The new Ghost In The Shell is a strange creature, an art robot, a cine-droid that replicates the pace and look of anime in the uncanny valley of live-action. It isn’t a remake of Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi animated feature, which is a classic of the genre, but a very studious homage; the plot is original (provided one has never played a video game influenced by Ghost In The Shell), though it draws ideas from later animated adaptations of Masamune Shirow’s manga series. As in all the other versions of this multi-media, multiple-continuity franchise, the setting is a quasi-dystopian cyberpunk future where Japan is the sole superpower and the United States no longer exists. The Major (Scarlett Johansson, perfectly cast), a gooey human brain encased in a high-tech cyborg body, is the most advanced special operative in Section 9, an anti-terrorist unit made up of cybernetically enhanced migrants, supervised by Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Many of the characters in Ghost In The Shell’s animated adaptations are drawn as ethnically ambiguous, but this version of the Major (named Motoko Kusanagi in previous iterations) is a very literal “model immigrant,” said to have been rescued from a refugee boat.
The central image remains the same: the cybernetic body and digitized consciousness as a ship of Theseus problem. But instead of the post-human philosophizing of Oshii’s celebrated adaptation, the underlying concern of this nominal Americanization is actually more Japanese: national identity, with the Major’s prosthetic body as a metaphor for the futuristic cityscape around her, where the only vestiges of local culture are porcelain-skinned robot geishas. It’s a heady and un-commercial theme for a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, and one that the movie never completely articulates—but then, that’s true of all versions of Ghost In The Shell, whose stories of replacement limbs, linked minds, and artificial life are interesting chiefly because of what they could mean. Visually, it resembles nothing else in theaters. From the blocking and editing to the scientifically impossible coiffure, director Rupert Sanders (Snow White And The Huntsman) mimics the styling of Japanese animation, turning the film into its own beguiling meditation on all things synthetic. If it isn’t from Japan and it isn’t animated, can it still be anime?
The script—credited to William Wheeler, Jamie Moss, and Ehren Kruger—finds the Major and her hulking partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk, doing a very committed impression of an anime dub voice actor), on the trail of the shadowy cyber-terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt), who appears to be targeting the same tech corporation that developed the technology behind the Major’s body. It isn’t the most eloquently written of movies or the most suspenseful; a climactic battle with a tarantuloid tank (à la Oshii’s film) is one of this Ghost In The Shell’s lazier acts of pastiche. But it is an eyeful, with production design by Jan Roelfs (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Gattaca, Prospero’s Books) that hearkens back to the CD-ROM futurism of the mid-1990, to Nilo Rodis-Jamero’s designs for Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic, and to the days when sci-fi movies presented worlds more eclectic than our own. This is a design universe of plastic sheeting, tube lighting, and ribbed walls, where voxelated hologram ads stomp across the skyline like kaiju monsters and the textures of even commonplace objects seem alien.
It is in its designs, more so than in its generic corporate-conspiracy plot, that this new Ghost In The Shell finds tantalizing expressions of theme: the faces and limbs of hacked androids breaking up into insect-like forms as they attack; the lonely, recessed spaces of futuristic sleeping quarters; the grotesquerie of cybernetic enhancements; red light districts where human prostitutes dress like sex-bots to attract clientele. Johansson’s Kubrickian performance and the technical precision of the camera make its artifice seem almost haunting. It isn’t quite Ghost In The Shell, but from a metatextual perspective, that’s of a piece with its tale of a future where nothing is quite the real thing.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Ghost In The Shell’s Spoiler Space.