Review: Ghost in the Shell

A great looking if superficial movie, Ghost in the Shell fits well into the robotic sci-fi oeuvre but feels a little threadbare.

In the near-distant future, humans are being fitted out with cybernetic enhancement, with tech company Hanka Robotics managing a world-first with a ‘shell’ inhabited by a human brain, or ‘ghost’. Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is this first ‘ghost in the shell’, and works in a secretive government unit to fight counter-terrorism, but she soon starts to be haunted by visions as the group hunts mysterious hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt).

The film is an adaptation of a famous Japanese anime film from the 1990s, and there has been a lot of controversy over Johansson’s casting over an Asian actress. While the issue of minority representation in cinema shouldn’t be ignored, original anime creator Masamune Shirow went on record to voice his approval of the casting because the character’s performance is the ‘shell’ – meaning that for him, it doesn’t matter who plays the ‘shell’. The film’s successes at the Japanese box office was another interesting element of the situation as well

The main story is common in science-fiction, particularly in regards to the fine line between machine and woman, but director Rupert Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger craft an intriguing if lightweight plot emboldened by sharp and unique imagery. The vivid cinematography from Jess Hall uses a pan-Asian city backdrop filled with neon advertisements and skyscrapers to paint a believable near-future, with murkier and darker areas reflecting the seedier underbelly of the technological metropolis.

The excellent special effects add to this, alongside interesting set and character design, with all feeling unique and diverse (it seems to be aping other science-fiction futures but striking out on its own path, particularly in the ethical dilemmas posed). However, the story’s Hollywoodisation means that areas of plot I’d rather have been further explored were passed by for more action (which is pretty good, though if you’ve seen the trailers you’ve seen most of it).

In turn, the moody and eclectic soundtrack by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe sometimes reaches exciting peaks of electronic menace, but the movie never seems to match it. I’d say this was likely a consequence of making it a blockbuster that needs to appeal to all audiences, as the conclusion leaves a little to be desired (perhaps a response to the public attention paid to the film), and other elements are somewhat overlooked (I’d have liked more development of the backstories, the format of the police unit and some more character development from the rest of Major’s team-mates).

The cast is actually quite good across the board, Johansson portraying the Major with heavy, considered and alien movements and gestures, physically acting out the ‘shell’ of her character’s body while her facial expressions allow for slightly more development, especially as the plot progresses. I think some reviewers have been hard on her, but she seems to be making quite a name for herself by choosing alienated, distant roles such as this (and Under the Skin). It won’t win awards but she continues to select more interesting lead roles than she could.

Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbek is able support as her number two soldier Batou, with the Dane like a bearish big brother to the Major with many of the film’s best lines. Japanese veteran ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano plays their commander Aramaki, speaking completely in Japanese, but retains his prior performance archetypes of little outward emotion and swift, brutal movement alongside a dry sense of humour.

Michael Pitt’s heavily digitised performance as Kuze is an interesting role to see the actor play, as he usually focuses on smaller dramas, but the character – ostensibly the villain – has many shades, and Pitt gives him a kind of cold, disturbing detachment that slowly blooms into understandable human emotion. Juliette Binoche plays the mother figure to the Major as Dr. Ouelet, the scientist who created her, and the French actress gives what might have originally been a male character an interesting frisson of motherly care and devotion to her cyborg ‘child’. Finally, Peter Ferdinando broods and glowers as the head of Hanka Robotics, while other smaller roles include Chin Han’s cop stereotype (cigarettes, sharp suits and gruff demeanour).

Overall, Ghost in the Shell isn’t a bad film from my perspective, though it doesn’t reach its full potential either. It’s definitely worth a watch for sci-fi fans, but it needs a little bit more of everything that’s good about it.

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