Be they a cyborg, an android or a mechanical automaton, audiences have been enthralled by robots for a hundred years of celluloid, raising questions around the idea of artificial intelligence and often posing dilemmas never considered when Asimov’s phrased his Three Laws of Robotics. Modelled on the form of humanity there is a continuum of androids from the obviously constructed Maria of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis through to those who can pass close inspection, the Replicants, the later model Cylons, Ash, Bishop, Call and David.
Reflections of humanity whose synthetic intellects compute without emotion, in some ways the androids are constructed zombies, functional and with purpose but whose motivations should not be considered compatible with the species whom they closely resemble, and both can be viewed as a question of identity of the human species in terms of where do we see ourselves and what will our future be.
Possibly the biggest influence on popular culture from film, especially through the last thirty years, has been the cyborg, a long and distinguished list including Darth Vader, the Terminator, RoboCop, the Borg. One perceivable difference between android and cyborg is that it shifts the question of the role of man as a species, our place amongst the cosmos as it were, to a more primary concern, that of mortality.
Death is our oldest adversary, and the role of the cyborg suggests overcoming that from replacement of damaged parts to augmentation through to total body prosthesis. This leads to the question: how much can an individual change whilst still retaining their sense of self; what part of us contains our essence, and can that be transferred?
Ghost in the Shell poses this very question, its name paying homage to theories of Gilbert Ryle from his book The Concept of Mind which looks at the mind-body duality and examining how the two can run parallel yet unconnected to each other. Of course, as with most science fiction this wouldn’t be much of a film if such experimentation wasn’t for some ulterior motive besides profit, and inevitably the first call of the cinema trope bingo card is guaranteed to be weapons.
Based on the seminal 1995 anime of the same name, director Rupert Sanders again turns his hand to the unenviable task of a reimagining of a classic, having taken the helm for 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman which gained him notoriety rather than praise for his work. That film had a solid ensemble cast, adequate budget and a potential franchise to launch yet was a rather insipid affair and the sequel was handed to Sanders’ former visual effects supervisor. Sadly, with Hollywood bereft of the courage to produce original ideas, this is how most directors will cut their teeth.
With a rich history to work with, Masamune Shirow’s original manga, the hugely successful anime and the shows which followed, the expected “whitewashing” aside – while the focus of outrage was Johansson in fact most of the principal cast are consciously international and diverse – Sanders again has a talented cast with which to prove himself; sadly, he offers another rather bland and uninspiring affair.
In an opening scene which could have been taken straight from Paul Verhoeven’s classic RoboCop, the “birth” of the Major sees her brain harvested from her damaged human body and put inside a new artificial chassis (Captain America: Civil War‘s Scarlett Johansson) by Hanka Robotics then assigned to counter-terrorism agency Section 9 as a cyber-soldier.
Working under orders from her superior Aramaki (Battle Royale‘s “Beat” Takeshi Kitano) the Major investigates the case of several murders of high-level Hanka employees, the victims linked by their work on project 2571. The clues leading towards the mysterious Kuze (I Origins‘ Michael Pitt), the Major uncovers more than her creators anticipated and starts to unravel the reasons for her memory glitches as she is led back to places she was supposed to forget.
In theory Ghost in the Shell should have been great, and there are certainly many positives such as the beautiful cinematography of Jess Hall who has previously worked on Hot Fuzz and the rightly maligned Transcendence, and the scenery is a wonderful mix of high-tech and melancholy, the high-rise and decaying industrial dystopia that embodies the look of the anime and such influences as Blade Runner, although sometimes the digital advertising feels a little too heavy. With a score by Moon‘s Clint Mansell and Terminator Genisys‘ Lorne Balfe, the sound is very much of that era with some striking resemblances to Netflix’ cult classic Stranger Things.
Sadly Ms Johansson has been let down by the script from Spectral‘s Jamie Moss, The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘s William Wheeler and Transformers: Age of Extinction‘s Ehren Kruger which eschews the nuances and sub-plots of previous iterations for a ponderous origin story rather than a stand-alone film in its own right. For a broader mainstream audience that is no bad thing but it leaves no real lasting impression, forgotten before the end credits finish rolling, a squandering of the huge potential of the title.
This isn’t to say Johansson is not good as the Major and unlike her lead role in Lucy she is more at home in a team dynamic such as her numerous appearances with the Avengers, and she does have an able ensemble around her including Godzilla‘s Juliette Binoche as Dr Ouelet and her Lucy co-star Pilou Asbæk as her gruff partner/confidante Batou who cares more for the street dogs than his fellow man as the people she turns to as her world starts to crumble, the wonderfully grizzled veteran Kitano to appeal to the native Japanese market, and A Field in England‘s Peter Ferdinando as Hanka’s CEO Cutter.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Johansson has been lost in translation in Japan, but sadly this time it is not in a good way, a missed opportunity happy to settle for competent mediocrity. With little in the way of backstory for any of the characters, no subplots between them and no arcs in characterisation, little is made of her experiencing glitches or starting to recall her wiped past, a ghost who sees ghosts, and even less use is made of Kuze, the Puppet Master of the original whose previously central role is almost sidelined.
What could potentially have been a gateway for newcomers to anime instead downplays many of its own strengths and offers nothing new at all to the fans of the original, at times pointlessly recreating shot for shot when it should have reinvented itself as radically as the Major herself. Ironically, as a live action film this is likely to be seen by a wider audience than have ever experienced the unquestionably superior though niche interest original, a classic which pushed the art of the genre and stands up twenty five years later as one of the defining works of anime.
Ghost in the Shell is now on general release and also screening in IMAX 3D