In the near-future science fiction thriller “Ghost in the Shell,” prototype cyborg Mira Killian a.k.a. “The Major” (Scarlett Johansson) works for Section 9, a government-operated counter-terrorist force that handles only the toughest cases. The Major’s recent encounter with a cyber-terrorist has left her questioning her job, her memories, and her very humanity. These questions get answered with highly stylized gunfights, computer hacking, and skin-tight bodysuits in “Ghost in The Shell.” Action, sci-fi, and sex appeal are the key ingredients in this somewhat formulaic futuristic thriller.
Masamune Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell,” originally known as “Mobile Armored Riot Police,” has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a manga comic. First published in 1989, the franchise’s international fan-base has supported several highly regarded animated TV series, animated movies, and even a few video games. There are some who consider this material “post cyberpunk” and others who place it squarely in the “pure cyberpunk” camp. I tend to favor the latter. Through the use of somewhat ubiquitous “cyberware,” which trades spectacle for character development, or even “The Matrix” meets “Hong Kong action theatre” stunt moves, this film is a fully realized version of William Gibson’s vision of a dystopian future overloaded with the benefits of technology while suffering from a lack of humanity. Deep in that theme, the film both excels and loses itself. This movie bets everything it has on its marvelous, grand design and images. The holographic ads dancing amid the sprawling skylines of the future city will take your breath away but underneath these glittering, shiny delights lies the movie’s obvious sins.
Screenwriters Jamie Moss and Ehren Krueger have plenty of experience with big budget science fiction movies, which makes it understandable why they decided to use a short hand approach to much of the film’s character development. Yet, in the end, we are left with very little meat on the bones when it comes to examining the almost thirty years worth of character history out there. Fans of the franchise have already seen a reboot in the animated series. The writers decided to go with a stock origin story. The plot echoes the “Bourne” movies but the “lost memory” trope in use in this film manages to provide even less of a shock when resolved. I think in this day and age everybody familiar with cyberpunk tropes realize the you can never trust mega-corporations, governments, or even yourself in the cyberpunk world.
The film’s casting controversy has always been front and center with American audiences, who saw “whitewashing” in the casting of Johansson as the Major, and a non-issue with Japanese audiences who always assumed the Major would be played by a white actress. I think the screenwriters did themselves a major disservice by not only consciously acknowledging this decision in the script, but even going as far as writing a ready-made rationale directly into the main storyline. If you have ever wondered how somebody can be both Caucasian and Japanese, your quandary will be addressed.
While the special effects are great, the decision to abandon some of the more interesting source material for a new origin story give this film an unexpected blandness that even people not familiar with the property will feel. C+