Though reviews can be bearers of truth, they can also mislead. Ghost in the Shell has a 45-percent score on RottenTomatoes.com. The reviews are all around the same: it lacks the “magic” of the original 1995 anime film, Hollywood messes everything up, and casting Scarlett Johansson to play the main character in a Japanese story is a racist, unforgivable aspect, even though they address this fact in the beginning of the film. This popular reception, based more on political clichés than on the movie itself, however, fails to see Ghost in the Shell for what it really is: an American interpretation of an iconic Japanese manga, whose Hollywood production doesn’t fall short of being politically charged.
Set in a futuristic world where it’s normal for people to receive robotic augmentations, the plot follows a young refugee, Motoko Kusanagi (Johansson), who survives a terrorist attack. After her body is deemed unusable, her brain is implanted in a robotic body, which gives her inhuman physical skills and an ability to become invisible. This operation is performed by Hanka Robotics, the company that leads these augmentation practices. The corporation’s CEO decides for her to join Section 9, an anti-terrorist operations group that responds to the government. Here, she attains the rank of Major, which she adopts as her own name.
As part of Section 9, Major is sent to stop a cyber-terrorist who is murdering people linked to a specific Hanka Robotics operation. This mission leads Major to make discoveries about the world she lives in, her past, and her identity—in other words, “the ghost in the shell.”
The movie manages to cover several complex themes effectively and with a depth close to the one those themes deserve. The question of the ethical boundaries of science is constantly present, and makes us wonder about the future of humanity—can it be fully rationalized? Where should the line between robots and humans be set?
Furthermore, the film touches upon contemporary topics, such as the value of life in relation to migrant people, the fight against terrorism, state surveillance, and ideological persecution. In bringing these reflections, the so-called “Westernization” of the movie shines at its best light. The condescending non-issue of a Japanese story being adapted by American filmmakers is deemed absurd when Rupert Sanders’ version manages to take the 1989 manga to a different, yet not less, interesting place that speaks to the contemporary Western political context.
The deep reflections, however, are often limited by the movie’s extreme factual density. The movie is overwhelmingly fast-paced, where substantive moments are reduced almost to snapshots and characters have not too credible realizations about what to do next, or where to find someone. These flaws in the script are commonplace in the genre, yet the weight of the philosophical questions and the characters in this film force us to judge the script at a higher standard. Moreover, director Rupert Sanders’ choice to economize with story and character development to devote more time to fight scenes is at least questionable. Scenes with gunshots are too long, and meaningful conversations happen in glimpses.
While the movie honors the genre in the occasional weakness of its script, it also honors the genre with the incredible landscaping of a dystopian, Tokyo-inspired metropolis. Sanders’ work follows the aesthetic reference line of the Blade Runner universe, mixing mundane characters of urban life like street butchers and stray dogs with a plethora of digital interfaces set in every surface and cyborgs in every corner. The movie also does an impeccable job at producing subdued special effects, making robotic augmentations seem natural and destructive human-like machines believable.
Johansson flawlessly interprets a character that manages to convince the audience of emotional breakthroughs in an agile, action-packed film. Her skill is best showcased in the first scenes, where her character is introduced to an alien body, giving Johansson the opportunity to show us her best portrayal of vulnerability. In her fight scenes, she blends perfectly with the SFX work, and in the rest of the movie, she conveys perfectly the struggles of someone questioning her identity and the power structures to which she is functional. Her sexualized presentation is toned down in comparison to the original manga, and it is also addressed by the script—she is treated as an object, not a person. Johansson does a good job at showing us that Kusanagi often believes this too.
In a nutshell, the critical masses denouncing the movie’s “problematic” nature could do well by watching the movie. Then, they would probably be able to appreciate it as a ground-breaking piece that expands a Japanese masterpiece’s reach to a Western audience, while managing to retain the revolutionary message of the original work and successfully making it relevant to today’s reality.
Featured Image By Paramount Pictures