Ever since the Seventies, the science fiction genre has been a cesspit of human misery and corporate excess. I don't know what the 1970's were like to live in, but clearly they were shit: they corrupted fiction's most optimistic genre. Back in its Golden Age, sci-fi was akin to the supremely-naive character who gets killed off in the first act of a horror film. Nowadays, however, it's rather dated to picture sci-fi as anything other than nightmarish and dystopian.
Which leads me to the latest misery-guts sci-fi release: the live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow's legendary 1989 manga, Ghost in the Shell. A film which I've been eagerly waiting for since the rumours began back in 2008. Since my last few trips to the cinema ended in disappointment, I finally decided it was high time to see the film I wanted to watch all along. Disappoint me once, shame on you; disappoint me twice, shame on me; disappoint me thrice, well I'm just a kinky bastard who gets off on punishment then aren't I?
Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise which combines weighty themes like transhumanism, individualism vs corporatism, and the impact of technology on society, with stylised ass-kicking. It has its roots in properties like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and even shades of Karel Capek's 1920 play R.U.R. Though the 1989 manga started it all, it's the 1995 anime film version which popularised the series. I discovered the anime as part of one of those fortnightly magazines that came with a DVD, sold by enterprising newsagents more than willing to provide young teens with a steady supply of cartoon tits and ultraviolence.
It is said anime version that Ghost in the Shell (2017) is largely based upon.
In the not-so-distant future mankind has begun augmenting itself cybernetics - implants which are able to improve almost every aspect of the body - at the ultimate cost of 'dehumanisation'. As with most cyberpunk, augmentation here is treated as this big moral dilemma. Though I'm not sure why: cybernetics worked out pretty fucking well for Inspector Gadget.
But this is a bleak world run by corporations - with the sort of ad-filled skyline that resembles early 2000's mobile web browsers - and plagued by cyberterrorism and poverty. Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is a victim of these terrorists, her body destroyed in an attack that also killed her parents. Mega corporation Hanka Robotics, seeing this as the perfect opportunity to test their secret project, orders Mira's brain (her 'ghost') to be placed into a mechanical 'shell' - creating a...Ghost in a Shell. Christ.
A year later and Mira, now known as 'Major', is part of an elite crime fighting organisation called Section 9; hot on the trail of a scientist-killing terrorist known as Kuze. She's Robocop, if you will.
What follows is a tightly wound corporate conspiracy thriller of secret experiments and extremists waging guerrilla warfare. The kind of exciting hacker-cowboy future writers like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling waxed lyrical about, but which is represented in real life by thirteen-year-old virgins carrying out DoS attacks on Xbox Live.
The story even becomes somewhat psychological once the concepts of hacking augmented individuals and false memories are introduced. Not being able to trust your own memories is the sort of terrifying cognitive dissonance made more prescient by our post-truth world. Kuze (Michael Pitt) forms a sympathetic villain when you realise he's just a Frankenstein's Monster: his persona/memories are artificial creations, and (in a more literal sense) his patchwork cyborg body is truly monstrous.
Ghost in the Shell's views on the possible 'high tech, low life' future certainly feel more prescient than Gibson's stories about ninja-cyborg girls he wishes he could bang.
It's a particularly reverent adaptation. Not a carbon copy, but a film with cinematography which faithfully recreates the look, feel, and tone of the source material. As with all good cyberpunk, the setting is paramount. Here, we have a chaotic pan-Asian city where the old is blended with the new. A sweeping neon-soaked cityscape - wonderfully realised and evoking the iconic Blade Runner - contrasted with disgustingly crowded slums that are like a cross between an ant farm and a goth nightclub.
Some of the film's key scenes are directly lifted from the anime, though. I will admit seeing my favourite moments from the 1995 film, recreated in live-action, made me squee like a nun riding a knobbly bicycle down a cobblestone road. Especially spectacular was the famous scene where a cloaked (invisible) Major takes down a would-be assassin in a one sided hand-to-hand fight: think of it as being similar to the scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton starts hitting himself.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell is a solid action/sci-fi flick that deals with heavy weight themes in a easily digestible way. Whilst the original was more broadly philosophical, this film takes a more individual approach. Though (and I've added this post-review) just because you're an Otaku doesn't mean the Japanese original was more complex. This franchise has always been less complex than it thinks, like the girl in the creative writing class with father issues.
Johansson is perfectly cast, playing an emotionally stunted hard-ass who can throw a punch or two, but mostly gets beaten down. It's as though she treats this as a second stab at Lucy, a movie that would have been good if you weren't (as the movie supposes) using 90% of your brain. No one who isn't Scarlett Johansson or Michael Pitt gets much to do (as Dr. Ouelet, Juliette Binoche is mostly Mrs. Exposition), so it's fortunate that they're both good.
Though Takeshi Kitano - America's go-to elderly Japanese actor now Mr. Miyagi is dead - does get an ace turn in as the trench coat wearing, hand cannon wielding Section 9 leader - Daisuke Aramaki.
One final thought: the whole 'whitewashing' debacle that dogged this production is neatly side-stepped. For what does race matter in a world where technology can not only place a consciousness into a different body, but also create false memories and identities? Moreover, Mira was an actual Japanese girl before Hanka Robotics screwed her over. It should be noted that this was an issue which only ever mattered to racists. Because that's what these moral outrage people are: they just happen to be the trendy type of racist. Call them the 'wishy-whitewashy' brigade.
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