Directed by Rupert Sanders | Written by Jimmy Moss and William Wheeler from the manga by Masamune Shirow | 107 min | Netflix
A late-arriving Hollywoodized adaptation of the popular manga, anime movies, and TV series is in some ways an improvement over the original material. The 1995 film was a gorgeous vision of the future, hypnotic and seductive, but the dense, philosophical exposition was painfully dull—losing much in the English translation—and the characters were thin. The live action edition—such as it is with so much slathered CGI—makes a little more sense and comes complete with actual characters, though the story they’ve spun up is one we’ve heard too many times.
Rather than being about an evolution of humanity cleaving with technology, here the Major (Scarlett Johansson), a human brain in a cyborg body, is on a much more individual sort of existential journey, coming across like a superhero’s origin story. In the anime, the Major was her job. She didn’t angst over her past or identity. But naturally, because this is Hollywood in 2017, we can’t very well launch into an adventure without it being centrally about the hero’s identity—James Bond has the same trouble. It’s played out and reductive and something we see far too much these days.
The part of the file that’s been successfully transferred is the Major as part of a militarized police squad called Section Nine—including the barely there Chin Han, Lasarus Ratuere, and Danusia Samal, while the supercool Takeshi Kitano and the excellent Pilou Asbæk have more to do. They work in a future city that’s Hong Kong and Shanghai amalgamated, dwarfed by massive hologram advertising. It’s an amazing vision. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a movie solely for the production design, but in this case it’s the very best reason to see Ghost In The Shell.
The head of the robotics company Hanka (welcome back Michael Wincott) has his brain hacked for information by a mysterious cyber- assailant (who turns out to be Michael Pitt, now going by Michael Carmen Pitt), while the shadowy Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and the maternal Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) appear as other Hanka employees.
Of course that’s the same company that provided the Major with her remarkable body and supplies her regular meds so her brain won’t reject her automation—all this while glitchy memories keep coming to the surface..
The direct dystopic debt is to Blade Runner and Akira, as was the original text, but you’ll also see pieces of The Fifth Element and The Matrix in these spectacular, hypnotic visuals. It’s just too bad the script couldn’t have been a little more original.
Critics’ accusations of the film’s whitewashing are hard to deny when Hollywood casts a white actor in material adapted from Japanese fantasy, though interestingly when Hollywood remade Godzilla and set it in California with a largely white American cast, I don’t recall any similar outrage. The dream factory swallows and regurgitates everything, and the cast here is as international as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The talent and draw of this star is also undeniable: Johansson brings a capable physicality and a compelling aesthetic—she very much embodies the character’s original look.
With this solid physical performance—the way she changes her walk and movements here is fascinating—and her global box office smash Lucy, Marvel can no longer deny that the world’s premiere female action star deserves her own Black Widow movie. C’mon people, get with the program.