Ghost in the Shell is a visually wondrous contemporary re-imagining of the original anime of 1995 that raises compelling questions about the changing nature of human identity.
I should state from the outset that anime is not my thing. Ditto CGI and fight-heavy scifi. I’ve got nothing against these modes of cinema; they just don’t particularly interest me. And I’m pretty meh about 3D. I wasn’t expecting a lot out of Ghost in the Shell, then, which is based on the manga-inspired 1995 anime cult classic of the same name. Just goes to show, ya never know. This is a jaw-dropper of a movie!
The design and its execution are nothing short of wondrous. The intricately detailed futuristic Asian city in which the action is set is a giddily garish nightmare (albeit an adman’s wet dream!), a high rise neon jungle with gigantic holograms competing for consumer attention among the skyscrapers. The fight sequences are hyper-realistic, cartoon-violent and thrilling. The 3D works well, spectacularly so at times. I instinctively ducked at one stage when a rock came hurtling out of the screen.
I found the narrative difficult to follow, partly because of being transfixed by the astounding visuals, but basically it goes something like this: Major (Scarlett Johansson), a super-cyborg comprising a human mind (the ‘ghost’) seamlessly integrated with a perfectly fabricated humanesque body (the ‘shell’) functions as a lethal weapon against terrorism and crime. However, she comes to suspect that her mind is not her own, and to doubt the motives of the corporation that created her. Ultimately her mission becomes self-preservation. But what is she preserving? Who is she? Is her mind her own, or has she been re-programmed?
Major’s fear that she has lost control of her identity and her fight to recover it goes to the core of a very real dilemma of humankind, right here, right now. We increasingly confuse the virtual and the real. We have created a virtual digital world, and more and more are projecting ourselves into it. We are in danger of losing our grip on who we are and where we belong. Our human identities, indeed our identity as a species, are in a state of flux, at risk of changing into something else, something we can’t quite comprehend. There is the sense that we are in danger of losing control of who we are, of forfeiting that power to something other.
Perhaps the parallels between Major’s identity crisis and our own explains why, unlike in the 1995 original, I cared enough about her to be moved by her identity crisis, which carries far greater weight here. At one point, on learning that her memories are not her own, she claims that it is our actions, not our memories, that make us who we are. This, of course, does not bear close scrutiny. But it’s the most poignant of rationalisations, one that someone with dementia might clutch at, unable to abide the prospect of their memories slipping away, leaving them a shell without a ghost, so to speak. And the end, when she discovers her genetic origins, is real lump-in-the-throat stuff.
I have to say, I found this new version of Ghost in the Shell far more compelling than the original. Such a declaration is no doubt sacrilege to cyberpunk aficionados, but I ain’t one of them. Besides, this film is not so much a remake of the original as a contemporary re-imagining. It is very much of the now.
Its technical virtuosity is a culmination of all that has gone before, but more interestingly for me, it taps into where we’re currently at as a species in its melding of the virtual and human worlds, and begs many fascinating existential questions of direct and profound relevance to all of us.
And in parting, there’s a point I would make to those who moan about the over-use of CGI and SFX in today’s films. I’m one of you! But in this case, the visuals and narrative feed into each other. This is a world where man and machine, the real and the virtual, are blended. CGI and SFX are integral to this world. It’s not only acceptable that the film is saturated in CGI – it’s essential! Form and function are inseparable here.
As far as I’m concerned, Ghost in the Shell is a must-see, regardless of your genre preferences. At the very least, prepare to be dazzled by the visual virtuosity.
PS: Don’t even think of waiting for the Blu-ray. You need to see this on the big screen in 3D.
Ghost in the Shell features: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche
Director: Rupert Sanders
Writers: Jamie Moss & William Wheeler (based on the comic The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow)
Runtime: 107 min
Australian release date: in cinemas from 30 March 2017
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