Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell ★★★★

Ghost in the Shell aka Under the Digital Skin aka Her-anka Robotics

Adding to Scarlet Johansson's recent career interest in portraying robotic, alien, or artificial intelligence characters, her role as Major in the remake of Ghost in the Shell brushes up against multiple ideas dealt with in her previous outings. Questions of "what is reality?," "how is humanity gaged?," and "are robots alive?" have not only dotted Johansson's body of work, but also numerous prominent Sci-Fi films. Ghost in the Shell, as well, does not avoid common genre tropes like begrudgingly friendly cop partners, a mysterious serial killer, an evil corporation, and forgotten memories, leaving many critics to claim the film is a thoughtless regurgitation of not only Johansson's previous outings, but other, better Sci-Fi films.

While, admittedly, the skeletal structure of the plot is predictable and well-trodden, the epidermal aesthetic laid over it is unquestionably gorgeous. Rupert Sanders, though run through the mud for career and personal mistakes, it has to be admitted, has crafted a blindingly well designed film that is, in fact, all about skin and dazzling exteriors.

When the viewer is introduced to Major - in a montage of her construction that reads as a less abstract version of the opening to Under the Skin - her exoskeleton is dipped into a creamy liquid, forming her skin, only to see it flake off like leaves in a Fall breeze. That delicate, fragmentary covering is exactly what Ghost in the Shell is about, in more ways than one.

Diegetically, the world of the film is concerned with where the line between human and robot is drawn. For most, that line seems to be determined by exterior aesthetics, with Major passing because her robotic shell looks human even though it is her brain/soul, her interior, that her creators believe deems her human. Even her "ghost" or soul, however, is not actually hers, as the memories that would have defined her humanity are constructed. Kuze is established as a mirror to Major, existing in a similar existential and physical realm between human and robot. Kuze, however, seeks to blur that distinction further by evolving into a digital being. As frequent imagery in the film suggests - flakes of skin, holograms that disintegrate like sand, glass shards scattering - the definitive integrity of any distinction between human and artificial intelligence, or any concept they symbolically stand-in for, is always mutable.

In a meta sense - one I am sure Sanders is commenting on with the film - the film takes that discussion and applies it to the idea of adaptation. Some critics have dubbed Ghost in the Shell a "greatest hits" or "cliffnotes" version of the original, but that's missing the point. It's not about what one has and the other lacks, it's about the process and choices made. Sanders and his production design team have built upon the framework of Mamoru Oshii's anime and Shirow Masamune's manga handsomely. The dull teals, grays, reds, and blues that light the film provide a sleek color palette to bathe the Ken Adam-meets-the-Wachowskis-by-way-of-Blade Runner design of the world. Like the mechanical skin and enhancements that cover the characters, so too is the cityscape awash with digitized advertising. Ultimately, that Sanders and his team adapted another work should not be a criticism, but a question of how ably and cohesively animation was made practical (a film like Suicide Squad proves that is not an easy task).

There is, however, the valid criticism of the film's whitewashing. In that category, there is no excuse. That said, the fact that the internal narrative - the Japaense teen Motoko having her soul transferred into a white body by a corrupt corporation - so completely parallels the production's decisions is, at least, a fascinating topic of conversation. Sanders and the writers are, on some level, attempting to deal with that controversy. One reading might even connect the ethnicity swapping back to the theme of authenticity as a comment on inculturation; when and how is an immigrant's heritage eventually assimilated into the country's hegemony? Can they ever completely assimilate? Should they want to?

Though treading familiar ground, Ghost in the Shell does so with a fresh and compelling coat of paint, resulting in an aesthetically beautiful adaptation and a text to be studied from multiple angles.

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