And as the lights go up, and the crowds exit the theater, my chlorine vision saturated eyes, heavy they hang, underlying a distended sense of relief. Not that Rupert Sanders' fool's errand had indeed exceeded all expectations. But rather that years of speculation and debate could at last be put to rest knowing that it was all valid noise. His adaptation of Shiroh's influential creation bears little resemblance to the source, unless one believes that random, occasionally slavish visual callbacks implies synchronicity. The end product being something far less interested in the world it is painting, and far more victim of its own marketing potential. Another film pitted against itself so early in the game, that the afterthought of merely choosing a straight procedural story must be echoing between many lips at this very moment. But as it is, Ghost In The Shell, succumbs dead on arrival as a story of stolen pasts and identities at odds with a reality that all but Hollywood has seemingly surpassed.
In this rendition of the universe, Mira, aka The Major (Scarlett Johansson), is seen awakening for the first time after being told she was just rescued from near drowning after a terrorist attack. Dr. Ouélet (an oddly cast Juliette Binoche), informs her and in turn, the audience that Mira is indeed granted a new cyborg body in what would become a bold new standard for HANKA Robotics' and the world's increasingly cyberized population. Behind closed doors, Dr. Ouélete, is informed by the company's chief, Cutter(Peter Ferdinando), that Mira is to be stationed as a government operative for the anti-terrorist strike force, Section Nine as an imposed demonstration of Mira's intended function: as a weapon. Flash forward to one year later, and suppressed memories come calling as The Major and her cadre of cybercops run up against renegade cyborg, Kuze(Michael Pitt), who has begun to infiltrate minds of machine and human alike in a plot to expose HANKA, and break this new world down to its foundations.
You read correctly, 2017's Ghost In The Shell, cops that age old crutch, the origin story, and undermines the entire mythology in the process. One of the great delights of Masamune Shirow's original work, and most of the subsequent media that followed tossed the reader/viewer forehead deep into an increasingly blurred world of cyborgs, political intrigue, and morphing philosophical concepts. We were suddenly privy to the obsessive minds behind each incarnation. With each new exchange rendering us occadionally scrambling to keep up. Much like the way I used to have to re-read to better digest the early works of William Gibson, there is a tactile nature to the world of Ghost that is dense, and simply thrilling because of said density. It's a universe that rarely to never did apologizes for what it was, nor was terribly interested in longform explanations about who our characters. They simply were.
With Sanders' film, this simply won't do. And as such, the entire piece seems hell bent on undermining any potential question regarding who Mira is, and what she represents to those who value her. By laying out virtually everything in expository dialogue early on, we are granted little to no mystery for the characters, let alone us to discover. A mother/daughter subplot that again undermines a huge amount of what makes the franchise so inviting. A choice that in a way kneecaps a lot of what makes The Major, such a unique being who is an expert at what she does, but rarely reveals a vulnerable side to anyone but squadmate Batou (an adequate, yet equally undermined Pilou Asbaek) It almost seems to be written under the sexist assumption that a woman cannot be this vulnerable to a male lead without it dovetailing into love interest territory. To compound problems further, Mira is rarely given much evidence to even prove her worth as a team leader, and is more spoken about by others. Her actions are often undone by others, and occasionally rendered ineffectual. It's a superhero film where the superhero simply doesn't do very much that emphasizes the super. Johansson, does what she can with the role, but the page and direction simply have no weight to encourage more than a furrowed brow, or a dropped weapon. This Major, is simply useless.
Worse yet, are the choices that follow, especially pertaining to Cutter, and his intentions for Mira behind the scenes. The greater conspiracy that has created her never culminates toward anything beyond a raised eyebrow, and one has to ask why would a major robotics corporation pawn off one of their most advanced creations to a government unit that is deeply entrenched in such complex cyber terrorism, and intelligence gathering. The plots would have no problem intersecting over time. At least with RoboCop's Murphy, his ignorance in an increasingly blue collar style police force supports this notion of information walls that border on some form of full proof protection. But with Section Nine being who they are (here, a largely faceless group of ragtag police, granted little to no real screen time) it just feels like granting Mira a timed gimme. The ultimate revelations tend to fall into our protagonists' hands with each dive, not to mention a scene near act three that seems to have been completely edited out. (Pay close attention, or one may miss it.) The film simply opts for an on-wheels experience, punctuated by the occasional uncanny image.
Which brings us to the presentation, which ultimately comes up short. For all that Sanders attempts to inject into the presentation, there is a strange, almost limited scope that seems to run out within the first half hour. Almost as if the film seems ready to give up on presenting much new to the world save for an almost early 1990s Mind's Eye era techno poster sheen. A lot of style, but little in the way of optical protein that Ghost is often known for. After a while, the look of the city, the people, and the animated ad campaigns looming over the proceedings become less than impressive. There are plenty of visual shout-outs to Oshii's two films (especially INNOCENCE) throughout, but even so, it becomes distracting when so very little is actually occurring on screen. It's definitely a handsome production, but certainly one that leaves a limited impression.
Then there's the issue of casting none other than Takeshi Kitano in the role of Section Nine head, Aramaki, who comes off as expected; as a J-cinema legend collecting a paycheck.
So in all, the western Ghost In The Shell finds itself through the looking Glass of controversy and speculation, and now on the other side perhaps worse for the wear. A project that so easily could have sidestepped certain issues of racial identity and economic choices, opts to lean head on into them, only rendering the entire project as something of a troubled message come the denouement. Without spoiling the film, the story does go full bore with the origin story in such a way that implies that this is just how things are, and that it's perfectly fine. Forget the past, understand its role, and think nothing of the implications. It's a quietly toxic choice that simply didn't have to be. There is great potential within the universe of Ghost to at least imply a wholly new regional continuity. A fresh take on an increasingly dense, politically charged creative playground of digital intrigue. The choices we get here pretty much quashes much hope of progress. Not that the mother-daughter element didn't help, but talk about a rosary of needless suffering on a slab of shallow posturing. No reverent, loving bouquet. More a burger, medium Coke, along with a basket of cold, unsalted fries.
Once again, the road to adapting Japanese media into the global mainstream finds itself at odds with the tentacles of moneyed interests, cultural hegemony, and ultimately an indifferent attitude to story. If this is the best a major studio can do with something like this, then it's no wonder Japan stays away. About the only positive here is that for a more palatable take on such occasionally challenging material, Stand Alone Complex exists. At long last the debates can proceed with actual ammunition.