‘Ghost In The Shell’ Review: Visually Lavish, Emotionally Hollow

There’s probably a good reason Scarlett Johansson is Hollywood’s go-to actress for sub-human, occasionally violent characters, going by films such as Under The Skin and Lucy, or even Her, in which we only hear her voice. My best guess is that it’s because we subconsciously associate androids or aliens with otherworldly perfection, and who better to convey this idea than her?

Fans of the original, however, have every right to be unhappy with Johansson’s casting in Rupert Sanders’ Ghost In The Shell, a live-action, English-language version of a beloved Japanese anime classic inspired by a bestselling manga, that arrives in Indian theatres today.

By naming her character Major Mira Killian (instead of Major Kusanagi, as in the original) in an unnamed futuristic city that tries to pretend it isn’t fully Asian (sort of like a more Asian version of San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6), it tries to downplay its charges of ‘whitewashing’ i.e. casting a white person in an Asian role.

Needless to say, as obvious a casting choice Johansson may be, the charges are valid.

A still from Ghost In The Shell. (Photo courtesy: Twitter)

However, even if this controversy doesn’t bother you (which it should), the question simply comes down to whether this new version of Ghost In The Shell works. This depends on what the word ‘works’ means to you. Sanders’ adaptation, which is in many places faithful to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime version, is competent on a superficial level.

It has eye-popping visuals, momentarily thrilling action sequences, and high, extremely visible production values.

But scratch the surface and it all feels hollow. Ghost In The Shell, whose title is a reference to philosopher Arthur Koestler’s treatise Ghost In The Machine, has some insights to share about the idea of consciousness. Major is the latest, frontier-pushing achievement of a corporation named Hanka, which puts her brain in the biomechanical body of counter-terrorism operative for the intelligence agency Section 9. This is a future in which cybernetic augmentation is common.

“You got enhanced so that you can drink more?” one character asks another, in disbelief. Somehow, that doesn’t sound implausible to me at all.

I haven’t read the manga or watched the original, but I’m aware that the series is deeply philosophical, and uses sci-fi and action-adventure as a pretext to discuss the complexities of what it means to be human and alive. Sanders’ version, however, flips it the other way around: the philosophising is rendered through clunky, expository dialogue (“You’re reducing a complex human being to a machine!” — thanks for that generous spoonful of takeaway, screenwriters!) and the action sequences as well as Major’s Jason Bourne-esque quest to discover who she really is.

The world (New Port City in the original) depicted is an interesting vision of dystopia: one of extreme inequality, like a heightened version of what Tokyo is like today (more evidence that the film’s anti-whitewashing excuse — that the location isn’t necessarily an Asian city — is completely dishonest). I found the holographic advertisements and endowments visually compelling but a tad overdone.

In one scene, a holographic character reacts to an actual car accident on the street, which is a cool idea visually speaking, but it made me wonder: why would such unwieldy ad-tech ever become commonplace?

In another scene, a taxi has a holographic ring floating around it that indicates whether it is occupied or not. What, a simple light on top of the car doesn’t suffice anymore?

A still from Ghost In The Shell. (Photo courtesy: Twitter)

These sound like cribs, but they’re symptomatic of a deeper problem with Ghost In The Shell: ideas exist on screen because they sound cool on paper, not as part of a coherent, well-thought-out vision of the future, as some of the best films in this genre — Blade Runner, Minority Report, Children Of Men — have shown.

What the viewer eventually leaves with, then, is not thoughtful ruminations about the film’s deepest questions, but quickly fading memories of its action sequences… and perhaps the visual of Johansson in a nude body suit.

(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)

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