Ghost in the Shell presents a pleasant surprise in bringing to life a live action version of a classic Japanese anime. The film has a beautiful visual structure that sits somewhere between the 1980s, the future, and the present. It hypnotically draws us into the story of Motoko, otherwise known as Major, who we discover is a very incomplete and somewhat artificial person. The performances seem removed from drama and detached, and the film has its share of violence, but this advances an unlikely plot of a protagonist who is not quite human. In spite of some mixed reactions from other reviewers, the film does an extremely good and sometimes beautiful job of treating its difficult and alienated subject matter.
The film has been criticized for flat performances, but this seems intentional. There are Blade Runner borrowings and references throughout, another film which was attacked for flat performances when it was released. The film looks visually similar to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece set in a futuristic dystopia in which androids compete with human beings and blur the lines between people and machines.
Both films are covered in neon colors, an urban icon having more to do with the 80s than the present but that is able to depict technology and commercialism run amok in the future. Ghost in the Shell is populated with neon colored holograms projected from buildings to accomplish this, echoing the extent to which Scarlet Johansson’s character of Motoko is a ghost and also a reflection of what humanity is becoming. The two films also share a mixing of East and West in depicting the future. Most of all though, the films raise the question of what it is to be human by placing that issue in the context of technological disruptions of human existence.
Scarlett Johansson has become America’s sci-fi actress after a number of recent works, and this film sharpens that status even more. Her best work for the genre remains the British film Under the Skin, one of the most disturbing and interesting films of the last decade, but Ghost in the Shell creates another opportunity for her to offer a detached performance of not being quite human. It advances the kind of portrayal she developed in that film and gives her a chance to add some nuances to a person who is not alien in this case but is lost and out of touch.
While there have been some disappointed reviewers comparing this version unfavorably to the original anime film from 1995, I think it deserves better consideration. This is the first live action version of the film, and the story is based on a manga in the first place. So the classic film and the new one are both cinematic interpretations of very different source material, and to mix things up more, this story has also existed as an animated series. That all seems like good reason to be excited for a live action portrayal rather than reason to assess Ghost in the Shell as simply a Hollywood remake, though it does follow the anime film very closely.
The resulting film is a postmodern work of echoes, shadows, semblances, and catastrophe. While the violent scenes of Ghost in the Shell are easy to see as catastrophic, what is most intriguing is that the protagonist is herself a catastrophe. Brought about through a mixture of violence, technology, and superficial and shattered social bonds to become something not quite human, a ghost placed into a mechanical existence, Motoko is a metaphor for the postmodern and post apocalyptic human condition.
The future does after all have serious signs of being a disappointing place. The 21st century has been a string of failures for liberal democracy. Income inequality keeps getting worse and has for a couple of decades. Wars continue to be fought in the most violent and petty ways imaginable. Urban decay seems to have no end, and environmental degradation only worsens. With all of this happening, technology keeps improving, and corporate power keeps growing. We appear to already be very close to living in the dystopian world of Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell takes that seriously and shows a decaying world where only the technology seems to work properly. It also has beautiful shots filled with rain as its characters are betrayed and lost in a future noir of semblances and deceptions.
Like in William Gibson’s work and the overall cyberpunk genre, the story attempts to use technology to touch the surface of deeper questions of the human condition. Computers and artificial intelligence raise clever issues about our own self awareness and fundamental natures. Are we just bits of programming or something more? Whatever the case may be, a body does seem an awful lot like a sophisticated bit of hardware, and Ghost in the Shell skirts some underlying metaphysical issues by transplanting the brain of Motoko into her robotic body. The metaphor remains of the soul being something more than a superficial body or its surroundings, a point made all the better in scenes where the protagonist is made to become a transparent robot that effectively becomes her surroundings, blending in till there is nothing left, except for her ghost.
Ghost in the Shell is filled with beautiful shots of the rain falling and of water. The water becomes a metaphor for being washed clean of burdens, of the past, and of surrounding chaos. Somewhere submerged in the mind of Motoko is her past life before she was placed inside of her robotic shell. Retrieving those memories is a burden and an adventure for her, but at the same time, she longs for release from her turbulent present. The robot seems to be seeking peace while being caught in a world where it is impossible to find any.
The film’s strange temporal structure is a highlight here. Motoko is very much displaced in time, living with a burden of lost memories she wants to recover. Even recovering her memories won’t make her who she was. As a person, she is dislocated and has lost her origin. Moving into her future is both an effort to escape herself and to retrieve her past, and the puzzles of how she became this way raise questions about the future of where technology is heading for everyone else. This mirrors the film’s depiction of a future world with elements of past designs mixed in, and it makes it interestingly difficult to place within a traditional time structure. In a memorable plot line, she is hacked, and we see that her sense of both herself and her world become unstable as a result. The way she sees and the way that she remembers are both affected, as though these two senses are tied together. Who is to say who she is now and what she or anything around her really was before that?
The visual design borrows elements from Blade Runner and the 1980s, adapts them to the present, and presents a future with holograms displayed from giant grey skyscrapers in neon colors. The cleverness lies in how difficult it is to take apart these references. Some of this is a fair nod to Japan, where the ideas within the film originate, but it’s a portrayal of a digital world that has so many reconstructions and copies that it becomes impossible to know what is real any longer.
Ghost in the Shell does a better job of respecting its source material than some reviewers have noted in this regard. It does this in part by projecting an East meets West future that seems increasingly likely as Asia’s economy continues to develop and as the globe shrinks. Of course, Asia has played an important role in the development of computers both through Japan’s place in electronics in the 1980’s and in China’s current importance in manufacturing equipment and developing artificial intelligence. While the film’s shots of Hong Kong are anarchic and hard to place, that is appropriate to the subject matter.
Ghost in the Shell shows Asia in a way that reminds me of the Atari sign at the beginning of Blade Runner. It is anachronistic, misplaced, dreamy, scary, and beautiful all at once. Johansson’s beauty fits right into this landscape as an actress who is playing a robot who is a person inside, beautiful but superficial, with the light reflected from her curves in ways which echo the way it bounces off of glass panes, skyscrapers, and neon signs. Another lead actor has his eyes replaced with technological replicas in a way which also calls back to Blade Runner, a film which was filled with references to seeing. As a whole, the many internal references to Scott’s film do a great deal to improve the status of Ghost in the Shell, as it allows the work to inhabit a live action cinematic space that is distinct from its anime predecessor and which also shows a cinematic literacy and an effort to advance important previous film material, although it unsurprisingly lacks the enigmatic sophistication of Scott’s film. Blade Runner had many moments in which its world was dreamlike, to the point of the many semblances of postmodern high-tech life seeming to be an unreal place, a world of surfaces that is in reality just as unreal as the flickering cinematic light through which the audience viewed the film. Ghost in the Shell is able to capture part of this and reminds us that we are more like Motoko than we usually imagine, creatures so wrapped up in technology and images that we may have forgotten who we are.
Is there a depth, or is there only a surface to us? That is the film’s largest question, and beautiful shots of submerging into reflective water seen throughout the film help to realize this question as an image. The core of the self is elusive and hard to find, and our own memories are unreal based on the context in which they happened and our limited ability to have perfect recall. These are very Japanese ideas with certain Zen components to them. Sure, visiting the pub last night was nice and is well remembered, but is the memory the same as the original? Surely not, and none of us are the same people we were five years ago after many memories and experiences have shuffled us around. Ghost in the Shell raises the question of how deep down the rabbit hole we can chase that problem. Certainly there is an inner sense that is different from what is around us, but we can’t retrieve it perfectly. So is there really something inside us or not? The films wants to say yes but has a pleasant and disquieting lack of certainty that is properly ghostly.
Brains and software are wonderful analogies in this universe, and the intelligence of the film is seen in the imprecision of the analogy. As artificial intelligence develops, we will wonder more and more how much our own minds are like software running inside of a machine. At the same time, even very sophisticated AI would not prove that all parts of a person are the same as software code or reducible to complex programming. There is a lacuna here which leads us to question ourselves. There should one day be robotic things that look a lot like us and perform similar tasks, and scientists are already telling us that this is coming fast. That doesn’t mean it will be human, or that we will be machines, but it leaves us with surface similarities of not knowing how to draw the boundaries any longer. It is pleasing to see filmmakers with an awareness of these problems.
Johansson’s performance carries a subtlety that raises questions about what her character knows about herself and about which parts of her operate on survival and which parts allow emotion to find its way through. It is a subtle and difficult nuance to portray. She is not the emotionless alien of Under the Skin this time around, but she has given us a portrait of a damaged person who loses sight of feelings and buries them beneath in a way that leaves her perplexed about herself.
The director, Rupert Sanders, gives Johansson a lot to work with. She is framed in ways which allow her to dominate the image while at the same time seeming like a reflection of her superficial and glossy surroundings. Her character interactions often try to find out who she is, and when a lacuna arrives that seems deadpan, it is showing us how naked she is underneath. In some ways, her character is more naked than anyone ever is, a person stripped down to an inner awareness robbed of all context of who she was. Even a far greater film like Blade Runner could have used such an interesting paradox to shed light on its protagonist, and it is a delight for Johansson to have a part which allows for more development to be made on the strange understated character from Under the Skin.
The director has a clear grasp on postmodernity with its collapse of myths into repetitions of hollow cycles and images. He also is not ashamed to borrow B movie elements, which might have encouraged some to dismiss this film. I would offer the reminder that film noir was a B movie product to some extent, and this is an intelligent and dark enough film to use those trappings well.
Ghost in the Shell has an ending that is actually more bleak, existential, and interesting than the anime version. Some reviewers thought the director was giving us a happy ending, but this does not seem to be the case to me, whereas the anime provides a sort of high-tech transcendence. Motoko visits her mother at the end of the film, but does she really survive? She continues to exist, but the film has gone to great lengths to show that this is a very broken existence. She stares at her own grave and is left reflecting on her losses so much that she falls into the old existentialist tenet of life being made by what one does and nothing else. Her life falls back into robotic repetitions of the same job she had earlier in the film but with a bleaker image of herself now facing what she has really lost.
In a sense, finding her past only amplifies that loss, and this setup shows her to be very much like ourselves, partly connected to who we are and partly lost. Reconnecting with her mother says something about where she came from, but I don’t see the film asserting that she is left with more than a monstrosity. The ending is a postmodern circle of repetition and not a finale, and it fits the larger intent of the film, which sees technology as what we are stuck with and not something that can be our salvation or that can even answer our questions. In the last shot, Johansson fades away into a ghost again, not a fade out from the film, but from the actress. This director has done an excellent job with an important cyberpunk story, and Ghost in the Shell strikes me as an appropriately bleak and anxious film to treat its subject matter well.