In terms of cinematic trends, one that breaks through consistently is that of the cyberpunk sci-fi aesthetic. From Blade Runner to The Fifth Element and even Tron: Legacy, it seems that audiences have somewhat of a partiality to exaggerated, digital visions of the future. And it seems as though the trend has creeped back into the spotlight with Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson leading it in its charge.
Focused on the exploits of one Major Mira Killian, played by Johansson, Ghost in the Shell deals in a future of cybernetic enhancements and high-tech terrorism. As part of a unit named Section 9, tailored to dealing with said terrorism, it’s the job of the cyborg Major to eliminate any who threaten the fabric of clean sheen resting on advanced corporations such as Hanka Robotics, the company responsible for the Major’s rebirth as an efficient killing-machine. However, as she delves into the mystery surrounding a recent operation, she begins to uncover secrets pertaining to her past, and a darker conspiracy linked to the clandestine cyber-terrorist Hideo Kuze (Michael Pitt), a notorious hacker who seems to be free of the high-brow capitalism of Hanka and its members.
Now, it may seem as though Sanders has his work cut out for him: the synopsis itself seems to borrow from sources ranging from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to Alex Proyas’ I, Robot. However, the cyberpunk aesthetic does grant an ease of passage into something original. In this digital age, where the power of graphics and effects design has surpassed what was expected of it, any director such as Sanders has a chance to experiment with a surplus number of digital tics and visual tricks, in order to flesh out their vision of the future as one separate from every other that has preceded it.
With the end result in touch, it is a simple deduction to admit that Sanders has crafted real visual luxury in Ghost in the Shell. With the numerous panoramic tracking shots across the runtime, capturing the breadth and depth of a high-tech cityscape that shares a healthy dose of Oriental heritage, Sanders allows us the time to grow accustomed to his vision of the world. It has to be applauded and will get your inner sci-fi nerd partaking in a little cognitive tinkering over the wonders of this possible future.
However, as is evident for most viewers anticipating this film, Ghost in the Shell has another hurdle to overcome, other than the originality of its graphics. Adapted from Mamoru Oshii’s Japanese anime, which in turn is adapted from Masamune Shirow’s manga series of the same name, Sanders has the challenge of revitalising the story, and thus winning over fans of the original and newcomers who have little, if any familiarity with the Japanese anime art form.
Now, in terms of the cinematographic elements, Sanders pulls off a process similar to that of Zack Snyder with 300 and Watchmen: he mirrors a number of the original’s scenes, in terms of their action and framing. Consider the introductory credit sequence. Witnessing the cybernetic rebirth of the Major, fans will bask in the faithfulness of its adaptation of the classic sequence in Oshii’s original film, with its rich colour palette and well-defined framing. Moreover, the design of the original characters is relatively faithful as well. With Major donning her cloaking bodysuit and her associate Batou (Pilou Asbæk) sporting his bleached white hairstyle and built-in robotic eyes, the distinctive look of the universe is cemented and really helps flesh out its idiosyncrasies.
However, while all its exterior elements blend together to form a cohesive visual experience, delving a little deeper into the story, one finds that Sanders’ film starts to lose its way. Anime has something of a reputation for asking questions of its recipients, through metaphorical imagery and distorted visions of alternate realities. However, this adaptation fails to comply with that formula.
You’d be fooled into thinking this may not be the case. Look at Scarlett Johansson. An actress that continues to surprise in terms of her choice of performance roles, Johansson has somewhat of a history with intellectually stimulating science fiction: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Spike Jonze’s Her. This in itself would suggest that perhaps there’d be some translation of the questions of identity that arose from Shirow’s source material. Even more than this are the revelations of a few scenes that indicate a depth that could be reached in the film. One scene in particular, involving Johansson’s eerie study of a woman she meets on the street, is reminiscent of the haunting moment in Glazer’s film, where Johansson similarly examines her own body in a reflection, scrutinising it in an attempt to understand what it means to be human.
However, these are never given any real dramatic weight in terms of their relevance to the wider narrative. Despite the faithfulness of the visual aesthetic, Sanders and his scriptwriting team (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) produce these moments that unfortunately appear as anomalies in the more conventional narrative structure of a thriller. Yet what is misrecognised is that the film is most interesting in these scenes involving the inhuman, Johansson’s Major, investigating the human, or faced with questions involving her greater existence. The film benefits from the introduction of Kuze, for example, as a dilapidated model of the more perfected version that is the Major. Kuze addresses higher themes in his definitive scene. Yet, again Sanders relegates him to a supporting player, as he seemingly disappears from the story entirely. What is initially set-up to be a cerebral showdown between Major and Kuze, ends up becoming nothing more than a re-tread of the same format of prior films such as I, Robot.
The qualities that Sanders hones in on, namely the thriller narrative, he executes with concise attention. The action sequences are eye-popping, with distinctive angles and variations in shot speed providing a nice mix of tension and excitement. Nevertheless, as is evidently the moral of this review, it is the visual attributes of these moments that really arrest. While I celebrate the surface value of any film, I understand many will feel that they cannot harness any multifaceted emotion in relation to what is happening during these sequences. Particularly in the third-act, the film seems to run out of fuel, throwing a few plot points and explosions our way that feel a little anticlimactic.
Nevertheless, despite my criticisms, there are inscriptions of a more meaningful story within the film, and they should be recognised. Sanders’ film is far from a cash grab: it’s an attempt at bringing a niche genre to a wider audience and I think this film is worthy of that more expansive spectatorship. Johansson is still one of the more unpredictable yet estimably daring actresses of our time, as she weaves seamlessly between action set-piece and patient drama. Furthermore, the experience of seeing this on the big screen is an offer I’d recommend you take. Sanders and his cinematographer Jess Hall have manufactured a beautiful, fluorescent and elaborate science-fiction backdrop, a feast for the eyes.
It’s also a delight to the ears, and praise must be awarded to Clint Mansell for this as well. As musical compositions go, this may well be one of the finest I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in quite some time. The retro techno feel to the melodic beats are complementary to the narrative world, imbuing it with added emotional weight: at times melancholic, and other times exciting and punchy. This becomes particularly prevalent during the panoramic tracking shots: one can’t help but absorb all of the spectacle, amplified to maximum potential as a result of Mansell’s work, providing added texture to an already stunningly crafted cinematographic piece.
I suppose what should be asserted, therefore, is that what one must know going into this film is that it does not entirely deliver on the analytical promise of its advertisements and source material. Those looking for the next Kubrickian delving into the recesses of self-conscious interrogation may leave the cinema foyer a little less than impressed. However, for what it endeavours in terms of narrative engagement, and for the pure precision of the formal elements on display, Sanders’ film cannot be damned as all shell, no ghost as some critics are labelling it. There is some semblance of a ghost in there, you may just struggle coaxing it out.