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Ghost in the Shell movie review: Scarlett Johansson enters a visually stunning Matrix

Ghost in the Shell movie review: Scarlett Johansson cements her position as one of the best action stars in the world with this adaptation of the classic Japanese anime that inspired the Matrix.

movie reviews Updated: Apr 07, 2017 09:55 IST
Rohan Naahar
Scarlett Johansson brings humanity to what is basically a robot.
Scarlett Johansson brings humanity to what is basically a robot.

Ghost in the Shell
Director - Rupert Sanders
Cast - Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano
Rating - 3/5

In the ever-expanding universe of the Japanese cultural phenomenon Ghost in the Shell, the United States of America is a failed state, a divided nation that has, in a desperate ploy to regain its lost glory, resorted to militaristic imperialism. Its first target is Mexico.

The vision of the future that the series has created is not only prescient (the original manga began in 1989), but like the best science fiction, it is frighteningly so. To simply present an elaborately detailed dystopian future is one thing – and that is what the series, especially its Japanese wing, does. But to offer a fantasy that never feels too far-fetched, and always just one unfortunately timed nudge away from becoming a reality, is the key.

No wonder then, that it was the Wachowskis’ biggest influence for their masterpiece, the first Matrix film.

Like The Major, the elite cybernetic soldier protagonist of the series, whose human memories (the ghosts) are hidden inside a synthetic body (the shell), this new American remake/reimagining/reboot (call it what you will) of Ghost in the Shell appears to be fascinated by the dense ideas of the original, but glances at it as one would at the dusty religion/philosophy section at the bookstore – with mild interest, but not nearly enough conviction.

Instead, very reasonably (it is, after all, a $100 million American blockbuster directed by the man whose only other feature is Snow White and the Huntsman), it brushes past the lone man leafing through a copy of Arthur Koestler in the bookstore, and arrives, breathless, at the strategically located bestseller section, with towers of action/thrillers, spy fiction and comic books just waiting to be pilfered. With one last glance at the poor lonely man (who’s sliding the Koestler back in the rack, defeated), Ghost in the Shell embraces the delights of cheap thrills over the more cerebral concepts that preoccupied its source material.

But beneath its ridiculously gorgeous visuals, and stunningly designed world (imagine the toxic Los Angeles of Blade Runner, and transport it to the almost fetishistically neon outdoors of daytime Japan/Hong Kong), there is a story about privacy, immigration – and in what will likely give you a moment of pause, considering especially the (mostly) empty visuals that the film has been bathing in, shot after aerial shot – the notion of consent.

It is not unusual for the inhabitants of this world to rely on technology to extend/enhance their lives. In fact, it would be rare to find a person who doesn’t have, say, a powerful artificial limb, or a hyper-sensitive eye.

The Major (played by Scarlett Johansson, in yet another quietly groundbreaking role), is the first of her kind. She is told that after surviving a terrorist attack, her body, destroyed beyond repair, was salvaged and replaced by augmentative tech by Hanka Robotics, the world’s leading manufacturer of this new normal. But instead of installing an AI, her human brain is left intact. She is their experimental super-soldier, a highly skilled, highly intelligent fighting machine, designed to take down the same cyber-terrorists who made her into what she is.

A year later, a mysterious new threat known only as Kuze hacks into several geisha robots and stages an assassination attempt on Hanka Robotics’ top brass. The Major and her team manage to save them, but kick into motion a police procedural that unfurls into a surprisingly stoic film noir plot of corporate misdeeds, underworld gangsters, and morally grey characters.

And speaking of difficult-to-pin-down characters, The Major is as grey as they come. And played by Scarlett Johansson, who brings subtle humanity to what is basically a robot, she is compelling. Her story of self discovery, and the constant conflict between the duality of her personality, is just about enough to keep you invested when gawking at the pretty neon becomes a little stale.

But.

Yes. There is a but. Had the film’s script been written with more confidence in the audience (we’re really not that dumb, you know), and had a superior filmmaker – one who doesn’t rely on clunky exposition, and instead, deploys visuals in service of the story and not just as an excuse to, you know, make his movie look cool – been in charge, Ghost in the Shell could’ve been a better film, the rare sort of summer blockbuster that doesn’t shy away from the big questions.

However.

It does offer, in addition to all this, one of the purest forms of joy available to a movie fan: The sight of the great ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano (known outside Japan as the man behind some of the greatest Yakuza movies ever made), gunning down fools in a dank, vaguely Asian alleyway, dripping in neon haze. Yes please.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar