Imagine for a moment if everything that made you unique — your hobbies, your lifestyle ect — were suddenly ripped away. The life you once lead, the connections you made, were gone. Now take it one step further and imagine every cell that composed your body — your freckles, your birthmark, even the feeling of your own skin — were gone, numb to the touch. Will you still be able to retain who you are? Or do you lose yourself to a life of chasing your memories?
This is the struggle of Major (and theme of Ghost in the Shell), a Cyborg counter-cyberterrorist field commander (Scarlett Johansson) who leads the section 9 task force with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) to thwart and criminals, hackers and the villainous terrorist, Kuze (Michael Pitt).
Despite her hardness, there is more to Major than meets the robotic eyes. Haunted by system glitches, the once human Major is adjusting to life in a foreign body. Despite the advances in technology, simple things like touch and intimacy can never be replicated. She is forever trapped. That is, until she meets a hacker whose encounter leads her down the path of distrust and self-discovery that forever changes her life and those around her.
There are a thousand ways Ghost in a Shell could have been disaster. The original manga, movies and animated series were inspiring and filled with stylized drawings. It would have been difficult to replicate with the technology of the time. However, twenty-six years after the manga, great advancements in technology has been achieved which allowed for this movie to be one of the best anime adaptations to exist (so far).
Laughing in the face of The Matrix, Ghost in a Shell is a visual artists’ wet dream. Thanks to WETA Workshop, prosthetic costumes and animatronics come together to create one breathtaking moment after the next. Exploding with color, each scene comes to life in new and exciting ways as ads literally walk the city streets, cyborgs walk among humans, and everyone is connected to technology; making each sight more wondrous than the last. Succumbed by the globalized future, the world is a cultural mecca that breaks down the walls of culture and languages. Japanese (spoken by Aramaki) and English flow effortlessly without barrier as Togusa (Chin Han) and Ladriya (Danusia Samal) communicate with each other without a hitch.
Then there are the fights scenes. Each movement flows like a coordinated ballet surrounded by bullets and mayhem that truly gets the heart pumping. Shot-by-shot fight scenes are renewed by fight choreographer/stunt coordinator Tim Wong that are sure to please any action fan. The infamous therm-optic camouflage water fight scene and opening fight scene are paintings come alive. Alone, they easily tell a story that happily lead you on a violent (yet bloodless) journey where cyborgs climb walls and acrobatically fight and fire their guns with precision.
While Johansson makes questionable acting decisions, she carries the psychological weight of Major with care. Balancing between cyborg and human, she shifts her body weight to separate herself from other cyborgs, almost a deliberate attempt to remind those that she’s a human trapped in a foreign and new shell. When she’s Major (the soldier), she is hard, focused and strictly business. However, during the quiet nights alone, her facade fades. She’s vulnerable, observant and fragile. Troubled by the world of technology, daily routines for a human become mindless activities to a cyborg.
Pitt as Kuze is visual delight, a beautiful mesh of human and machine, he is able to mesmerize Major despite the danger he presents. Aided by special effects, Pitt completely puts himself into the character, bringing understanding and purpose to the world of technology.
Pilou Asbæk shines as Batou, Major’s partner in the field. He balances out the tough exterior with charming and human moments. Simple things like feeding dogs are human touches he provides for Major. While providing compassion for her, she is finally able to let down her wall and be herself. There’s an easiness and comfort between the two actors that makes their connection authentic. Through a series of events, Batou tries to be closer to Major not for romantic gain but for unbridled friendship, trust and love.
Despite the movie’s best intentions it still suffers from a simplistic formulaic plot. While focusing on technology, Major’s struggle is muddled and never reaches a resolution. While there are sequel’s planned, being able to wrap up one storyline before starting a new one is not displayed in the writing as the movie begins to lose its meaning.
Ghost in the Shell rises a lot of themes/questions and new realities for Major and others but neither the audience nor the characters are allowed to process this before jumping into the next scene. A majority of the movie is spent trying to discover Major’s real identity but since the final act is rushed and force-fed, the big reveal is unsatisfying and dull. Even Kuze is left by wayside with other unexplored plot-points.
Even though these are enough problems to turn viewers off, it is still quite enjoyable. There’s no escaping the valiant effort of the script and bravery of the visual style. Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that despite its respect of the source material, it succumbs to the repetitive nature of Hollywood blockbusters, thus losing its own identity. Lack of overall character depth, resolutions, and at times boring execution, the weight of the movie is forced on the shoulders of Johansson, which is just too big for one person. While it starts off with a bang, it slowly falls apart, reminding the viewer that sometimes the heart of the original is just untouchable and will forever be a ghost of its former self.