“Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.”
My adoration for the first installment of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell knows few bounds. From my initial watch I was mesmerized at its ability to tell a narrative so efficiently in 80 minutes while pulling us into its digital world with such ease and charisma. Its CGI-laden sequel Innocence, while similarly commanding if as profoundly confounding doesn’t quite reach the heights set forth by the original. However with each viewing of these films they continue to perplex and astound in the amount of layers discovered within their labyrinth visual panoramas and the philosophical ramblings of artificial existentialism and the instinctive power of memory. They increasingly grow in their socio-political relevance and personal emotional value with each passing year.
What I find to be modern masterpieces in science fiction storytelling has now been adapted, reworked, and remixed into a Western amalgamation of an Asian property. Suited and contained to appeal to American audiences, much of what makes the original films significant and massively important works of art has either been downgraded or simplified to be easily consumable. This does not have to be a bad thing, though. Sometimes the hollowness of the visuals is what makes the craft function and in turn connects us to our protagonists better through the interactions of their environment. Sanders plays with the artificiality of imagery throughout the film, speaking through broken glass and reflections to convey a haunting grief, holograms the size of skyscrapers to communicate the dependency on product to enhance our bodies and minds, and human bodies built of ones and zeroes relaying information about the plot.
Scarlett Johansson, the subject of much controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell, is one of the more fascinating aspects about the film. Mechanically designed and executed, her performance continues to surprise me in ways I did not imagine walking out. With time the intricacies in her mannerisms are what really stick. What at first feels trite is now profound. The boorish way she struts out of a room may seem childish and forced in one point but now is the character’s way of assimilating herself in a human society that progressively finds itself not necessarily human, but consistently seeking to become that. Or at least regain what it once was to be human in a body that is artificial and sterilized from stimuli. Every gesture is rendered calculated and forced by nature. Johansson may seem out of place in a role like this, but by film’s end I couldn’t see anybody but her nailing it. Granted, while some of the catharsis of its final moments could have been enhanced and redefined with an Asian actress, it nonetheless remains striking under the hand of Johansson.
While the original films handled more weighty political themes, this adaptation zeroes in on the more psychological and emotional aspects of the story with the anti-capitalist ideas remaining in the background, acting as visual motifs and presences to be wary of. What we do have is a mystery thriller that tackles the insecurity of losing your identity in a multi-cultural landscape neglecting the singularity of heritage for the sake of achieving total commercialist exposure. The film plays out like a heart-rendering tug and pull about a rugged android equipped with a human brain understanding its own place in a universe on the brink of complete anatomical anonymity. Surrounding this is external corruption as Major uncovers a conspiracy revealing that her creators are certainly not who they seem or say they are. Her relationships to her surrogate mother Dr. Ouelet played beautifully by Juliette Binoche, close friend Batou, and the chief officer played by legend Takeshi Kitano are all tested as these revelations come to light. Some developments are heartbreaking, others violent; but it all reaches a shattering climax of self-discovery. An announcing of legacy and a passing of a former flesh. The oppressed become internally liberated and immortalized as martyrs in a society where nobody is who is they once were in one way or another.
The flawed beauty in Ghost in the Shell is that it truly is a gorgeously realized vision. Certainly one that was conceptualized heavily before production with an eye for the controversy that would befall it. Some of it may be warranted but I'm not judging over what could have been but rather what I have in front of me. What I see is a future misunderstood gem that will gain fans with time. Mesmerizing in some portions and confounding in others but always interesting to pick apart. Sanders' painstaking visuals and cues here contain some of most vivid depictions of artificiality in dystopic settings I have seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. If that doesn't do the trick then Clint Mansell's soundtrack does a solid job of bringing us in with Major and her plight. What is lacking in its slower, suitably methodical pacing and action sequences is found in the quietly sincere moments where I feel fully fastened into the abrasive atmosphere and tone Sanders goes for. It's as if the film wants you to take a deep breath in when Major jumps from the neon-lit skyscraper in the opening act and exhale when the film's closing embrace overtakes the screen in cathartic ecstasy.