Ghost in the Shell is based on the Japanese manga or graphic novel of that name, which has achieved world wide popularity spawning anime films, video games et al.
The “ghost” of the title, in case you are up to now unaware of the franchise, is Major (Johansson), a woman who has been cyber enhanced, in that her human brain is now functioning in a totally artificial cyber body, making her both a miracle of technology and also the perfect soldier/weapon – rather putting the Bionic Woman in the shade. Terrorism too in Major’s world appears to have reached new technological heights – its latest weapon is the ability to hack into people’s minds. Under the command of anti terrorism squad chief Aramaki(Takeshi Kitano), to whom she appears to have been leased out by Cutter (Peter Fernando), boss of the company which made her, Major’s job is to hunt down and kill such villains. However during her mission she learns from one of the apparent bad guys Kuze (Michael Pitt) that she has been lied to about her origins and discovering the truth then becomes her main mission.
To be honest it takes a while to work out all of the above, which is not totally clear from the film. Plot detail is not however what a film like this is primarily about. On the one hand it is about spectacle and action and that it has in spades. Its vision of a future tech city (Tokyo?) with glittering towers, aerial highways and giant human moving holograms, being this world’s version of advertising billboards, is stunningly beautiful. Equally impressive but depressing is the downside of the city, the giant edifices looking like huge prison blocks where the bulk of the populace are housed in tiny apartments the size of the average living room and the rain swept, desolate spaces where many of Major’s impressively staged battles are fought. Interestingly although we are in a world of advanced technology, the most popular weapon of choice still appears to be a variation on the old fashioned hand gun.
And then there is the disturbing concept of a human brain trapped in a cyber body and how that has come about. Juliette Binoche plays the morally conflicted scientist who created Major and is now trying to protect her creation from the ruthless Cutter. Johansson is effective as Major, who for some reason conducts many of her operations naked. But don’t get excited folks – it ain’t that sexy. Her cyber body is somewhat akin to a plastic jigsaw, in that you can see all the joins and she is devoid of nipples and genitalia. Johansson’s most moving dramatic opportunities come in her scenes with Kuze and with the (Japanese) woman who could be her mother.
There has been some controversy over the fact that this very Japanese creation has been largely cast with Western actors in the main roles – cast also includes Danish actor Pilou Asbæk as Major’s sidekick. Apart from Kitano, who doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to show what a fine actor he is, it appears as though this whole cyborg operation is in the hands of Europeans – an unlikely scenario in view of Japan’s present day advanced technology. But as director Rupert Sanders points out, ““We’re not making a small Japanese version of the film. We’re making a global version of the film and for that you need a figurehead movie star”.