A triumph of the visual Ghost in the Shell
is a fabulously gorgeous sci-fi film. Its mise-en-scène, characters and costumes echo but outdo influences such as Blade Runner
and Ex Macchina
, among others. Say what you will, this is a feast for the eyes. There's not only extraordinary conception here, such as the giant hologram adverts hovering over the skyline of a Hong Kong-based city (with some wonderful futuristic slums), but a lot of craftsmanship in the interiors, and the mind-boggling shell worn by the robo-geishas made by the Weta Workshop. As a making-of "featurette
" shows, Rupert Saunders the director wanted as much as possible of the stuff in the film to be done "physically," and not just CGI-created. The Weta Workshop products are just one example of many crafted parts of this stunning-to-look-at film.
But there are multiple problems, because of which, this is only half a great sci-fi movie - it is haunted by sources too many people know. First there is the Japanese manga comic source, and then there is the 1995 anime film based on it, which has been called a "watershed" of the genre. Hard to live up to these anyway, and bear up to the accusation of a kind of racism in switching most of the characters from Asian to Caucasian. But then, there is the blockbuster agenda: an idea-centric tale has been converted into an action movie, and so those ideas scatter and disintegrate like some of the people/cyborgs that pixilate into thin air in the movie.
Scarlett Johansson's character, Major, is the creation of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), and a first of sorts: a cyborg with a transplanted human brain, ever-so-much better than a rotobic brain, don't-ya-know. Well but the trouble is, where did that brain come from? The potential human-brained-cyborg union will have a bone to pick: the lab has left lots of corpses along the wayside on the path to this splendid, successful prototype. Here is where the story's classic "Frankenstein" element comes out. And for me, at least, the many scenes where an evil corporate type, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) wars with the robots' true-blue manager, Aramak (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano - white-maned and regal and speaking only Japanese); Major's friendly interactions with cohort Batou (excellent and a bit wasted Danish actor Pilou Asbæk), not to mention all the action sequences where Major strips naked and falls backwards into deep space to do battle with evildoers, pale compared to her one encounter with a predecessor.
This is Kuze (Michael Pitt). He's a cyborg with a human brain too, only Frankenstein-esque, he's a bit of a mess, his computer-generated voice and his face itself breaking up, his worldview angry and tragic because he was ripped from his human world to be a failed robot - and awaken Major to her lost and alienated state. Pitt's got the best role. Even if it's little more than a cameo, it's positively Shakespearean in its tragic resonance. Refashioned here as a failed cyborg, Pitt's pretty face and bee-sting lips never looked better.
This is one character-to-character scene, like some of Major's with Dr. Ouelet and with Batou, that have some of the crackling human vividness you get all the time in Ridley Scott's classic Blade Runner
. I kept thinking of that movie as a guide to what was lacking here: the sense of presence, the epigrammatic dialogue, the clear story line and narrative energy.
This movie alternates between techno and violent, as Major does battle with hackers who'e been breaking into the minds of cyborg scientists, but also riskily plugs into a cyborg whose brain may contain dangerous glitches. I have only the vaguest idea how all this works, and suspect days, weeks or years of pouring over Japanese comics, maybe learning Japanese, would be required for full appreciation of the sources, which, whatever they say, visually at least Rupert Saunders' film seems to mimic and even surpass. I have one suggestion: just go watch it. It's not Blade Runner
, it may mangle its source. But you won't see a better looking film this year.Ghost in the Shell
, 107 mins., premiered 16 Mar. 2017 (Shinjuku, Tokyo) ; 29 Mar. Belgium and France (AlloCiné press rating 3.0, better than Metacritic's 53%). US release 31 Mar.