Live action adds an admirable level of ick to Ghost in the Shell

Live action adds an admirable level of ick to Ghost in the Shell

This one arrives with a lot of baggage. More about that later. Ghost in the Shell is good, and could have been a lot better. Most of the damage was self-inflicted. More about that later, too. The most interesting aspect of it is the way it’s an advance over the animated original, and that’s completely tied in with the world the story creates.

It’s that dystopian future we all seem to be dreaming of, when humans are transhuman—part human, part machine. The time when we become our own robotic overlords, perhaps, to stave off the A.I. robots that Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are so worried about. Some characters are pure android, some are people with “upgrades,” and some stubbornly cling to being all human. No one else is like Major (Scarlett Johansson), however, as she is an android with a human brain.

The film begins with her “creation” scene, with a brain inserted into a helmet-like shell, which is then attached to the frame of a “body,” and dipped into a viscous milk-like liquid from which the final “product” emerges. Johansson’s played variations on transhumans before, in Lucy and Under the Skin; she’s good at it. Feel free to complain about her not being Japanese, but don’t bitch about her acting.

(Perhaps the protesters might aim their ire not at Ms. Johansson, but at the American and Chinese production companies behind the picture.)

Major’s given a backstory that she and her parents were killed by terrorists. This is such transparent crap—it’s a corporation telling her this, remember?—that I don’t accept revealing this is a spoiler. She buys it, however, and goes to work as the star crimefighter in an elite Tokyo police unit headed by Daisuke Aramaki (the stately “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), alongside her pal Batou (scene-stealing Danish actor Pilou Asbaek).

At one point Batou loses his sight in an explosion, and gets an upgrade with eyes that look like lenses. In the anime version, this looked cool. Everything in the anime version looked cool. Here, it’s revolting. (Batou worries that his beloved dogs won’t recognize him with his new peepers.) In fact, all of the cyborg-human hybrid features are unappealing and, to some degree, appalling. Johansson’s Major may look like the actress in a skin-tight suit, but it isn’t sexy. This deepens the horror of becoming “enhanced” and adds another layer to the drama.

It’s clear the filmmakers tried to preempt the “whitewashing” charge by making all the corporate villains white; that would explain why the baddies take Japanese brains and put them into Caucasian “shells.” It’s too transparent a strategy. And, frankly, not enough characters are played by Japanese actors.

Still, the biggest problem with Ghost in the Shell is how dark it is—not tonally dark, but visually dark. I saw it flat; I can’t imagine what it looks like in 3D, which is notoriously unforgiving to dark imagery. Tonally, director Rupert Sanders gets it exactly right.

I’m sorry there won’t be a sequel.

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders, starring Scarlett Johansson, Paramount

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