Reviewed by John Hussey
Initially I wasn’t interested in this film, nor was I bothered by the whole “white-washing” controversy (which I found to be complete bollocks really when you consider most manga/anime characters resemble people from the western world, rather than the Japanese’s own culture – so surely it would make sense to follow suit with a live-action adaption?) but upon seeing trailers for the film I was immediately hooked.
Though I didn’t know whether I’d go to the cinema to see the film, I can say with certainty that I’m glad I did in the end. Ghost in the Shell is a wonderful story exploring the dark, twisted nature of human society wanting to find the next best thing, particularly when it comes to technology and cosmetics. In the near future humanity has found a way to blend these two factors together and thus created a society where there is no clear line between human and machine.
This, by itself, serves as a great part of the film. The world that has been built around the characters can be treated as its own entity which draws you in from the very second you see it. Though we’ve seen futuristic cities before, with their high skyscrapers, out-of-this-world features, robotics left, right, and centre, and an other-worldly quality running through the middle, I felt that this futuristic city became something else entirely. I guess it just shows how far technology has come in our own time and that filmmakers can create these giant landscapes of a brave-new world and we simply believe what we are seeing is genuine.
I liked the small details of merging the different cultures from around the world, whilst the city remained Asian in origin in order to retain the feeling of the source material. Then there’s the holographic projections across the city which really go to show this new state of advertisement, luring customers into buying the latest upgrades. It adds to this underlining idea of what it means to be human anymore.
Another neat feature is the different areas, represented by the cultures and classes residing within. You have these really expansive areas positioned in the centre of the city, whilst we have the more grittier looking areas where crime takes place, along with areas that feel poor and run down, a place where the lower class citizen are forced to live.
When moving onto the actual plot, that’s when the shine starts to rub off. Unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell lacks a well thought-out plot as it originally proclaims. With the whole narrative and world revolving around the core aspect of blending the human soul with machinery you’d expect the film to have a deep meaning, but fails to go anywhere beyond a steady comfort zone with occasional shock-value moments (which are mostly predictable).
Immediately this film reminded me of one of my favourite science-fiction films of all times, I, Robot. I know, I know, not everybody likes this film, but for me it has a great story with lots of thought put into it. I naturally assumed Ghost in the Shell would utilise I, Robot‘ intellectual story and develop a true sense of balance between what it means to be machine and human. This would make sense considering our protagonist, The Major, has had her brain merged with a cybernetic shell, making her the first of her kind. But sadly the character’s progression stays constant throughout.
This plot-point almost makes the entire film feel like a complete waste of time. Apart from The Major none of the other characters progress throughout the plot, thus their character remains exactly the same at the conclusion as they were at the beginning. Part of me feels like the filmmakers wanted to get the characters as accurate to their source material as humanly possible but then forgot to give them character. In many ways they feel very generic, put together for a single role, and thus their contribution to the narrative ends there.
Although, two characters do stand out. Firstly we have Batou who has the closest connection with The Major, thus feeling like her friend/partner. He always tries to look out for her and never treats her differently. Though he still suffers with some generic qualities, his character is more refined and is certainly entertaining to follow, despite having set things to do and say. I do enjoy the banter him and The Major have with each other, thus giving The Major those rare moments where she acts beyond a machine.
Then you have Chief Daisuke Aramaki who starts off rather quiet, giving out metaphorical advice to The Major, before later becoming a surprising badass. When you think he’s down for the count he suddenly springs into life and takes out the men that tried gunning him down, even equipped with a humorous comeback. What helps to make his character stand out (which helps to remind you of the film’s Japanese heritage) is the fact that he always speaks in his native tongue.
The Major certainly has the most attention throughout the film (for obvious reasons) and does undergo a journey, to which it’s made to feel like she’s developing as a character, but you’d be wrong. Sure The Major undergoes many moments of discovery, thus understanding her character more personally, but this never once affects her emotional state. She remains robotic throughout the entire film.
I kind of understand why this is the case because her body is literally a machine, with her brain being the only human part left. But you’d think that she’d retain a sense of humanity, although this could be down to the fact that she has no real memories of her past, or any emotional experiences. But it’s not like she’s lacking a brain to re-understand basic human behavioural patterns. There are clear reasons as to why her human-side is non-existent within the first half of the film (if a little sloppy) but this doesn’t alter the fact that there’s no real pay-off by the end.
Let’s look at I, Robot which goes about to explore the “ghosts in the machine”, in which implies that robots will ultimately learn and adapt to be more human because they too have a soul, with Sonny becoming the first machine to be gifted with emotional understanding, along with his very own dreams. I really thought something similar would be applied to Ghost in the Shell but all we got was a half-arsed variation.
Here’s another example, Robocop (another of my personal favourite science-fiction films of all times). Although Alex Murphy is already a law-enforcement officer before becoming Robocop, The Major is still in a similar situation where she is created to be the ultimate fighting machine, grafted with human instinct. The core aspect of Robocop is Murphy slowly remembering his past, and thus rekindling with his humanity to become the man he once was. Again, I thought this was where Ghost in the Shell was going but failed to grasp the idea of “character development”.
As the plot goes, The Major is assigned with protecting the city with a division called Section 9. She and her team soon comes across a plot to attack members of the corporation Hanka (the very organisation that has pushed the world into a cybernetic age). This is where we’re introduced to some of the more interesting aspects of the world. Most humans are augmented, and usually carrying devices where the occupant can stream information into the back of their neck like a USB socket. Other aspects include internal communication devices which Section 9 use to discretely communicate when on missions.
The mystery thickens as to why, and how, geisha robots and augmented humans have been hacked by a cyber-terrorist in order to kill and hack CEO members of Hanka. In the meantime The Major is suffering with glitches with her vision and sounds. This again brings you to the attention of the computer age this world resides within, like everyone is trapped within a computer system and abides by its laws and physics. Upon visiting her designer, Dr. Ouelet, she discards these memories, and thus gives us the further idea that her humanity isn’t her own and is under the complete control of her benefactors, who can freely monitor her existence.
It’s quickly realised that these image and sound glitches are memories seeping through the subconscious, and thus begins the slow and painful game of realising what is really going on. Though (like most films) the trailers spoilt a lot of the revelations this film had to offer, particularly when it came to The Major’s past being a lie. But, then again, it was obvious from the get-go that something seemed fishy, and with the kind of film we were delving into, it seemed even more obvious which direction the narrative would surely take.
We’re introduced to the “supposed” villain of the plot, Kuze, who is revealed to be an earlier experiment of The Major’s own design. Upon being deemed a failure during the grafting process Kuze was quickly discarded and now he wants revenge. Even before this revelation it was clearly obvious that he had some sort of connection to The Major, and that there was more than meets the eye with his motivations, becoming one of those villains that did the wrong things for the right reasons. In many ways Kuze became a tragic baddy that was warped into the villain, but never really reaching the mark of actual villain.
Kuze never does anything too outlandish, and only punishes those that wronged him. So, you could argue whether or not Kuze can be credited as the villain. Although when he starts to take over innocent workers to commit the kills that’s when you might lean towards calling him diabolical. But on the other-hand he does re-write a man’s memory in order to make him believe he has a better life (before he eventually tops himself because of the confusion in his mind).
I suppose that question is quickly made redundant when (you guessed it) the villain is revealed to be a greedy, selfish, money-making businessman. Cutter screams “villain” from the first moment you lay eyes on him, wanting to make The Major a weapon instead of utilising her as a potential beacon for humanities future, to which Dr. Ouelet originally wanted. Things become rather generic once The Major uncovers the truth about her past. It was all a lie, her past was created by Hanko, and she was deemed nothing more than a expendable instrument for the company.
Dr. Ouelet is even given her moment of villainy when she reveals she knew the truth all along and merely guided The Major the way she wanted, taking away her ghost and leaving her a mere shell of her former self. This really went into explaining why The Major felt more like a machine, because her humanity was being contained, with the so-called medicine she was taking to maintain a connection with her robotic body was in fact a means to block her real memories.
Although, Dr. Ouelet does have a redeeming moment, after she is painted the “bad guy” for looking at The Major as an investment for humanities future, when she disobeys Cutter’s instructions to kill The Major and instead gives her the tools she requires to get her memories back, ultimately being killed in the process. The next section of the film sees The Major being an enemy of the run as troops are sent in to kill her, with Cutter utilising his powers to make out that The Major killed Dr. Ouelet.
Section 9 ultimately don’t believe this bullshit and are too targeted. In the meantime, The Major begins to put the pieces back together and finds her old home and her mother, who wasn’t killed in a terrorist attack as her programmed memories suggested. This moment becomes quite tragic because her mother is broken by the fact that the government told her that her daughter was dead, despite the facts being suspicious. You then have The Major sitting in front of her connecting the dots (as do you) and you come to this awkward revelation which is hard to both swallow and explain.
Her past becomes even more tragic when it is revealed that she was taken by Hanko, along with other teenage runaways, in order to be experimented on. The Major, originally known as Motoko Kusanagi (instead of Mira Killian as she was led to believe), was simply a product of humanities greed to exceed their expectations, thus transitioning into the realms of Gods as they tried desperately to create new ways to evolve with technology.
What’s ironic is Motoko was known for being an activist against mankind splicing themselves with machines, and ended up becoming a part of that cruel system. Kuze is also revealed to be her love-interest prior to their kidnapping (which honestly) doesn’t add much to the character’s souls. This is what let Ghost in the Shell down: a lack of soul within the characters. They feel rather bland and without any real meaning beyond what the script tells them to do and say.
Like with Robocop, you’d expect The Major to rekindle with her humanity and make that clear line between what is machine and what is human, thus concluding the film on an intelligent note. But instead The Major doesn’t feel any more human, thus still acts, walks, and talks like a robot despite her past now known to her. Heck, she even ends up rekindling with her own fucking mother, who becomes aware of the truth and happily takes her daughter back in.
But The Major is still one-dimensional and shows no real emotion which I think completely misses the point of the story’s intentions. To make matters worse is that The Major ends up right back where we first properly saw her, standing on the edge of a building preparing to kill people at the direct command of Aramaki. Score one for development!
I guess the problem lies with the script deflating the niceness of the film. Hence why I first talked about the way the film looked, and the way the world is developed because the characters just feel really absent within this extraordinary looking environment which has so much life breathing through it.
I mean, the special effects and direction of this film are incredible. Director Rupert Sanders really knew what he wanted out of this project and did his damdest to create a world that felt real, and that you wanted to freely immerse yourself within. And don’t get me wrong, Ghost in the Shell is far from being a bad film. Nor would I say it was disappointing. It’s simply lacking in what it could’ve been. But despite this it still stands as an entertaining popcorn flick, filled with great action and specially designed environments. I think it could’ve done with a little more depth and emotion.
One of the major factors of this film has to go to Scarlett Johansson who plays The Major really well (despite the character always feeling too robotic). But in that sense she nails it. I even liked how her movements didn’t feel human. She moved like a machine would. There were times were human elements seeped through and there was signs that she understood what it meant to be human but it was constantly clouded by her mysterious past and her new purpose within the shell.
I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the whole “white-washing” bullshit because Johansson really gave it her all and delivered yet another great performance. I’d say she was the perfect casting and really helped with my overall enjoyment of the film.
Plus, considering that Ghost in the Shell is literally about identity within an age of augmentation between man and machine, Johansson’s casting made the revelation that she was once a completely different person, of a completely different race, more meaningful, adding greatly to the film’s themes as she was literally “a ghost in the shell”. But, it’s just a simple shame that more emphasis wasn’t applied throughout to give the film that extra bit of emotional depth.