Neither “The Six Million Dollar Man” nor “The Bionic Woman” ever saw this coming.
In a very likely future made possible by Hanka Robotics, biomechanical upgrades to humanity have been commonplace. They have one miracle yet to accomplish — the complete transplant of a human brain into a cyborg body — and The Major (Scarlett Johansson) becomes that miracle, one performed by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). A year later, Major has joined anti-terrorism squad called Section 9 with her partner Batou (Pilou Absaek), taking orders from Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Tough, agile, armored and well-equipped, Major is happy to do as she’s told to save others and protect the city, but images begin to haunt her waking memories, making her question both her programming and her sanity. What Major is unaware of is that her latest case against a master hacker bent on destroying Hanka isn’t just an assignment; it could be her salvation.
We’ve seen this kind of story before — the purest science fiction there is: humanity surviving encroaching technology. Writer/illustrator Masamune Shirow created the original manga in 1989 as a serial, drawing inspiration from Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine; the title Ghost in the Shell, while not the original title of the comic, was always intended to reflect its inspiration. After a series of anime movies, it took almost thirty years and star Scarlett Johansson attached to get Hollywood on board with a live-action treatment, but can the decidedly Japanese story survive the culture jump and “white wash” casting to become a cinematic hit?
Ghost in the Shell is a visual treat, with shadowy locations, dark technology, and questions of morality — pure cyberpunk with all the trappings. If you didn’t know that several money shots were lifted directly from the source material to ensure authenticity, it’s enough to know the time and effort was put in to craft a unique film that lands somewhere between Blade Runner and The Matrix: a beautiful, horrible world you can’t look away from. The loudest controversy has been over the casting of a non-Japanese actress in Scarlett Johansson — a move that creator Shirow has not only reportedly endorsed but hinted as the catalyst to getting the film made at all — is practically a non-issue; hinting at a minor spoiler, there’s a very good in-story no-name non-bronze no-prize at work here… even if it doesn’t explain all the Americanizations herein.
No, what works against a mainstream audience here isn’t a white wash conspiracy but rather the bleak, hopeless sci-fi backdrop steeped in Japanese culture. This is the bread and butter of cinephiles, but in the same way the live-action Speed Racer failed to resonate with audiences *because* it was entirely faithful to the source material, Ghost in the Shell is generating little buzz as a must-see in spite of being a popular twenty-five year-old intellectual property. That’s sad, too, because it’s meant to be seen in theaters, and the cast has thrown themselves into their roles. Aside from the previously mentioned complaints, reports that Johansson plays Major as too-subdued and unemotional seem frivolous; she’s playing an artificial being that can’t recall the truth about her prior existence, and it makes perfect sense that she’d be in control even while falling apart. While the themes aren’t new — Hollywood had two decades to mine ideas from it — it is a slow-burn psychological thriller, so an investment is asked for from the onset.
Perhaps the most telling fact is the box office take, a mere $40 million in America and $128 million in foreign territories (source: Box Office Mojo). It begs the question: would the film have performed better if mainstream audiences had known more about the source material and the culture it represents, or was it doomed to obsecurity from the start? One thing is for certain: it’s better than Johansson’s last solo-outing Lucy.
Ghost in the Shell is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content, some disturbing images, and Scarlett Johansson kicking ass in skin-tight tactical thermo-optical camouflage.
3 Skull Recommendation Out of Four