A Review of Ghost in the Shell

Everyone who has seen the remake of Ghost in the Shell seems to be saying the same thing. It’s a beautiful film that is sadly lacking in any humanity.

I was skeptical of that feedback as I walked into the theater. That’s almost identical to what people said about Blade Runner in 1982. How can anyone talk about a lack of humanity in a film when the primary point of the film is to explore what it means to really be human?

The point of the original film was how Major, a woman who’s mind had been implanted into a robot’s body, wasn’t sure what her existence meant any more. Major wasn’t even sure if she had ever been human and that her memories are fake. Such a character is not going to be warm or easy to embrace.

So, the reviews made Ghost in the Shell  sound like the movie it needed to be.

I saw it myself and came away (mostly) impressed. This is one of the most gorgeous film’s I’ve ever seen. I cannot express how amazing the special effects in this film. From the shots of the neoTokyo skyline to the images of the robotic human faces, Ghost in the Shell builds the first world since Dark City I wanted to get lost in.

The plot does not follow the first film. Ghost in the Shell explores the conspiracy around a man named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who is killing the doctors that helped build the first robot with a human brain, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson). Major finds out that Kuze contains secrets about who she was before her mind was inserted into her new body, which leads her to declare a war against her creators at Hanka Electronics.

Ghost in the Shell is also a wonderful throwback to the classic cyberpunk stories of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not so much a remake of the 1995 animated film as it is an homage to it and stories like it. The film fetishizes Japanese culture, from the giant holograms of Japanese characters everywhere to the casting of Takeshi Kitano (who gets the best scene in the movie). But Ghost in the Shell also made me wonder why cyberpunk died out. In an age where everyone has access to a supercomputer in their pocket, the idea of people being augmented and upgraded doesn’t seem like science fiction. One character, Batou (Pilou Asbaek) loses his eyes in an explosion and replaces them with rather freaky camera lenses. There is also a scene (copied from the first film) in which a character being interrogated by the police realizes that his memories are a lie and his beloved child doesn’t exist. I always enjoyed those stories when I was younger and cyberpunk was fresh. In an age when the internet was still a new thing, at what point did we all start becoming faceless entities. Twenty years and several billion YouTube comments later, I still don’t have an answer.

I also liked Scarlett Johansson for the most part. She’s stiff and emotionless as Major, but there’s a very deep pain beneath the surface. One great scene in the film has Major buy time with a prostitute just so she can describe what it feels like when Major touches her. It’s a moment when Johansson explores both her “human” and robotic nature.

But it’s also Johansson who exposes the biggest flaws in the movie. To explain, I’ll go back to Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece had a lot to say about humanity, memory, and identity. But it didn’t directly say anything. We as an audience had to learn it through watching the replicants and listening to their speeches. Rachel’s tears as she realizes Deckard can recite her “memories” to her spoke volumes to the audience.

Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have any moments like that. It replaces those with moments where we’re told about how Major feels cut off from the world. She tells a doctor repairing her that “You have no idea how alone that makes me feel” upon being told that soon, everyone will be like her.

That is not a good way to explore any theme you want to present. It’s also not good storytelling. Major is, at times, so emotionally distant that her actions become impossible to predict. She seems to have no problems killing other human beings or being used as a weapon by Hanka and Section 9 despite the fact this is supposed to be her central conflict.

It makes the action scenes more gratuitous. Why should I applaud scenes of Major shooting everyone when the film has told me that she’s supposed to be very conflicted about the fact she’s been reprogrammed to be a killing machine? And the film doesn’t end with Major having a profound revelation. She goes right back to doing what she was at the start of the film.

This is a woman who had found out her existence was a lie, but did practically nothing with this information. Major even shrugs off the fact that Hanka destroyed her identity. Some audiences were horrified by the casting of Scarlett Johansson, claiming it was whitewashing. The film tried to incorporate this into its plot, especially in the scene where Major meets her birth mother. But there’s no payoff to it after Major decides to basically stay the way she is.

Ghost in the Shell is a gorgeous movie that’s a little too obvious. But it’s still not bad. I enjoyed watching it and have a desire to see it again just to see the city again. It’s a very immersive film, but I don’t believe it rewards audiences who want to get lost in it. Imagine a gorgeous, complex maze that contains nothing but a single piece of rotten fruit in the center. That’s a little worse than Ghost in the Shell is, but you have some idea of what viewing it is like.

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