Major Mira Killian doesn’t remember who she was before. Now the character played by Scarlett Johansson is living inside a different kind of body about to start a different kind of life. She effortlessly leaps and shoots across a deliriously oversaturated cityscape with power and purpose. There’s something wrong at the heart of it all, with her sense of her (own) self. It’s a problem that Ghost in the Shell never really explores in any satisfying way.
Releasing this Friday, Ghost in the Shell happens in a near-future where cybernetic modification of the human body is commonplace. Johansson’s character, Major, works for government counter-terrorism agency Section 9 and is told her brain was implanted into a powerful robotic body after a near-death experience. A mission to stop a series of high-profile killings leads the Major to painful truths about how she was reborn into her new life.
Like the 1995 animated movie directed by Mamoru Oshii and the Masamune Shirow manga it’s based on, Ghost in the Shell focuses on a crisis of the human soul, hastened by the unchecked use of technology that threatens to make humankind’s default biological housing obsolete. The original anime film questioned what it meant to be human in a time when consciousness can live outside the body and memories are subject to editing and manipulation.
Directed by Rupert Sanders, the film takes place in a beautifully realized urban center. The bustling metropolis pays homage to Blade Runner but multiplies the aesthetic idea of how technology will surround and nearly suffocate us in the years to come. Holograms float off buildings and personal displays in hypnotic fashion, spilling out into the public and private spaces of the future. Cyber-modification is presented as both seductively utilitarian and frighteningly repulsive: a bartender slings drinks with a bulky robot arm while a scientist lifts away the upper part of her face to jam a hardwire connection where her eyes used to be. The kaleidoscopic visual cacophony and futureshock design porn quickly emerge as Ghost in the Shell’s biggest strength.
The biggest problem with Ghost in the Shell is that it has its main character asking the wrong sort of existential questions. The Major wonders more about who she was and where she’s been, rather than who she really is and what part specifically differentiates her from others. There’s an important distance between the two: the latter can be more of an accounting, asked with some degree of some self-acceptance, while the former is more of a baseline consideration when trying to figure oneself out.
After evil machinations brand her as a dangerous threat and make her go off-grid, Mira Killian eventually finds out that she used to be a runaway named Motoko Kusanagi. Johansson’s performance feels oddly affected, perhaps an attempt at the stiff uncomfortableness of someone living in a foreign skin. Her aggression often comes across as bloodless and rote and the calls to emotion fall flat. The Major’s journey to finding her original identity could have been a chance to metaphorically explore what happens when a cultural production from a certain time and place gets reconfigured to the point of erasure. It wouldn’t have necessarily deflected the criticisms about the casting that dogged the film for two years but such a move at least would have demonstrated some self-awareness. But there’s none of that here, and no new idiosyncrasies or quirks bubble up as a result of this transposition.
Despite a few shot-for-shot homages to the 1995 movie, the set pieces and fight choreography don’t surpass what’s been in big-budget action movies. Moments where Major runs on walls or attacks while sliding on the floor don’t stand out and the big final showdown against a giant spider-tank also feels mundane. The original manga and anime were works of Japanese imagining, combining into an aesthetic whole. Those projects came from creators who captured the energy of a Japan that had rapidly transformed itself to become a major disseminator of technology and culture. The thematic energy and concerns of Ghost in the Shell 1995 reckoned with what people and nations gain and lose when systemic shifts happen. The specificity that gave the source material its peculiar appeal has been leeched out of this new endeavor, replaced by overly familiar cop-drama beats and generic corporate villainy. At one point in the movie, commanding officer Aramaki says, “When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, then we find peace.” What a shame, then, that the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell doesn’t generate any uniqueness of its own and stumbles where it could have been meaningful. It just disappears where it could have stood out.
[Disclosure note: I’ve known screenwriter Ehren Kruger, one of three credited on the film, since college. We get drinks or hang out every few years and have never talked about this movie.]