It’s not often a title perfectly encapsulates the essence of a film, but in the case of Ghost in the Shell, it quite clearly denotes its premise about a tortoise spirit. It also refers to the morose, hollow feeling we will inevitably experience when the machines finally take over and the crust of the Earth resembles one giant, sentient billboard. A bit like, oh I don’t know, Tokyo.
In Ghost in the Shell, technology has reached such heights that scientists are now able to take the brain out of an Asian girl and place it in the synthetic body of a conveniently attractive white woman, who looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson. And even though that last sentence sounded bitchy, it’s actually a move that paid off tremendously, not just because Johansson is thoroughly convincing at swivelling her hips in a robotic fashion, but because it draws more attention to the film’s underlying message: underneath our irrelevant ‘shells’, we are all human. Or tortoise.
That probably still won’t wash with fans of the source material, the original manga and the anime adaptation that followed, but it’s hard to please people who regularly contemplate the differences between Hentai drawing techniques. In this live-action version by Rupert Sanders, they’ll just have to deal with Johansson playing Major, the first cyber-enhanced, human super soldier, who is in no way too similar to something that rhymes with ‘low blow chop’.
Major’s tortoise shell – a fleshy human casing with a cloaking device that bends light around her tits – is designed to take down the world’s most dangerous criminals, but the brain inside her is more concerned that something seems to be missing from her life – other than her biological arms, legs and torso. Her creators Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) are keeping a massive secret from her and you better act surprised when it’s revealed in a typical sci-fi twist.
Anyway, as it turns out, hacking is even more of an issue in the future (not to mention a surprising amount of reliance on cables), and when tasked with chasing down a new threat (Michael Pitt), the opportunity arises to discover who she was before her original body was horribly mangled.
Naturally, a pursuit that takes place in a futuristic dystopia lends itself to incredible, eyeball-molesting visuals. Giant holographic fish swim in-between particularly grim-looking buildings, and Blade Runner-esque neon lights pop from the cityscape in a manner that actually made my IMAX monstrosity glasses worthwhile.
But aside from most of it looking like a pixel’s migraine, the biggest treat for the eyes comes at the beginning of the film, where Major’s synthetic body is constructed out of Coke cans and marzipan. Her featureless shell is suspended in mid-air, while all sorts of impossible things happen around her. She then flakes like a ginger after a holiday in Dubai to reveal a noticeably non-Japanese Scarlett Johansson. This entire sequence is backed by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe‘s operatic-cum-synthy score, which fits so perfectly, I annoyingly have nothing horrible to say about it.
Pleasing the eyes and ears like some sort of sensory whore is all well and good, but where Ghost in the Shell tragically lives up to its title is in the storytelling. That’s not to say it’s hollow by any means. I just had as hard a time finding a story as ghost hunters do finding ghosts. Perhaps it was so simple that it required a certain amount of convolution to convince idiots it must be brilliant. Yes, that’s it.
Anyway, if a visually arresting sci-fi thriller about a woman with a synthetic body who turns invisible and fights in the nude ends up being comprehensible, it’s not been done properly.