A world where the government sells their souls to sell our browser data to giant corporations sounds like the beginning of a dystopian cyberpunk saga for the ages, but unfortunately it’s the world in which we live. It’s also one where hacking scandals and data leaks dominate the headlines, illicit goods are peddled on the dark web, and the technology meant to connect us makes us more susceptible to criminals than ever before. In short, the world as it stands today doesn’t seem to be too far off from the one put forth 20 years earlier in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell.
While on its surface, Ghost in the Shell tells the story of a cyborg operative leading an elite counterterrorist unit to stop a cybercriminal wreaking havoc on Tokyo, it is a deeply compelling sci-fi story that dives into matters of identity, existentialism, and what it means to be human. Now, two decades later, Rupert Sanders has attempted what seems like a Sisyphean task–adapting the fan-favorite anime and manga series to a live-action movie. Although the film has been mired in controversy since word one, Sanders has managed something that heretofore seemed impossible: making a successful anime adaptation.
The 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell is by no means a perfect movie. It feels like a cult classic in the making, the kind of film you’ll want to watch at midnight screenings with a room full of strangers that appreciate and adore it for all of its visual weirdness and narrative idiosyncracies. Scarlett Johansson stars as The Major, the world’s most advanced cyborg, and someone who is more machine than human. Her body–the titular shell–is almost entirely cybernetic, implanted with a human brain–her “ghost.” Although her body was the product of the privately owned Hanka Corporation, The Major works as an elite agent of Section 9, a government counterterrorist task force that is on the trail of a mysterious hacker known as Kuze (Michael Pitt). Yet as the Major gets sucked into this deadly game of cat-and-mouse, she learns that the truth behind her origins may be far darker than she ever realized. Without giving anything away, that is the plot of Ghost in the Shell in a nutshell.
As the Major, Scarlett Johansson delivers a performance that feels like a complement to the ethereal, man-eating alien she played in 2013’s criminally underseen Under the Skin. A reticent, introspective character, the Major is a human being trapped inside a robotic body that is technically the property of a massive corporation. Apart from questions of what it means to be human, especially when you have no memories of your past, Johansson’s Major wrestles with issues of consent; for example, when you do not “own” your body, who gets to decide what is done with it or to it? As body enhancement becomes more and more of a reality, and the healthcare debate rages on in the United States, it is an issue that feels increasingly prescient. Sanders doesn’t necessarily offer anything in the way of answers here; rather it feels like a suggestion for a great discussion topic for you and your friends to unpack after the credits have rolled.
Yet no man is an island, especially one that is grappling with what their existence truly means. Johansson is joined by an ensemble cast of talented actors who bring the skilled agents of Section 9 to life. Veteran actor Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale) portrays Aramaki, the division leader who takes no grief from anyone and offers a compellingly gruff performance. Far and away, the best part of Section 9 is Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones) as Batou, the silver-haired, ocularly-augmented agent with a surprising love of stray dogs. Honestly, I would watch a whole other movie just about Batou and his bevy of foster dogs, but that’s a story of another day. Last but not least, as the villainous Kuze, Michael Pitt (Hannibal) proves why he is one of the most talented actors working today. In the hands of a lesser actor, the part could have fallen flat or seemed comical, but he brings a tortured sadness and sinister edge to the madman that is hacking into the human body and using it for his own nefarious ends.
The highlight of the film though is undoubtedly the incredible design work, which comes courtesy of the mad geniuses at Weta Workshop. While so much modern sci-fi is cursed by the dominant palette of boring, washed-out grays, browns, blacks, this is a world bathed in glowing neon lights, LED screens, and gigantic holograms hawking all manner of goods projected onto the sides of skyscrapers. It is a world that is simultaneously bursting with life, but seemingly empty inside — a fitting parallel for its protagonist. In addition to transforming Wellington, New Zealand into the bright yet gritty streets of Tokyo, they rendered an astonishing number of practical effects that are straight out of the anime. The iconic “shelling sequence,” in which we see the Major’s cybernetic body being assembled piece-by-piece, looks even better in this live-action version than it did in the original anime. It was the most challenging sequence Weta has ever undertaken, and the “shell” itself was created with 1,400 pieces of individually 3D-printed materials.
I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t address the controversy surrounding this film, which as I mentioned has been part of the dialogue since it was first announced. Allegations of whitewashing have dogged the production since we learned that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the part of Major Motoko Kusanagi. I am a straight, cis-gendered white male, who is viewing this film from a position of distinct and entrenched privilege, and there are many others out there who are better equipped to speak more eloquently about this subject, and I urge you to seek out and listen to their perspective. While I thought Scarlett Johansson acquitted herself quite well in her portrayal of the Major, her casting is part of a larger conversation around the systemic dearth of starring roles for Asian actors–and, more broadly people of color –in Hollywood blockbusters like Ghost in the Shell. And if you are someone who has a thoughtful perspective on this issue, I urge you to pitch us a story on it so we can showcase a wider array of voices than ones that are straight white males like myself.
All things considered, Ghost in the Shell has been one of the most pleasantly surprising films of the year thus far. As a longtime fan of the source material, I went in with eyebrows preemptively raised because it seems like far too heady and, frankly, weird of a story to turn into a cohesive live-action film. Thanks to incredible world-building by the design team at WETA, a charismatic ensemble cast, and a deep appreciation of the original works by Rupert Sanders, this version of Ghost in the Shell is a thoughtful piece of science fiction with an uncomfortable relevance to the world we live in. More often than not it prefers to raise a question and let it trail off into a contemplative ellipsis rather than offer its own answers, which can be frustrating from an audience perspective, making you wonder if it’s all shell and no ghost. However, Ghost in the Shell is a film that stayed with me long after the credits rolled. It is not without its issues, but it remains one of the best live-action anime adaptations I’ve seen to date, and I look forward to seeing other films raise the bar that it has set for the genre.
Rating: 4 out of 5 cyberpunk burritos
Ghost in the Shell opens on March 31, 2017.
What did you think of Ghost in the Shell? Let us know in the comments below.
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