Ghost in the Shell shows off Johansson’s muscle

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

The woman who plays Black Widow packs a punch and a few roundhouse kicks as Major, the police robot with a human brain and a big metaphysical question in this detailed homage to the Japanese original

Ghost in the Shell

4/5

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Aesbek,

Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Peter Ferdinando

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

Running time: 1 hr 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Ghost Shell

Major Success: It’s Technicolor noir that pays homage to the original

By Katherine Monk

Rupert Sanders had a flawless blueprint, and he fleshed it out with Scarlett Johansson. As a result, there’s no mystery to Ghost in the Shell’s success. The story, the character and the sense of mood matches the Masamune Shirow manga as well as the 1995 big screen adaptation.

For those of us who still remember the tingle of excitement at the original film and its explosive colours, perspectives and seductive human motion, there’s something ticklish about seeing the same exercise played out in three live action dimensions. It’s like watching a piece of your childhood power-washed and pimped out.

Moreover, the story feels all too accessible twenty years hence — which means it’s hitting our brains from a slightly different angle. This isn’t just escapist geek fantasy anymore. Sanders is constructing a world that not only throws up a futuristic mirror to our own, it’s tapping us on the shoulder.

The original film was set in 2029, a point when humans revolutionized existence by successfully transplanting a human brain into an artificial body. Major (Johansson) is considered the first of her kind: A composite robot designed to fight crime and analyze data, but also a young woman with all the feelings that go along with flesh.

We don’t have to imagine how this is achieved. The opening sequence offers an origin montage as bits and pieces of shiny mechanical parts are fused together to create a female structure that’s later dipped in a latex-like goop.

We’re familiar with the visuals thanks to other iterations of similar ideas, from Alien to Westworld, and that’s one of the bigger problems Sanders faces as he struggles for something truly original in a mix of material that’s now commonplace — whether it’s the notion of half-cyborgs, artificial intelligence or even ass-kicking secret agents who can camouflage themselves using computer technology.

From a thematic and plot perspective, Sanders was stuck with the same old science-fiction idea: A human struggling to understand her disembodied soul. Yet, he manages to punch it out in new directions by giving Scarlett Johansson all the heavy lifting.

Johansson is the new piece of information working through this high-voltage mother board, and she’s got a solid action pedigree thanks to her time as Black Widow — a role she made her own by bringing sexual power, Russian deadpan and a killer sensibility to the black spandex and blood red lipstick.

She does the same thing in the role of Major. Designed as a weapon and now working for an elite branch of the police force called Section 9, Major loves to take out criminals and save innocent lives. It’s her duty, and she’s programmed for it. Yet, the corporate boss who paid for her development is insecure about her human element.

Johansson is the new piece of information working through this high-voltage mother board, and she’s got a solid action pedigree thanks to her time as Black Widow — a role she made her own by bringing sexual power, Russian deadpan and a killer sensibility to the black spandex and blood red lipstick.

Like most number-crunching profiteers in this genre, he doesn’t appreciate his product having free will. He’s eager to keep Major locked down, especially when she starts investigating her own past. She has a hankering to find out more about her ghost memories and where they came from, but it’s a dangerous yearning. Not even the kind doctor (Juliette Binoche) thinks it’s a good idea to delve too deeply into past emotions.

Again, it’s familiar stuff. The same thing happened to RoboCop in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic, which turns out to be one of many visual inspirations behind Sanders’s highly polished iteration of the Frankenstein story.

The emotional fragmentation is RoboCop, the street scenes and urban imagery are straight out of Blade Runner and the central character’s ability to feel fear but still forge ahead is plucked from Alien’s fire-forged heroine, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

Because these are all first-class sources with endless metaphysical depth to harness and reshape, Sanders really can’t go wrong even if he can’t be completely fresh. Best of all, he turns that limitation into a bonus by lovingly paying homage to the original.

There are some sequences that so closely mirror the first film that you can’t help but giggle because they are frame by frame duplications. Even the supporting characters, particularly Batou (Pilou Asbeak) and Aramaki (played by film director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) feel giddily close to the cartoon — which is a pleasure in itself.

In short, Sanders understands and honours all the nods and sources included in this manga mash-up and he delivers them in a slick, shiny, adrenaline-laced package.

The only thing he doesn’t dish up are the creepy sexual elements that often accompany Japanese manga. Sure, he gives Johansson all the sexy curves and coolness the character needed, but he doesn’t resort to titillation. This is a steely, solid and emotionally dynamic central character who happens to be female.

Sanders even gives Major a moment to contemplate what that means in a world where robotic geishas satisfy sexual needs. It’s a brief scene, but it’s important and Johansson knows it. Male creations are typically used as weapons, whether you are talking RoboCop, Terminator or Frankenstein. Female cyborgs are fashioned for different, generally sexual and domestic purposes (Ex Machina, Stepford Wives).

Major is used as a tool of justice, which begs the question: What is justice? All these Frankenstein myths turn on this central spindle because the root of the story is the Golem, fashioned from dust and mud by a rabbi to defend his village against pogroms, only to run amok.

In one single scene, Major realizes her mechanical self as well as her own debased gender. It doesn’t compute, and we can see the hint of existential doubt in her big blue eyes — after she’s rodeo kicked and karate chopped her way through a handful of lecherous villains.

The depth doesn’t echo through the entire denouement. At times, the movie is satisfied to simply dazzle the senses with its slick array of computer-assisted action, but even on its own, that’s plenty. Throw Johansson’s Major talent into the equation, and you’ve got a candy-coloured shell with a film-noir soul.

@katherinemonk

 

THE EX-PRESS, April 2, 2017

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Summary

4Score

Rupert Sanders had a flawless blueprint, and he fleshed it out with Scarlett Johansson. There’s no mystery to Ghost in the Shell’s success. The story, the character and the sense of mood and mystery matches the Masamune Shirow comic book as well as its 1995 big screen adaptation as Johansson stars as Major, a crime-fighting cyborg with a secret history. It’s a world that borrows from the best of Blade Runner as we see a digital metropolis where human beings are improved with cybernetic parts. Major’s body is robotic, but her brain is human — placing her on the threshold of a new reality. Yet, not even Major is sure where she really fits in. If this is another iteration of the Frankenstein story, it’s never looked sexier. - Katherine Monk

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