“Ghost in the Shell” (2017)
Running Time: 107 minutes
Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Featuring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han and Juliette Binoche
The Major: “Well, maybe next time you can design me better.”
The Major: “Everyone around me, they feel connected to something. Connected to something, I’m not.”
Scarlett Johansson has always been an outstanding actress, making her initial mark in Robert Redford’s underrated “The Horse Whisperer” (1998), then becoming a mainstay in smaller projects that enhanced her acting ability leading to her Oscar nominated performance in “Lost in Translation” (2003). The second identifiable stage of her career started in 2010 cast as ‘Black Widow’ in Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” (2010), this period of her career continues with the release of this weeks “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), which on the surface does not seem like a stones throw from her MCU roles, but in fact runs a lot deeper than any of those roles, it also may be one of her best performances to date.
In the near future, Hanka Robotics, the world’s leading developer of augmentative technology, establishes a secret project to develop a mechanical body, or “shell”, that can integrate a human brain rather than an AI. A young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), the sole survivor of a cyberterrorist attack, is chosen as the test subject after her body is apparently destroyed beyond repair. Over the objections of her designer, Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche), Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) decides to train Killian as a counter-terrorism operative.
A year later, Killian has attained the rank of Major in the anti-terrorist bureau Section 9, working alongside operatives Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Killian, who has been experiencing hallucinations that Ouélet dismisses as glitches, becomes increasingly bothered by how little she remembers about her past.
To talk about the plot any more is to pull on a ball of string, so I will just say that whilst the story has been around in various forms for over a hundred years, you may know the formulaic plot and may even guess where its going – which is not a real skill in these types of movies. The actual elements of the plot have existed since humans asked the question – “Who am I?” “Why do I exist?” – heavy themes indeed.
This is Scarlett Johansson’s first starring role since her massive global hit “Lucy” (2014), which had some similarities to this film, the biggest difference being that this new film is set in a entirely new world, has much deeper themes as well as a more performance oriented role. Johansson has proved time and again that she is perfectly able to portray a kick ass savy women on screen, this is her chance to play the same character with some real issues as well as giving her depth beyond what we expect to encounter in studio films. This so much more than a person who had a bad childhood (a staple and arhetype), she was taken and forced to act for others, she has been manipulated by people more powerful than her, used and spat out – a metaphorical rape of her mind and body.
The film owes a debt (as many science fiction tomes do) to Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, as well as James Whales “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – there are many elements they share, this becomes apparent in a few scenes between the Major and her sometime nemesis Kuze. This no more so than their first real meeting when they know there is a connection, Kuze feels it intensely but the Major is repulsed by him on every level. In fact in the denouement which plays out like a tragic love story, but not, we see decisions made that will have effects on both characters as well as possibly bringing the protagonist back for any sequels.
Rupert Sanders the director of this film has had a knack of world building in particular with his last film the amazingly beautiful looking “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012) – while this was a hit he had issues on the film and was lucky not to be asked back for the dreadful sequel. In this case he dodged a bullet, has really struck creative gold with this film and a cast that are obviously devoted to this new vision of the future, technology and human interaction. Sanders offers us good looks at what a city by the sea in the future looks like from a wide screen perspective as well as ground level interactions with a variety of incredibly designed characters, where they all look in some way hideous with their technological implants – it is a look at a future that for me is not welcome. I loved the way the director kept the story always moving forward with each of his cast getting their own characterisations, where you can tell each person apart – you also know their loyalties as well as their motivations. Unlike some other films where there is an artificial attempt at having some twist where a person who looked like a friend or ally suddenly betrays the main character, this has been played out in lesser science fictions films to death.
As well as Scarlett Johansson in the main role there are some fresh faces that round out the cast, the stand out being the Majors main partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), who never once wavers from her side, stays loyal and has some kind of understanding about who she might really be. Batou for all his bluster seems to really love the Major whether this leads to a more platonic love or romance remains to be seem – but he has her back the entire film, he asks for little in return. Even when he is hurt he does not hold back who he is and unlike a stereotype he does ask his friend for assistance – he knows she needs help, as does he, and they are simpatico in the best way possible.
The other standout is the always, and I mean always stunning Juliette Binoche as the Majors creator Dr. Ouélet, they love each other in a way that imitates mother and daughter, Ouélet has created the shell in her idealized mirror image, not unsurprisingly for someone with no relationship or children in her life. Binoche fills Ouélet with some compassion for her patient but seems to know that deep down she has wronged the Major on some basic level – interesting the word Ouélet is a place that is barren and desert until rain comes – in respect of this character there is a flood that reveals her true nature.
In case you have not guessed I loved this film, I recommend it to fans of action movies that honor, in the best way possible, a previous iteration of a property, as well as gives us a place and characters that are intriguing enough to keep you enthralled for two hours. I do believe you will get more out of this film the more you think about it and I hope they make more. The Major is more than a rank and a soldier she is a person with much to offer.