Calm Amidst The Noise: Rupert Sanders' Ghost In The Shell
Science Fiction is sometimes referred to as "Speculative Fiction", due to the genre's inherently hypothetical nature. Postulating about developments in technology and human society are its primary purpose. Perhaps the most common product of the field concerns the very nature of mankind's relationship with technology, and what it might become. At the most fundamental level, the two possible manifestations of this relationship are the adversarial and the symbiotic. The former, "Man Vs. Machine" can be seen in James Cameron's The Terminator, one among countless other works from a century ago and beyond. This story suggests that machines will advance beyond their human creators and turn on them, justifiably or otherwise, leading to a dangerous conflict between the two races. The work of Masamune Shirow, legendary manga creator of Appleseed and Ghost In The Shell, takes the latter path. In this scenario, the very line between man and machine blurs, with each taking on traits of the other. Conflict still exists here, but it is of an existential nature. How much of you can you replace with technology, and still be you? How similar can a machine become to us, before it is essentially human? In a world where the presence and function of the smartphone has become second nature in our day to day lives, Shirow's symbiotic vision seems the most likely. At least for the moment.
In an all too probable future wherein cybernetic enhancement has become the norm, The Major (Scarlett Johansson) is an operative for Section 9, an elite task force organized to combat cyber crime. The group is given considerable free reign to accomplish this mission, and answers directly to the Prime Minister. The Major is rare even in this technologically advanced world, as the sole original flesh and blood part of her is her brain, seen being implanted into a fully cybernetic body during the striking sequence that opens the film. Because of this, she has particular physical advantage over most of the threats she faces in the executing of her duty. But she is also conflicted, seeing more of herself in a destroyed robotic geisha than another might, struggling with her distance from normal human life and sensations. In a moment of intimate longing, she invites a fully human woman into her home merely to touch the natural flesh of her face and ask how it feels. This separation from others comes not only from her physical state, but her lack of memories from before her cybernetic conversion. When the major says "that's what I'm [built] to do, isn't it?", she's not only expressing resentment of her condition, but her self perceived complicity in taking advantage of it in the course of her work. A piece of her identity seems missing or locked away, and Johansson gives an excellent performance as a character whose outer calm disguises existential turmoil.
The Major is joined in section 9 by a formidable group of fellow operatives, including utilitarian, dog loving tough guy Batou (Pilou Asbaek), skilled Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere), and relatable, fully human Togusa (Chin Han). Their leader is the sharp as a razor Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Kitano has a satisfying tough guy moment of his own, and is thankfully allowed to speak in his native Japanese for the entire film. After attempting to thwart a daring attack at the beginning of the film, Section 9 becomes engaged in the pursuit of a mysterious and omni capable cyber terrorist called Kuze. Played by an eerie and charismatic Michael Pitt, Kuze speaks with a wounded, partly artificial voice that is both hypnotic and truly unique. He is methodically eliminating highly placed officials and scientists of Hanka robotics, the firm that manufactured The Major's body. The hunt for Kuze will lead her into the dark underbelly of cyber enhancement, and eventually to dangerous revelations about her own past.
Set in and around a city that is at once an impressive technological utopia and garish, intrusive holographic nightmare, Rupert Sanders' Ghost In The Shell is a focused, visually accomplished revision of the 1995 Japanese animation masterpiece from director Mamoru Oshii. Photographed with urban grit and colorful gleam by Jess Hall, it features many scenes taken directly from that landmark work, though here they have been given alternative context. One element that survives adaptation is the thematic question of what comprises our fundamental self, and it is refreshing to see this in a work large scale entertainment. But the movie evades comparison to typical blockbusters in other ways as well. The story, on the surface a procedural of sorts, is told without a great deal of hand holding for the audience. Details are imparted almost casually, an expectation of the audience to pay attention. Here it is, this is the world, you're on your own. Action sequences are executed with precision and efficiency, quick and merciless, a perfect reflection of Section 9's tactics. But perhaps the most striking departure from the norm is the absence of an overwrought, epic action finale. There is a showdown of sorts, to be sure, but it's not given disproportionate screen time or attention - it's conveyed with the same sense of harsh verisimilitude that informs the entire film. It is as much a testament to the filmmaker's unwavering vision as anything else, a consistent adherence to the laws of one's fictional world. A statement by way of understatement, the film has welcome restraint to accompany its fully realized aesthetic.
The Major's hunt for Kuze becomes a twisting trajectory toward possible inner solace, a discovery of a true sense of self. Not unlike us, she is surrounded by technology, fighting to identify and hold on to the core of her being, a place of peace in the heart of a storming, distracting digital cacophony.