" I guess you used up all the ugly in the family "

MRQE Top Critic

Alias: Season Three

In its third season, Alias pulls off a hat trick with another round of pulpy page-turner adventure —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

Sponsored links

The soul behind Ghost in the Shell remains intact in this $110-million Hollywood-style art house extravaganza. That’s what matters most.

Shells of the Past

Scarlett Johansson's shell takes a leap of faith
Scarlett Johansson’s shell takes a leap of faith

Ghost in the Shell is an adaptation that comes with a lot of baggage. It’s based on a popular Japanese manga (graphic novel) series from the late 1980s, which in turn became a successful series of Japanese anime (cartoons) in the 1990s. Divisiveness is a virtual guarantee in such a situation, particularly when liberties are taken while making the leap to a fully-realized live-action thriller.

Sometime in the near future, it’s commonplace for average human beings to enhance their abilities with synthetic parts (tactical vision, for example, by way of camera-like eyes). This concept is taken to an ambitious new level with Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson, Lucy); it’s believed she’s a rescue from a terrorist attack while her family was en route to Japan to start a new life. As the 99th attempt at this daring operation, her brain is transferred from her salvaged corpse to a fully-synthetic body.

That’s the cover story. As Ghost in the Shell unfolds, there’s a darker backdrop against which Major’s life has been cast; there’s a cover-up afoot that requires a complete identity overhaul. In all, it’s a fitting way to explain away what some criticize as whitewashing — putting a Caucasian actress in what is considered an Asian role by virtue of those previous iterations.

For that matter, the notion of whitewashing is a little ironic given the movie itself centers around a new era of racism, that of humans and robots. In one slice of a conversation, the question, “Your friend, she’s human?” is countered with, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Ghosts of the Future

Making comparisons to movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix is kid’s play; like shooting fish in a barrel, but without the reward. Give it time. Let it sink in after the fanboy frenzy simmers down. This take on Ghost in the Shell will likely gain in appreciation as time moves forward. Remember this: Blade Runner was a complete commercial and critical failure in 1982. Yet here we are, 35 years later, and a highly-anticipated sequel is right around the corner.

What makes Ghost in the Shell tick is its themes, not its action. One easy criticism is this movie’s pacing under director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman); it drifts toward the sluggish side when some crisper editing could tighten up the action sequences. That said, the original anime feature can hardly be extolled as an example of rip-roaring storytelling.

Going beyond the gloss of the exquisite production design from Jan Roelfs (47 Ronin) and cinematography by Jess Hall (Transcendence) — there are loads of visual eye candy as ubiquitous 3D holograms dance around nightclub tables and skyscrapers alike — Ghost in the Shell tells a compelling story about the growing tension between humanity and technology.

There’s a beautiful key to all of this: humanity is a virtue. That resonates today as more and more tasks are given over to ‘bots. Stock portfolio management, job boards and so many other facets of work are being identified as robot-friendly tasks that can be broken down into dynamic computational chores.

But ‘bots don’t have a sense for the gut reaction and they don’t have a knack for the creative flourish. At least not yet.

Messages of the Present

Yes. Major is seen diving off of skyscrapers; she’s a police operative who can go where no mere human can tread and perform tasks of physicality that defy mortal abilities. Yes. There is a lot of gunfire. Yes. There are lots of cool CGI effects.

Humanity. Sanity. Fantasy. Reality. Dreams. Memories. All are common elements of this type of world, wherein memory implants are created in order to drive certain natural motivations.

But read between these elements to get to the heart of the story; listen closely to the softer lines of dialogue — in both English and subtitled Japanese. (Sure, it is an oddity to watch the movie’s multi-lingual conversations as one character speaks Japanese while another character responds in English, but the alternating placement of those subtitles serve as a visual tie back to the manga. Why not? Roll with it.)

In Ghost in the Shell, privacy has become a borderline fantasy notion. It’s something that’s enjoyed deep in the bowels of a nightclub where all connectivity is blocked. With recent regulation changes regarding the sale of browsing data, Ghost in the Shell has an element of immediacy that could and should be relished.

In this highly-stylized world, the “ghost” is the soul and the “shell” is the body. Once that soul is no longer under control, the shell is no longer a valuable asset to the machinations lurking in the dark conspiracies. The action that unfolds in this Ghost in the Shell essentially has its genesis when a soul writes table-turning manifestos about how technology is destroying the world.