Not Much Ghost In This Beautiful Shell

I’m a big fan of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell franchise, a manga/animated feature/anime series juggernaut that’s been going. non-stop, for the last 22 years. It combines savvy military-style combat sequences like you might find in the best Masmune Shirow manga with a deeper and more interesting look into the nature of humanity and the effects of technological change on the “soul,” or “ghost,” in the parlance of the franchise.

GhostintheShell_trailer

The story revolves around an anti-cyberterrorism unit of the presumably Japanese government in the 2030s, which is led by veteran security bureaucrat Daisuke Aramaki and commanded in paramilitary and cyberoffensive operations by Major Motoko Kusanagi, formerly of the Ministry of Defense. The orginal manga and animated feature from the late 1980s through mid-1990s were groundbreaking explorations of the alienation of the human mind and spirit in a world increasingly dependent on information technology and the cyberenhancement of the brain and body. Most members of the team, with the exception of recent ex-cop Togusa, have a mix of human and cybernetic parts, with Maj. Kusanagi at the extreme with a completely mechanical body. Although she and everyone else assume that her brain was originally human, the creative ambiguity that the 1995 feature maintains on that score is a major source of mystery and tension in the story, helping to propel it through a mixture of hypnotic action and detailed procedural.

*SPOILER ALERT. SPECIFIC PLOT POINTS NOT DIRECTLY REVEALED, BUT OUTLINES ARE*

In the live-action feature I saw tonight, that mystery is dispensed with in the opening sequence, robbing the film of a good deal of its narrative power. There is a mystery about the main character’s origins, but it turns out to be a generic action-film kind of mystery, of a different order than the fascinating, labyrinthine story of the original. There seems to have been a certain carelessness in the story, in precisely inverse proportion to the obsessive care that was taken with copying iconic visual impressions from the original, and WOW, were they ever beautiful. One crucial scene involving a sanitation worker was arguably inferior to the original, but the rest are more arresting. This film is GORGEOUS. It was a little off-putting, however, because the scenes tend to remind the viewer that the original told a better story.

One of the annoyances of the film was an irritating pattern of contrived or silly plot points. Why can’t a direct neural connection to a hostile robot be ‘encrypted’ or firewalled? Why were a suspect’s restraints designed to permit suicide? Why was a private corporation allowed to send a combined arms battalion around a megalopolis, blowing stuff up and assassinating government officials? Why do the characters refer to our hero as “Major” when, in this film, she has had no military career, and why do they sometimes use it as a name and sometimes as a rank? If the vast majority of Newport City’s residents are cyberenhanced, why do they need expensive and power-intensive holographic advertising absolutely everywhere? Can’t the same thing be done in a cheaper and more personalized way in Augmented Reality in users’ existing enhancements?

The story is a very straightforward evil-corporation morality play with a villain we can spot in the first scene. This is a huge contrast from the original, in which we spend half the film following our heroes down a blind alley before they begin to piece together what is happening. If this were an original universe, the story’s silly and generic nature would hardy be worth noting, but in a franchise specifically aimed at intelligent and thoughtful Science Fiction fans, it’s a really weird choice. There’s still enough of the odd and alienated vibe from the original to turn off casual action fans, so the question really begins to assert itself: Who is this movie for, exactly?

Having said all that, I did enjoy the eye candy and the meticulously staged action sequences. Pilou Asbæk’s Batou and Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki are high points. Scarlett Johansson is as watchable as ever in this, even if she’s an odd casting choice for all the obvious reasons. Hollywood has a famously voracious appetite for established content that can attract built-in fan bases in an increasingly crowded entertainment environment, but they might have bitten off more than they can chew with Ghost In The Shell.