Mark Reviews Movies

Ghost in the Shell (2017)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rupert Sands

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Peter Ferdinando

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 3/31/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 31, 2017

The two stars of Ghost in the Shell are Scarlett Johansson and the world of this city, called New Port City in Masamune Shirow's original comic, as well as the previous cinematic adaptation of it (an animated film from 1995). It's possible that the place has the same name or another one in this adaptation, but if it's announced in a subtitle near the opening of the movie, I must admit that I missed it. It's too easy to get caught up in the act of just staring at this city, especially if one knows the basics of this material from any of its incarnations. If that means missing whether or not this city has a name, it's a small sacrifice.

The plot essentially remains the same as the animated version, save for a little more detail about the past of the protagonist and little less enigmatic existentialism in the finale. The latter is welcome, because the first film did get trapped in its own philosophical musings a bit too much, without offering the payoff. The former is unnecessary, if only because Johansson makes the character into such a sturdy mystery.

She's an actress of impressive physicality—and not just the various stunts she has to perform here as a human brain trapped inside a cybernetic body. Watching her performance as Major, one will note the way she postures herself, with her entire torso leaning forward, as if her head is leading the rest of her body. Given the nature of the character, whose "ghost"—as the movie refers to the concept of a mind/soul—is the only human thing about her, it's the only logical choice. The stance gives the character that quality, and it also imbues her with an inherent level of intimidation.

As for the artificial side, Johansson keeps her arms straight down her side while walking, as if Major only knows how to use her appendages in combat, and there's an almost robotic nature to her intonation. When she speaks, it's as if the human part of her is trying to break through whatever synthetic processes go about to create her voice.

This is new to her, and it's new to everyone else in this world of an undisclosed future. Major is the first of her kind, resurrected during an opening scene that shows her brain being placed in the skull of a robotic skeleton, the skeleton soaked in a white goo, and the goo breaking to reveal skin-toned segments on what looks like a hyper-realistic mannequin. Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist overseeing this process, treats Major like an adopted child of sorts, although Major is enlisted into the service of Section 9, a shadowy counter-terrorism agency.

A year later, someone is hacking into various robots and enhanced humans in order to assassinate the senior members of a major technology company. Major, her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), and the rest of the agency are trying to find the source of the hacks and stop the killings.

The plot within Jamie Moss and William Wheeler's screenplay is so simple that it becomes a bit confounding. The actual exposition and back story are presented in an indirect way, almost as if the screenwriters are trying to create mystery even where there isn't any (It's likely just a symptom of the material, which clearly favors constructing this world over plot coherence). The central mystery of the story is the identity of the master hacker, played by Michael Carmen Pitt in an effectively strange and strangely effective performance, which, in voice and movement, suggests a computer on the fritz. His motive is simple revenge, and the question is whether Major will sympathy with a kindred soul or do the task she was programmed to do.

It's not much of a question here because of that additional back story for the character, but none of this is really the point. The animated film focused on questions of identity in a general, philosophical way, and this one concerns the identity of Major before she became a cyborg.

Even those questions don't matter as much (and didn't in the original film, either) because of the movie's other star. The city here is bustling, futuristic metropolis that actually feels as if it is being lived in, has a past, and was pieced together over time.

There are giant holographic advertisements that interact with the city's structures (One sits on the roof of a building, while another jumps and twirls in between a pair of edifices). Cars bustle about on various levels of streets, with skyways curving in between skyscrapers that rise above the city's older structures. There's a poor side of town across a river, highlighted in an action sequence that climaxes with a fistfight in a shallow pool of water—the two socioeconomic halves of the city on full display in the background of the shots. It's a coup of production design, really, combining practical and digital effects with ease but, more importantly, also providing a feel that this is a place where people actually go about their lives.

It looks amazing, sure, but it's probably not a good thing that it's so tempting to consider the backdrops in such detail. The city is a welcome distraction in Ghost in the Shell that almost, but not quite, justifies the movie's existence.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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