This film is part of a group of films I will call “Worth Checking Out” -- films that may not have garnered widespread critical acclaim, but I found them to be worthwhile despite their flaws. The pandemic hasn’t quite subsided enough that we can flock to theaters en masse. So if you’re still staying in and can find one of these films in your streaming service, give these a look.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Director: Rupert Sanders
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han, Takeshi Kitano
I haven’t often been impressed by films that center around cyborgs. You’re familiar with the term cyborg: cybernetic organisms. Part human, part robot. But “Ghost in the Shell” sets itself apart. It not only benefits from better computer generated graphics than previous films in the same genre, but the enhanced visual technology affords the filmmakers an opportunity to tell a different story – one that allows us to picture the possibilities of technologically enhanced humans. Some of those possibilities are good, some are the stuff of nightmares.
We aren’t quite sure when this film takes place. There are some elements to it that we are familiar with: Architecture, weapons and vehicles look similar to today. But the tech that allow humans to be enhanced suggest that this takes place far further in the future than at first glance.
Technologically enhanced humans are the norm here, not the exception. Enhancements or “mech,” as the tech is called here, are wide ranging. They can be as simple as a mechanical organ of some sort (one character receives a “mech liver” so it’s last call every night), to a completely mechanical body connected to an actual brain.
The latter is the case of protagonist Major (Scarlett Johansson). We are told she arrived in future Japan as a refugee but her boat was attacked. Only her brain survived. And a company called Hanka Robotics made an experiment out of her. She is now a super weapon for federal law enforcement.
When she is injured on assignments, Major goes back to Hanka to be repaired and regenerated. But she starts to experience visual anomalies. Are they some sort of glitch in the code or perhaps repressed memories of some sort?
Major and her team’s priority is finding the mysterious hacker (humans can be hacked as though they are a laptop or smartphone) named Kuze (Michael Pitt), who is targeting and killing Hanka Robotics scientists.
There is an existential premise here reflected in the title. A person’s “ghost” is their soul. And as cyber enhancements become more prevalent in this setting, the implication is humans run the risk of losing their ghosts. Major tackles her role as though she is more tech than human, built not born. But personally, she struggles with who or what she really is. Her superior, Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), reminds her that once humans regard their uniqueness as a virtue, then they have peace. And Major is unique, the only one of her kind.
As the film progresses, Major continues to experience her visual glitches. She admits that as she tries to remember the specifics of her past, there is a thick fog in her mind and she can’t make her way through it. And her encounters with Kuze frustrate her further. He teases her with information about the two of them and where they really came from. Major’s behavior becomes more unpredictable to the point that Hanka’s CEO, Mr. Cutter, wants to terminate her and create another.
This film is flawed, no doubt. That starts with the casting. At the time of the film’s release in 2017, Scarlett Johansson was criticized for being a Caucasian cast in a role that was clearly Asian in the original comic. And, as a matter of fact, there are several non-Asian actors cast here. I understand the practicality of casting Johansson. Without a big name associated with this film, it would not have attracted American audiences. But I have a hard time thinking there wasn’t a compromise to be made here.
Casting also brings up another flaw. The role of Aramaki, the head of the law enforcement team Major is part of, is played by Takeshi Kitano. He speaks Japanese to everyone, and they speak English to him. And everyone understands each other. So why not have Aramaki speak English. I don’t know the reason behind this casting or this choice to have the differences in language, but it was distracting. Was the casting director not able to find an Asian actor who speaks English? I find that rather hard to believe.
Despite those drawbacks, the visual aspect of this film is spectacular and its greatest feature. It is a captivating view of the future, similar to “Blade Runner 2049.” It can be dark and bleak in some cases, and bright and colorful at others. As Major chases Kuze through the bowels of the city, it is dark and wet. But this isn’t a turn off. The cinematography here evokes artistry as well as atmosphere. And you contrast that to the bright lights and the wildly colorful holograms that hover over the city and you really appreciate the work Jess Hall, the director of photography here, has done.
As many theaters continue to stay closed, many of us need the escapism that film affords. And while “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t a great film per se, it might just be the kind of entertainment needed on a night at home.