Finally we algorithmically alight on one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. Well, when I say ‘anticipated’ that was my initial reaction to the first trailer drop last Autumn, since then subsequent glimpses of this live-action remake of the acclaimed 1995 anime my enthusiasm has eroded somewhat, as further images have started to take the feel of a 1990’s direct to DVD B-Movie with slightly more production luxury and some impressive metropolospaces which will always tickle my cyberpunk creased cerebellum. I grew up with a deep appreciation of the then refreshing cyberpunk literature of Gibson and Sterling et. al, thus I’ve obviously seen the anime, but remember little about it other than the rather arresting image of the invisibility cloaked fembot plunging into technologically augmented action. I also like ScarJo when she’s in movie-star action mode and she’s been solid in some kinetic cued movies, but there are also the blemishes of Lucy and The Island in her filmography. Still, like any obedient genre SF soldier I downloaded* this on opening day, and have to concur with the overall assessment that this is a production which has its chimeral charms, but is far from the modern classic that some of us wanted it to be.
A century or so hence and the human race lives clustered in massive urban conurbations, while technological advancements have made physical bio-enhancements, hallucinatory street advertising and robotic automatons as ubiquitous in the environment as a new model iPhone or Galaxy in our contemporary phase of the 21st century. A paradigm promising and seemingly Chris Cunningham influenced technofetishistic opening introduces us to the Major (Johansson), the displaced consciousness of a terrorist attack survivor transplanted into a state-of-the-art next generation android at the behest of the shadowy Hanaka corporation, the spearhead weapon of a government sponsored anti-terrorism strike team known only as Section 9. When the bodies start stacking up from a plague of assassinations the only linkage meme is the victims work on the clandestine Project 257, leading the Major and her comrades on a mission which will slowly unveil her mysterious past and a wider cybernetic conspiracy….
What we have on our titanium tensed, carbonpolyetherine coated hands is a movie that processes its plot in binary fluctuation – neither as good as it should have been, nor as bad as it could have been. To begin with the positives if like me the imagery of a godsview camera swooping through a neon drenched, holograph haunted future cityspace teeming with futuristic tech makes you retire to your fainting couch like some 19th century influenza afflicted debutante then this is a movie for you. The world building is spectacular, and demands a Blu-Ray acquisition alone to sequentially frame examine the urban helliosphere which is teeming with background characters and production detail, while wisely avoiding the visual pollution miasma that George Lucas inflicted upon us with the prequel trilogy. Clint Mansell’s low-key but effective seething synth score coolly augments the impressive craftwork, as overall this is a scintillating simulacra of a future world that other genre fans will find beautiful to behold. Kitano Takeshi in a rare Western sourced role as the leader of Section 9 adds to the films oriental authenticity (and wins the films sole great dialogue exchange which we can consider ‘vintage’ Takeshi) as does Juliet Binoche as the Major’s Dr. Frankenstien surrogate, leading the medical project to bring our heroine back to artificial life while harbouring some unpleasant secrets of her own.
Moving from the ones to the zeros the film fails in tracing any sort of intellectual curiosity. After narratively erecting these questions around the implications of a replicated and decanted consciousness, or state intervention in our increasingly digitised and surveillance state sanctioned lives (all the more ironic that the film was released the same week that this passed into law after this was enforced in my country a few months ago) Ghost In The Shell singularly fails to adequately investigate these crucial arenas, preferring to follow the path of your standardised blockbuster workflow and formalised function. Flat dialogical idioms abound, such as cramming dialogue into characters mouths like ‘we cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us’ hang listlessly on the screen, as when you unpack statements of that ilk you realise that it doesn’t actually mean or signal anything of merit whatsoever. ScarJo is merely adequate as the main character, she never invests her performance with any of the otherworldly eeriness of the quality of Under The Skin, neither through her figure movement nor wider physical presence – this strikes me as a serious oversight and wasted opportunity to truly capture the notion of a disembodied entity locked into an alien and unfamiliar hardware. Director Rupert Sanders proved he could handle impressive SFX in his previous film Snow White & The Huntsman and he graces much of the action sequences with an adequate understanding of choreography and physical space, although the final show-down closes the structure with a incorporeal whimper more than a blockbuster bang. Still, the film does have an overall sense of some physicality, some aura of density, mostly avoiding the uncanny valley trap where it is evident that the entire movie was lensed against a studio mandated green screen – there is evident location work and seething set design which also demands a repeat viewing.
For all that criticism Ghost In The Shell does have its moments. There is the impressive opening after which it flatlines for the next hour or so from a plot and pacing perspective, but it does start to pick up some momentum and genuine interest after the Major starts to penetrate the identity of her nemesis and his links to her fabricated past. Naturally, all this manga mandated machinery clanks and smoulders in the shadow of the imminent Blade Runner sequel of which footage has been seen at this months CinemaCon and apparently is stunning, I just hope this physical wreck can continue toward its post retirement date of October 2017 and bask in the return of such a crucial cinema text which still throws its shadow over these SF pretenders to the cybernetic throne. So, overall this film is a strange beast, a movie with the aura of a 1990’s cyberpunk pretender lacquered with a 2017 state of the art CGI carapace, with very few queries coiling under its alabaster shell. If you want to truly fire up the synapses and contemplate our slow march to increased fourth wave industrialisation or the A.I. apocalypse then I’d suggest a revisit to the likes of Ex Machina, or HBO’s impressive Westworld reboot, but visually at least this is the closest we’ve got to the majesty of the seminal Neuromancer yet, so if you recalibrate your sensorial input nodes then Ghost in The Shell is a programme just about worth pursuing;
* Well, when I say ‘downloaded’ I’m just speaking metaphorically, I did go and see this at the cinema and didn’t resort to clandestine activities so don’t set the Paramount lawyers on me, OK?