I Wasn’t Built for Dancing:
Ghost in the Shell
Aside from buying a few issues of Lone Wolf and Cub back in the ‘80s, I know almost nothing about Manga comics and I know literally nothing about Ghost in the Shell, the Japanese comic book by Masamune Shirow, on which this film is based. In fact, until yesterday I didn’t even know that there was a controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.
Honestly, you know nothing, Jon Snow.
And that seems to have worked well for me, coming to it with no preconceptions but for a vague idea that it sounded a bit like a female Robocop. Right from the credits sequence where we see the Major (Scarlett Johansson) having her brain inserted into the bits and pieces that would make up her new Cyborg body – her shell – and her attempts to draw breath as new life begins, I found the film both eerie and extremely beautiful. Sometimes both in the same shot. Unknown to Major, she has not been saved from a terrible accident by a benign government, but was specifically chosen to become a weapon. And what a weapon she is! As Major so succinctly puts it, she wasn’t made for dancing.
I’ve never entirely got the adoration piled on Scarlett Johansson, although I loved her in The Man Who Wasn’t There and of course in the wonderful Lost in Translation (where she moves through a contemporary Japanese urban setting whilst here exists in a futuristic Japanese one); but in Ghost she simply dominates the screen and gives her body so many individual tics that despite being a complete Cyborg she is equally a complete human being.
And that face of hers! So much of the acting calls for an outer displaying of her internal struggles. Her face is luminous; still; reflects a turmoil and feeling of being grateful that she still has some kind of life, whilst also having a contained resentment at what has been done to her. Again, one can often see these conflicting emotions travelling through her submerged inner existence in the same shot. This could have been a straightforward action character; instead, Johansson makes Major someone so real that at times I wanted to hug this vulnerable little waif despite the fact that she is also a genuine killing machine.
Nor could I take my eyes from the walk that the actress uses: slightly hunched forward, with a striding in-your-face gait that hints at barely held back violence. You’ll get the idea that I found this an astonishing performance and you would be right. From here on in I’m a confirmed Johansson fan.
“It is not our memories that define us…”
Her creator, Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche, who simply gets more beautiful with age) is also a conflicted person: from having initially used Major as an experiment she has grown to love and care about her.
And the world that they move through will immediately call to mind Blade Runner, with its crammed-in and monolithic buildings and gigantic advertising figures. And despite the fact that I couldn’t really see how this advertising worked, it is effective in suggesting a city of the Gods. And conversely some of the action sequences are played out in what appear to be more run-down, grittier areas, suggestive of extreme wealth existing shoulder-to-shoulder with extreme poverty, recalling my feelings during a job I did in Panama some years back.
A couple of decades ago it would have played against a Vangelis soundtrack; here that is replaced by a subtle and resonant one from Clint Mansell and Lorne Belfe who at times seem to be paying homage to the great composer and who make it worth your while staying through the closing credits, just for a fuller listen to their work.
As to the ‘controversy’ in the casting of a white actress…I don’t quite get it. I mean, I can see that casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange was problematic to put it mildly, but Major is the brain of a Japanese girl in a completely artificial body – and I would imagine that a company as enormous as Hanka Robotics (almost everyone in this future world is enhanced in some way) would experiment with different body-types.
The theme of terrorism is never developed – someone has been hacking into the artificial creations – and I suspect that the Japanese source material explored the philosophical ramifications of AI much more than Ghost does, but it never took from my enjoyment. In any case, if that’s what you want then I hope that you’ve already seen the sublime Ex Machina. Indeed, to my mind that theme is there if you want to look for it. Perhaps the problem was having too many hands at work here: the script is credited to James Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, but apparently several others also worked on it.
There’s room for exploring that in a second film; and if there is one I would be happy to see director Rupert Sanders stay at the helm. With only Snow White and the Huntsman behind him at the moment, he is already developing a style that could be interesting. (Although I can only dream of how much more hard-core this material would have been under David Cronenberg.)
All in all, this one was a winner for me.
And incidentally it was a great pleasure to see the brilliant, multi-talented ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki, some twenty years after he last appeared in an American film. If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial than Ghost then check out this renaissance man’s work as a director. Sometimes described as ‘nihilistic’, it often has a bleakness to it that appeals to me.