the real story is more insidious. Major isn’t the first attempt at this and Hanaka has failed numerous times. Major also didn’t die in an accident, she was a runaway abducted by Hanaka for their experiment. And Major is really Motoko Kusanagi a Japanese girl whose mind is moved to the body of a white woman. Cringe worthy for sure, but this whitewashing feels as if that’s part of the story. The evil terrorist, Kruze, that Major and her team are trying to track down too was a Japanese man transferred into the body of a white man. Those making that decision? All white. Dr. Ouelet (played by Juliette Binoche), Cutter (played by Peter Ferdinando), and Dr. Dahlin (played by Anamaria Marinca), are portrayed by white actors. So, for the third act of the film it’s a diverse group of soldiers (one white woman [Johansson], one white man [Pilou Asbaek], one black man [Tawanda Manyimo], two Japanese men [Takeshi Kitano and Yutaka Izumihara], one from Singapore [Chin Han] one Kurdish/Polish/English woman [Danusia Samal], and one Australian Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander/Pacific Islander [Lasarus Ratuere]) up against the evil corporation that has abused Japan for resources, kidnapping its citizens to whitewash them. The whitwashing feels like it’s part of the point of it all.

The optics are interesting and this theme fascinating and when it’s hinted at the two Japanese team members don’t have enhancements, there’s even more to think about the concept of Hanaka and it’s consuming of Japan. And in the end, the evil white corporate head is executed for crimes against the Japanese state (crimes against humanity/kidnapping would have been good too). In the end it’s not Major who brings justice, it’s her Japanese boss who executes Cutter. The same Japanese boss who only speaks Japanese throughout the film. The symbolism of the Japanese leader executing the white corporate imperialist for crimes against his nation is not lost.

Consent too is brought up over and over which itself deserves an exploration in what it means for what Hanaka has done but also the exploitation they represent. Every time Major has some diagnosis done or gets plugged in she must give consent. It’s interesting that “consent” is used as opposed to “permission.” And at the film’s core is that she didn’t give her consent when she was put into the body of Major. Again, by the all white corporate folks. Read into that as you want.

But, that rather interesting theme is visual. It’s never discussed, but as a whole the film relies on its aesthetics more than anything else. Visually the film is amazing with a look and style that feels like a futuristic but in doing so plays off of a lot of stereotypical Japanese iconography. Robots are designed to look like geisha, holographic koi fish fly around, it’s visuals we’ve seen, but the way they’re presented in their neo-glow is stunning and in 3D even more rich and entertaining. That includes the cyberpunk aesthetic with body parts replaced, people plugged in, much of it visually there and never explained. The action sequences too are like a ballet dance of destruction showing that Marvel would be fools to not speed up a Johansson led Black Widow film.

But lets get to the story. The themes are deep and while there is a diverse cast many have little screen time. If there’s two dozen lines between the majority of them I’d be surprised. There’s not much dialogue as a whole and as I said, the story is one that’s been repeated over and over. The film does little new in this department and it’s beyond predictable which is fine in that I was sucked in staring at the screen trying to catch everything visually. There’s plot points or scenes that aren’t explained or feel pointless. When it comes to the story itself, the movie is a bit of a mess especially in the latter half which feels like action sequences were shoved into a police procedural. Director Rupert Sanders delivers a visual treat from a thin script.

Johansson is interesting as well in how she portrays the character. The life we’ve seen from her has been sucked out in a way where she feels hollow. And that feels like it’s on purpose. The movie is her struggling with her status and numerous times she states she can’t feel anything. That is manifested in how she delivers her lines and interacts. It’s stiff, lifeless, and mechanical, like her character.

The film does have its problems. I get the reaction to Johansson whitewashing, but beyond that a scene involving a prostitute is cringe worthy. There’s also no explanation of this version of Tokyo, we’re just thrust into the world.

I walked out of Ghost in the Shell wanting to see it again and doing so in 3D (again). The film is entertaining and whether done on purpose or not, there’s a lot to discuss on its themes and conflict. Is it a great film? Absolutely not. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. It’s also absolutely a move that needs to be seen in 3D on the big screen, it’s visual richness will be lost any other way.

Overall Rating: 7.15