Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Let's get this out of the way first - I'm a sucker for female action stars. I really like a well made action movie and if it features a woman who is not a damsel in distress, if it features a woman who picks up a gun and shows the fellas how it's done, I am in paradise. Ever since I first saw Sigourney Weaver's Ripley kick alien butt in Alien, being all sexy and tough and undeniably feminine, the final scene crawled into my adolescent brain and changed everything. Ripley's return in Aliens cemented it for me. When chaos looms, authority has collapsed into self-doubt and weakness, Ripley steps up and takes charge. Duct taping weapons together to make an uber-gun, climbing into a mech suit to battle her equal, alpha female versus alpha female, is there anything better? In the beginning was the word and that word was Ripley.
If anyone is equipped to pick up Sigourney Weaver's baton and run the next leg of the race it's Scarlett Johansson. Her IMDB page shows a range that most actors should envy, action to drama, comedy to animated, indie work to the largest franchise yet. She nearly stole Her, a film in which she was never on screen, only a voice. In Under the Skin she walked a fine line that many didn't even know existed, one of the world's most beautiful women fully naked on screen and yet rarely sexy, her otherness as an alien being wearing this human suit coming through as she examines her body in a mirror. It's a disturbing scene, the way she examine herself is voyeuristic, as an object, as not her. Under the Skin was nearly the first movie I wrote about. But then The Interview and North Korea and hacking and here we are.
Anyway, this long-winded introduction is just my way of saying if anyone is capable of playing a robot with a human brain, with a soul, if any actress working anywhere currently is up to the task of portraying, well, the ghost in the shell, it is Ms Johansson. And I really, really dig women in action films when they're not the damsel in distress, when they're not waiting to be rescued. I think the amount of things in film that are cooler than Ms Johansson crashing through a window in slow motion, bullets a-blazing, is a small list. Add in some kind of cloaking technology that renders her a blur, nearly invisible and the list gets shorter.
Ghost in the Shell looks amazing, and it wears its debts to Blade Runner proudly. Advertisements haunt the city scape multiple stories high, and just like in Blade Runner, their banality is overwhelmed by the tech. The international face of Blade Runner's Los Angeles is replaced here with the international face of Tokyo. Unlike Blade Runner it occasionally stops raining in Ghost in the Shell, and just in time for one of the coolest beat downs ever filmed. It's not that Ghost in the Shell is a complete retread of Blade Runner, but it does dwell on some the same themes - the idea of self, of identity. That question that haunts so many of Scarlett Johansson's characters, "who am I? Where do I belong?"
On purpose or by accident, it is a recurring theme in Ms Johansson's filmography, from Lost in Translation to the Marvel franchise to Her and Under the Skin. She is an artist that seems to be drawn over and over again to questions of self.
Now, is Ghost in the Shell any good? The story is convoluted, the pacing is off, at times the scope of the enterprise seems beyond the skills of the director, Rupert Sanders. Some of the film moves at a snail's pace, other times it is breathtaking and exhilarating. Characters are introduced and then dropped. There are moments where the film makers seem more in love with the toys they are getting to play with than the story they are trying to tell. Rila Fuushima is barely in the movie. So much of the universe it is set in is drawn from other sources that it feels like Cyberpunk's greatest hits. And for anyone that's watched An Evening with Kevin Smith, there's a giant mechanical spider in the last act.
But, and this one of those big ol' buts, despite all those marks in the negative column, Ghost in the Shell needs to be seen. In a theatre, in 3D, while wearing those Ray Ban looking glasses. Ghost in the Shell is pure eye candy. It is a singularly beautiful film. Let me get even more pretentious than I usually do here - there is a visual poetry at work in this film, the camera moving through a cityscape that is both foreign and familiar. Ghost in the Shell re-imagines Tokyo as a Cyberpunk universe gone mad.
So, yeah. Ghost in the Shell should be seen on a large screen, even with all of its faults. It looks amazing. It has an amazing international cast, some of the best from several continents including the mighty Chin Han and the even more mighty Takeshi Kitano. It's not a great film, it won't set the world on fire. Maybe. Gotta be careful, here. That's what people wrote about Blade Runner 35 years ago.