After much controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson, Ghost in the Shell started off on the wrong foot with both critics and fans. The Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb scores would suggest this as well. That being said, there’s one impressive feat in Rupert Sanders’ imagining of the world: the visual and structural foundations of the Ghost in the Shell universe.
Ghost in the Shell looks at a world where a corporation, Hanka Robotics, allows humans to enhance their physical and mental attributes using cybernetic components. You want to run faster? Here are some bionic legs. You want to have x-ray vision? Here’s a pair of eyes. You want to drink night and day? Here’s an artificial liver that’ll let you enjoy happy hour.
The primary vessel for observing this futuristic earth is Major Mira Killian, played by staple action hero Scarlett Johansson. She’s one of a kind in this story as the first ghost in a shell, a human brain supported by an entirely artificial body. A cyberterrorist attack left her human body beyond repair, leaving the ghost procedure as the only choice to save her. Hanka Robotics and its cutthroat CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), realizing the potential of this new bionic human, decide to use Mira for counter-terrorism operations, and she’s a lethal weapon to put it lightly.
To highlight the relative merits of Ghost, it has to be compared with another contemporary science fiction thriller, last year’s Blade Runner 2049. Blade Runner focuses on entirely bioengineered beings and Ghost is on the verge of looking at that premise, but the key distinction is enhancing existing humans as opposed to creating humans from scratch.
The thematic focus of the films is also different. Blade’s emphasis is on the infinite nature of God and man acting as God. There’s a search for purpose among the bioengineered as they attempt to find meaning beyond their masters’ will. It also delves into societal themes such as slavery, succinctly put by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, who says “every leap of civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce.” In Blade, the disposable are the bioengineered.
Ghost mostly avoids these dramatic themes or does a poor job of highlighting them. Instead, technological advancement is in the limelight. There’s a push by Mira to find her place in the world as she’s the first of her kind, but the dialogue and visual cues avoid any mention of a higher power, human or divine. Instead, the focus is on cybernetics and a futuristic world that is less dystopia and more utopia.
Ghost shares some visual similarities with Blade. Standard print billboards have been replaced by giant, towering, walking hologram advertisements, but the focus is less on sexuality unlike Blade, which dealt with its own criticisms about the treatment of women. That’s not to say that Ghost doesn’t sexualize women. There are hologram strippers at a club, hookers at street corners, and Johansson’s own character has her artificial body colored in a somewhat sensual manner. She’s, of course, meant to look like a real woman with skin, but at times as her suit morphs, it feels like she’s running around naked. The film really played around with that PG-13 rating, but I’m not complaining.
Setting aside the sexual, Ghost has a more colorful world compared to Blade, with bright, vibrant lights painting the cityscape beautifully to take you into the distant future. The surroundings are cleaner and sharper, with the architecture trying to emphasize the futuristic nature of the movie’s setting. There’s an exploration of urban squalor in the film as Mira hunts down the villain, who chooses to hide and evade in the company of the poor and mistreated. But by and large, the film opts to gloss over these components and spend less time on them. The goal seems to be to transport the viewer decades and maybe centuries into the future, so dwelling on desolate settings defeats that purpose.
Ghost in the Shell won’t substantiate a meaningful message or provide a compelling story with twists and turns. As time goes by, some of the outcomes become entirely predictable. But it’s beautiful to watch. Sanders’ cinematography has a way of showing and exploring the world with each scene, and it’s a world worth taking a look at if sequels arise. There’s a sequence where Hanka engineers are conversing with African politicians, discussing details about future cybernetic deals while they share and transmit information through in-built headpieces. There’s a sequence where Mira tethers to a geisha and attempts to explore her past, leading to an ethereal experience trapped within the geisha’s consciousness. And then there are scenes where Mira lies on a surgery table, getting her artificial limbs repaired and layered with synthetic muscle tissue. It’s all meant to paint a picture of the world and the characters, notably Mira and her exceptionalism within the ordinary elements around her, a paradox given that everything we see is exceptional by today’s standards.
Beyond the actions and scenes that proceed, paying attention to the minutiae will give more reason to appreciate the film. An old-school butcher’s marketplace interlaced with digital adverts showing prices. A highway chase scene where you notice route numbers and directional signs in their trendiest outfits yet. A strip club where men have drinks sitting around a hologram stripper.
The world building is meticulous to a fault. If you’re someone who can appreciate the time and effort it takes to build a completely new world different from our own, Ghost in the Shell should be a decently enjoyable watch. Sanders and his team have done a thorough job translating the source material onto the screen. If on the other hand, you’re a more discerning viewer, you’re best left to more sound sci-fi thrillers like Blade Runner 2049.
Don’t forget to check out our other Sci-Fi movie reviews.