Saturday, 15 April 2017

"They created me. But they can not control me."

Back in 1995, Japanese director Mamoru Oshii released a manga adapting anime which asked searching questions about what makes us human while serving up astonishingly slick and inventive hi-tech action sequences. Ghost In The Shell was a deserved crossover phenomenon, earning its comparisons with the likes of Blade Runner (1982) and paving the way for the Wachowskis' The Matrix (1999).

That it took over 20 years for Hollywood to reskin it for live action isn't that surprising – after all, weren't there already enough science fiction movies out there that shared its neon tinged hardwiring? Perhaps it has been long enough for an audience to glide over the advertisement dominated, cityscapes of the latest Ghost In The Shell and not feel like it is just Blade Runner re-scanned. Or that the Major's psychic tussle to recover the truth of her life before she became a hard bodied, crime fighting, walking weapon is just another version of Murphy's struggle in RoboCop (1987). But if you are a longstanding fan of this genre, then the original's deep, abiding influence on Hollywood makes its remake feel derivative of so many movies other than its source material.

Of course, familiarity can often encourage nostalgia, and that is not hurt by the fact that Ghost In The Shell is a cogently constructed entertainment. Director Rupert Sanders is clearly an adept world builder and visualist, as proven by his debut Snow White & The Huntsman (2012).

From run down neon lit streets to gleaming corridors and floating holographic advertising, the stereoscopy boosts the immersion in the tangible environments. His reconstruction of the original's key set pieces too – including the urban lagoon showdown with an invisible Major, and the climactic fight with a Spider Tank – are equally as impressive.

He has also cast the film appropriately. For all the accusations of 'whitewashing', there is diversity here, with the Danish Pilou Asbæk  (Lucy) as the lens eyed Batou, Singaporean Chin Han (The Dark knight) as mulletted cop Han, and Japanese cinematic legend 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano (The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi), in only his third American film, as the sly Chief Daisuke Aramaki. As for Johansson in the lead role, the film's concept is that her body is an artificially produced construct – it would have been a welcome and progressive move to put an Asian actor in the role, but Johansson fits it well in the sense that the Major's 'shell' (i.e. body) is conceived in this script as something that isn't a natural fit for the character, or rather the character's 'ghost' (i.e. soul).

In the pre-credits opening, as Major's body is created (one of many visual cues directly invoking the anime), she is surrounded by a phalanx of medical technicians kitted out with vital sign measuring holographic visors. Her thermo optical camouflage skin suit here providing Johansson with a little more modesty than the anime's fully nude Major.

There is definitely something off about Johansson's Major – a disconnect between her physical form and her true self. She has been here before as an actor. There are close parallels to her performance in Under The Skin (2013), where she played a predatory alien in a human form of limited functionality, and also shades of the super enhanced Lucy (2014), not to mention Black Widow from the Marvel movies (though there she was a different kind of programmed killing machine). But here she adopts an altogether different physicality – hunched and heavy-footed, as if every movement is a heavy burden. There is a faint hint of Frankenstein's Monster in her surly stride.

That said, by necessity of the plot, Major remains a mostly blank slate throughout. It is a controlled performance by Johansson, who captures the character's uncanny emptiness, even if the result is that she is not the easiest central character to root for, even as flashes (or ghosts) of her previous life start appearing before her eyes. As such, the film lacks an emotional anchor, and some of the reveals lack the emotional punch that they should. It is more a problem with the film than Johansson herself. A case, if you will, of it being so preoccupied with the shell, it forgot to bring enough ghost.

So heavily derivative it doesn't feel like anything new, and there is little depth beneath that slick surface. But it is solid and attractive, at least, with a retro appeal to its cyberpunk stylings.

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