By Nick Milligan
With the news this week that a Stockholm firm are implanting their staff with a microchip that will let them through locked office doors and use printers, it seems that human fusion with machines is now a literal reality.
Of course, our figurative fusion has already happened. Such is our incessant and emotional attachment to phones, computers and Apple wristwatches that suturing ourselves irreversibly to electronics is surely a fait accompli.
Which is why director Rupert Sanders’ live action remake of the hugely influential and chillingly prescient 1995 anime classic Ghost in the Shell was going to be dead on arrival unless it found a way to expand upon the ideas and themes of its source material.
In 2017, writers that dare to weave science fiction have a far different vantage point to Asimov, Orwell, Bradbury and Ballard – or Ghost in the Shell creator Masamune Shirow, for that matter. Modern writers should be able to cast their eye further into the future, given the current state of affairs. It’s inexcusable to retread and regurgitate previous work rather than stand on the shoulders of giants. Which is why Sanders’ Hollywood update of Ghost in the Shell is such a gigantic missed opportunity.
It takes place in a near-future Japan. Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is a special agent that works for an anti-terrorism task force called Section 9. As is revealed by a stunning CGI montage in the opening credits, Major is entirely robotic except for her human brain. Her mind (or “ghost”) exists inside this deadly and agile “shell”. We learn that she nearly died from a terrorist bombing while arriving in Japan with her parents as a refugee.
Major is the work of Hanka Robotics and designer Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who have been innovators in a world where humans are becoming increasingly augmented by technology. Up until now robots have been run by artificial intelligence programs but Major is the first to seamlessly merge the pros of both humanity and technology – a step forward in evolution. The best of both worlds. The CEO of Hanka, a slimy so-and-so named Cutter, sees an opportunity to have Major trained as an operative and thus strengthening his influence on the government.
Along with her Section 9 team, which includes trustworthy compatriot Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Chief Daisuke Aramaki (filmmaker “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), Major investigates a series of terrorist attacks and murders committed by a mysterious hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt). This shadowy man is able to hack the brains of humans who have been augmented and can control them to do his bidding. Major’s investigation into Kuze reveals unsettling secrets from her past.
“Johansson, who is blessed with otherworldly beauty, seems drawn to science fiction characters in the midst of an identity crisis…”
It’s hard to fault Sanders’ approach to the visuals of this largely entertaining yet blatantly derivative remake. He demonstrated his flair for slick CGI with 2012 debut Snow White and the Huntsman and is aided here by strong, immersive production design. There’s floating shots of arresting cityscapes where skyscraper-high advertising holograms populate the otherwise grey, dystopian skyline. The costuming and make-up is similarly on-point, a mash of anachronisms and cyberpunk. Yet the film never has the dark, tangible neo-noir grittiness of Blade Runner or even The Matrix – the world of Ghost in the Shell exists in comic-book heightened reality.
The writing team of Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger have made significant alterations to the plot of the conceptually dense 1995 original, dumbing down the narrative, simplifying the dialogue and attempting to make Major a more sympathetic and damaged heroine. In doing so, they’ve dredged up plot points and subsequent imagery from dozens of previous science fiction films, without being anywhere near as playful and subversive as Paul Verhoeven’s thematically comparable RoboCop from 1987.
There’s no doubt that director Mamoru Oshii’s revered anime required some massaging to turn into a conventional live action movie (if it really was entirely necessary to do so). The dialogue of the original was verbose and laden with extensive exposition, a style suited to and accepted within anime. It was cerebral and subtle, fitted into an 82-minute running time, and Kazunori Itō’s screenplay adaptation of the original manga comics was overloaded with lofty concepts.
Sadly, the exploration of the tension between humans and technology in Sanders’ film – the unavoidable collision course in our collective near future – is hackneyed. Even with this simplified plot, the three-pronged writing team has failed to be incisive. There’s no enlightening moment that resonates on a philosophical level. No depth. Just a series of dark basements, nightclubs and grandiose nods to the best set pieces in the original anime.
Moral ambiguity has also been largely removed from this latest effort. Let us not forget that it’s Major that violently assassinates a foreign diplomat in the original’s breathtaking opening sequence. In the live action remake, Major is coming to the rescue. “The Puppet Master” villain of the original had compelling designs on evolution – to transcend its simple AI origins and embrace humanity. It was a human-made creation in a state of existential crisis. Here Kuze, as our villain is now called, has a far less interesting motivation. The “What is human?” question central to this and so many other sci-fi entries is dealt with on a surface level, void of intellectual analysis.
Though it’s flawed and a Frankenstein’s monster of previous sci-fi imagery, Ghost in the Shell works as a piece of big-screen entertainment. This is largely due to Johansson and Binoche’s committed performances. Johansson, who is blessed with otherworldly beauty, seems drawn to science fiction characters in the midst of an identity crisis, and many of her past performances have echoes of Major. Her portrayal of Black Widow in the Marvel franchise is of a woman trying to do good in the world while wrestling with the violence of her past. In Her, Johansson is a sentient operating system that yearns for human connection and transcendence. In The Island the actress is Jordan Two Delta, a woman created by science who discovers a dark truth about her existence. In Under the Skin, Johansson is an alien life-form in the skin of a beautiful woman who is drawn to human connection. In Lucy, she is a woman altered by technology who soon yearns to transcend the limitations of typical human beings. Even her serene performance as Charlotte in Lost in Translation, waking to a vast Japanese backdrop, is a woman dislocated from the world, trying to work out her place within it. There’s a pattern here, ScarJo!
You can’t question Johansson’s commitment to the role of Major, physically or emotionally. It’s just a shame that the actress is working from material that, despite being about the tenuous connection between the mind and soul, never works out how to harness the thematic power of either.