Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of the manga/anime/TV/web series franchise Ghost In the Shell is almost shockingly strange, disquieting, melancholic, creepy, and sad. For a big-studio, extremely expensive, bus-stop-and-billboard-advertised piece of mainstream entertainment, it feels astonishingly personal, authentic, and artsy; it doesn’t smell mainstream at all.
Sanders has gotten away with sneaking personality into Hollywood product before, with 2012’s Snow White and The Huntsman, which was creepier and more interesting than it had any right to be. His career is rather astonishing; Snow White and The Huntsman was his first feature film and this is his second; it’s like he got to pilot the jumbo jet without ever having to fly the Cessna. But it’s deserved; he has an insightful eye and a true sense of mood.
Besides an extraordinary VFX team, his essential collaborator here is Scarlett Johansson, playing a cyborg – more specifically, a totally robotic body housing a totally human brain – known as Major, who, considered a weapon, is deployed to fight cyber-terrorism in a murky, rainy and hyper-commercialised future lovingly and liberally referencing the cityscapes of Blade Runner (1982). Johansson, who must be about as in-demand an A-List movie star as it’s possible to be, has chosen to devote a huge chunk of her career to playing extraordinary beings whose resemblance to human beings is only skin-deep – literally so here and in Under The Skin (2014), and also in Lucy (2014) and as Black Widow in the ongoing Marvel Studios Avengers franchise. In all of these films Johansson demonstrates herself as a gifted and bold physical performer, making striking choices with her posture, her limbs, her gait, but it is in Under The Skin and again here that she approaches the uncanny. In both films, she fully commits, through brave physical choices, to playing a non-human. Alicia Vikander pulled it off too, in Ex Machina (2015), but I can’t think of any other current movie star making a deliberate habit of this kind of work. (Some action stars may give “robotic” performances, but that’s something else entirely). Again, in the context of a massive studio movie designed to make money, Johansson’s performance – which works completely – is audacious. Her cyborg owes its strange gait more than a little to the animated portrayal in the 1995 feature anime film, but is filled with vulnerability, pathos and pain. She is a tragic figure.
The film owes Blade Runner more than credit for inspiring its production design; the underlying material obviously owes a huge debt, on a story and thematic level, to that film and its source material, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The emotional core of this film, as of Ridley Scott’s classic, centres on the pain cyborgs/androids feel when they are forced to encounter the boundaries of their humanity. It’s a very rich vein, encompassing concepts of second-class citizenry, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotic warfare, and, somehow most obliquely and obviously, class. We have seen it before – and we’ve seen it better – but it’s closer to our IRL (in real life) situation than ever. Unfortunately, storytelling is Ghost In The Shell‘s weakest attribute. In the first act it’s practically impenetrable.
But the mood, the visuals, the style, and the performances are utterly compelling and, in an age of CGI marvels (pun kind of intended), manage to feel original and grown-up. Johansson’s compelling creation is supported by similarly ambitious performances from Pilou Asbaek and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Asbaek in particular finds, like Johansson, great pain and sadness in augmented humanity. He gets some sort of visual robotics hard-wired onto his face, expanding his visual capabilities, but then complains to Major that he finds it tricky to drive with them. It’s a sad, strange moment but it carries a lot of weight; as we all revel in our new digital lives, how often do we realise that for everything we’re gaining, we’re also constantly giving things up?