I’m not much into anime or manga but my sons are. I first heard of Ghost in the Shell through them and watched the original anime version so long ago that I can barely remember it. So when I went to see the live action one now playing in theaters, I had a relatively fresh perspective and zero expectations on how true it stayed to anyone’s original vision. In short, I’m newbie sticking my toe into the colorful and greatly varied world of Japanese animation stories.
Having said that, the current manga movie, starring Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, is certainly an eyeful. It reeks of a comic book technoshine starting with the opening of the girl being vaguely aware as her brain is taken from her human body and placed into a complete new robotic host. The doctors had weird red laser scanning type goggles and the transference showed flashing fiber optic style connections intertwining with the brain as the capsule was lowered into the body. The whole opening had an artistic feel.
This artistry continues through the rest of the movie as we see a city that is drowning in sensory overload from the street level to the bird’s eye view of ten-story tall hologram advertisements. The look is reminiscent of the old Blade Runner movie, sans darkness and rain. I’m not sure what city she is supposed to be in but the cinematic one reminded me a lot of Tokyo. I spent 1989 there in the Shinjuku ward, which even back then glittered, flashed, and glowed with nearly spasm-inducing intensity at night.
Johansson did a great job as a human/robot mix performing as a cop-type good guy while trying to find out about her past. She even forgoes any pretense to femininity as she kicks ass around the room wearing a skin-colored plastic invisibility suit that makes her look a lot like a slightly swollen naked Barbie doll. She and her best friend Batou, a curt and cold mostly human partner (Pilou Asbaek), are part of a government-sponsored organization meant to stop terrorism. However, she is also somewhat “owned” by the Hanka Corporation, which manufactured her. The company’ experiments blurs the line between human and robot. Their stated goal in some kind of immortality for humanity with cybernetics being the next level of evolution. Over the course of the movie, it also turns out that the company’s owner is involved at the heart of the terrorist activities. Even when the protagonist, called Major, walks into an area, she hulks man-like rather than glides along. I found this factor impressive from someone as beautiful as Johansson. Certainly she is killer feminine enough as Black Widow in the Avengers franchise so discarding it for an emptier, machine feel without going cheesy robotic could not have been easy.
The movie, however, left me feeling confused. Although filled with high-powered glitz, the world seems more of a dystopian society separating the haves and have-nots. Technology itself in the form of cyber enhancements eats away at humanity and those unenhanced are mocked or outcast. The issue of what defines man forms the core of this movie as Major looks for her past and her humanity even though she is more cyber than person.
Visually Ghost in the Shell earns a stunning four thumbs up out of five but really the plot left me trying to make sense of it all. My first impression was that it must have cost a lot to make this film. However, the storyline should be so engaging that I ignore the mechanics of the filming and immerse myself in the story. That did not happen. Perhaps the plot needed time to percolate or requires a second viewing to catch all the nuances in this film. In the meantime, I left wishing I understood it better.
In short: Good visuals on the big screen but not in my top ten for most impressive movies of the year.