The shell of hypnotising, spectacular visual effects doesn’t protect the soul of the story in the remake of Ghost in the Shell when it forgets the identity in the conversation about precisely the same subject.
A hologram city is a background for the story of Major – an agent with a cybernetic body and a human mind. Transformed to an android that you wouldn’t tell from a human to save her life, she now is a key weapon in the secret programme run by the government in cooperation with the Hanka Robotics corporation that specialises in upgrading humans. She’s told her life was ended by the terrorists that shot down her refuge boat, and she doesn’t wait for taking her revenge fighting the outlaws. But her memories don’t really define her: going by the name of Myra, she still doesn’t feel the connection to her past – and one day, in the middle of the pursuit of a cyber criminal, she realises why that might be.
From the very beginning, the film dazes with the visual effects. The holograms in the bustling city full of neon lights and truly cyberpunk characters create a landscape like no other. It’s the reimagined future done right, a vibrant landscape taken right out of the wildest fantasies about the future of humanity. It’s also very pleasant to watch on an IMAX screen in 3D, where the work of VFX/motion graphic designers truly comes to life. Some sequences bring Matrix to mind, like the ones where Myra plugs into a machine to “charge” her body or takes medication to erase “glitches” of memories from her mind, and it feels like a nod to the Keanu Reeves blockbuster (allegedly inspired by the original Ghost in the Shell).
The story tries to depict human versus technology relationship interestingly, and Major touching the face of a human wondering about the differences strikes you with a scene resemblance to Ex-Machina, too. But the plot is pretty predictable at times, too: the villain is signposted from the very beginning, and we feel he’s going to play a key part at the end. It seems that the original story has been deprived of the deeper, slightly more philosophical context that anime is famous for. The Hollywood rendition of Ghost in the Shell tries to do it, but it makes sure everyone understands what the underlying message is, PLAYING NO SUBTLETIES (yep, ALL CAPS). Myra is told that it’s her human nature that matters within the shell by the engineer, but her struggles sometimes aren’t depicted convincingly enough.
Scarlett Johannsson certainly continues to nail her extraterrestrial-slash-cybernetic performances. She’s done it before in Her and Under the Skin, and she shows how well-seasoned she is when it comes to these sci-fi performances. With exquisite coolness and self-assurance, she brings her flagship superheroine brand to life as Major, too. She definitely tries to give her best and succeeds at that for the most part. Particularly the cold detachment from her feelings and her memories makes a lot of sense in the light of the revelations that the film introduces. Juliette Binoche is also a highlight as the engineer behind Myra’s creation who’s warm and caring but has another dimension to her character, and Pilou Asbæk is another character that boasts less-than-forgettable identity.
However, there are also problems with the casting and the story that make the film a weird experience. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding it, and it never really shakes off the accusations that it hoped to dissolve when people actually watched the film. Firstly, the knowledge that a white woman plays an Asian heroine never really goes away, and it feels even weirder when the final events reveal the story to the audience. It ends up being somewhat disturbing, to say the least. The diversity that the film promised to create is a lovely bubble: it’s still done on Western terms of stereotyping. In an Asian city, everyone’s white (American or European), and the Japanese serve merely as secondary characters or extras. The casting choices pose a lot of questions when it comes to the storyline. For instance, there’s also a lot of nonsense in the ending even if you try to understand that her physical appearance is merely a shell – so you’re a born-and-bred Japanese and speak no word of the language?! Also, doesn’t an upgrade into a white character imply some sense of superiority? It feels as if the filmmakers tried to justify their choices without doing it in the most skilful way possible, and make terrible wording choices on the way too. The casting of well-recognised Binoche, for instance, tries to acknowledge actors other than American, but it leans towards the opposite side for the leading lady. Sadly, that makes the identity question, or the premise of going “identity-less”, disposable.
The casting doesn’t help the rewritten plot issues as the film delivers a feast for the eyes with little substance to the story. It’s average: although it looks sleek and the cast stay on top of their roles, there’s a lot of nonsense hidden behind the lines. And hardly ever you see a film that wants to discuss the identity so badly that it forgets what it means.