Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Cyberpunk science fiction has not been a popular genre during the last decades. Originating from the novels by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Isaac Asimov, and other famous writers, it reflects contemporary technology trends accurately, but surprisingly for a long time public interest somehow omitted the topic of cybernetic enhancements, artificial intelligence, and robotic life. Of course, there were movies like “Blade Runner,” “Robocop,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” “The Matrix,” “I, robot,” and several others, and each of them caused resonance, but in general, considering the overall proportion of cyberpunk movies and the movies of other genres, the former has remained a minority for too long: people were mostly interested in romantic vampires, walking dead, and space battles.

It is strange, because currently humanity is rapidly moving in the direction of merging with machines—Elon Musk’s recent “Neuralink” project, for example, supports this thesis—and supposedly people should be interested in what is awaiting them in the nearest five-ten years. However, despite this, cyberpunk movies (as well as books and video games in this genre) have remained relatively unpopular for a bit too long, at least in the West, mostly occupying an act-house niche in cinematography. On the other hand, Asian countries—Japan, in particular—pay much more attention to this trend; Japanese animation and comic books are often dedicated to subjects we all love cyberpunk for: what is humaneness? Is possessing a biological body equal to being human? Can artificial intelligence be considered a form of life, given that it thinks and is aware of its own existence? To which extent can a person artificially modify himself or herself with technology, and still remain a human being? How can using cybernetic brain implants be safe if there are hackers who can access them, and thus control the minds of people with these implants? As the “Neuralink” project progresses, these issues will only become more urgent.

One of the animations seeking answers to these questions is “Ghost in the Shell,” released in Japan in 1995. The main character—a cybernetically-modified woman, major Motoko Kusanagi—is an agent for a secret organization, doing Japanese government’s dirty work. While chasing a mind hacker, paving her way through a complex investigation, she delves deep into inner conflict: possessing a fully-artificial body (the shell), but also being a person, with an organic brain, with real emotions, doubts, and soul (the ghost), major tries to answer a simple question: who is she, a machine or a human?

“Ghost in the Shell” has become extremely popular both in Japan and in the West. Suffice to say that the Wachowski sisters (brothers back then) were so inspired by it that it pushed them towards creating “The Matrix.” Even now, 22 years after being released, the animation keeps attracting new fans, due to its complex plot, stylish visuals, dramatic story and characters, and astonishing soundtrack.

The recent movie, “Ghost in the Shell,” filmed by Rupert Sanders this year, is a Hollywood attempt to convert the source cartoon into a 3D blockbuster. Being a risky enterprise (considering the amount of the animation’s devoted fans and the whole subculture that has emerged around it), “Ghost in the Shell” treads carefully. It thoroughly copies the cult scenes of the original (creating major’s body, chasing a garbage man, fighting a giant robot in the end, and many others), adding some stunning cityscapes and making the world of the original more colorful and bright. Unfortunately, only copying does not guarantee succeeding.

Visually, the movie is candy. The city Sanders shows the audience is amazing: huge holograms, multi-level skyscrapers, fancy and weird-looking cybernetically-enhanced citizens (you can see how common cyber-augmentations have become in the future—even the low-life and homeless people have them installed), neon lights, the atmosphere of a multi-national melting pot—all this looks stunning, stylish, futuristic, and at the same time elusively similar to what people pass by every day at Times Square or Shinjuku crossing. Character design is no less impressive: the squad of augmented hitmen in the beginning gave me goosebumps, even though their screen life lasted for less than two minutes; robotic geisha, the hacker major Killian is after (yes, in the movie her name is Mira Killian, but fret not, dear anime fans, everything will be explained), her partner Batou with his optic lenses instead of eyes, played by Theon Greyjoy… oops, Pilou Asbaek—all of them and many other characters look great.

Oh yes, casting. There was a lot of hustle-bustle among the fan community because of casting; people were angry for Japanese characters being played by western actors. Well, in my opinion, this did not spoil anything. Scarlett Johansson and company act just fine, display all the appropriate emotions convincingly, and in general their acting does not make you want to walk out of the cinema. The only actor whose acting is not just good, but outstanding, is Takeshi Kitano (you might know him for filming and acting in such movies as “Sonatine,” “Brother,” or “Kikujiro”). Every second of time Kitano stays on screen is mesmerizing: his minimalistic, almost ambient acting reveals Aramaki, his character, much more fully than all the efforts other actors made throughout the whole movie. The scene when Aramaki is ambushed by corporate hitmen has become one of my personal favorite film moments of all times. Thank you, master Kitano.

Unfortunately, there are not many action scenes like this one. The best of them were copied from the anime, and look way too cool; others, choreographed by the movie creators and thus absent in the source, were much weaker. I cannot remember any of them, instead probably the one in the club. Fists fly around, guns shoot, cars drive—and that is all I can say about the action in “Ghost in the Shell.” The contrast between these two kinds of action scenes makes the movie somewhat bumpy, abrupt: one scene can pin your eyes to the screen, while another one might make you yawn.

The plot… well, it is there. It still has the main conflict major Kusanagi from the original “Ghost in the Shell” tried to solve, and it kind of raises some of the important questions I listed in the beginning of this review—but it does it in a such cliched and Hollywoodish manner that I could not get rid of the sensation that I had seen it all before in other movies. In this regard, I cannot refrain from comparing the movie to the anime; in the latter, the dialogues were few and minimalistic, but the meaning they contained were deep. Too deep, sometimes, so it was difficult to understand the whole story from the first attempt. Of course, since the movie was made for a mass audience, it is much more shallow than the animation; characters speak with template phrases, express all their thoughts and intentions verbally (as if directly addressing the audience), and all the depths of their inner conflicts remain, in the best case scenario, slightly ajar.

In a nutshell, I still liked the movie. I was afraid that Sanders would irreversibly spoil the original, but he rather copied it, affording some digressions, although the overall simplifications he made are sometimes disturbing and annoying—at least for the fans, I suppose. But, if you are a person who has never watched the original, you will definitely like the new “Ghost in the Shell”: it is colorful, stylish, even exotic, and compared to many other recent science-fiction movies, it is not stupid—due to the source, I guess.

P.S. Oh yes, and do not miss the soundtrack from the original “Ghost in the Shell” at the end. It is awesome.

4/5

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