“In the future, the line between human and machine is disappearing. Advancements in the technology allow humans to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. Hanka robotics, funded by the government, is developing a military operative that will blur the line even further. By transplanting a human brain into a fully synthetic body, they will combine the strongest attributes of human and robot.”
…and resistance is futile. OK. Wrong franchise. Actually, Ghost In The Shell has been with us for quite some time, and fans have been waiting for a live-action film to embrace. And while there are many fantastic elements to this film, it doesn’t pull together well enough to meet the expectations of a rabid fan base.
It started as a comic book by Shirow Masamune in 1989. There have been several anime projects both in short and longer form. This particular incarnation of the material appears to owe much to the 1995 anime film with many of the iconic images and story plots taken directly from that material. The problem is that the material itself is very ambitious for a live-action film, even with the computer wizardry available to filmmakers today.
The film begins with a rather cleverly designed sequence of both sound and image. With some ethereal music we witness the “birth” of Major (Johansson). We watch as an artificial body goes through its production process and ultimately houses the brain or “ghost” of a human being. The rest is completely artificial. Major is the culmination of the research and development of Hanka Robotics, and she is utilized by Section 9, an anti-terrorist organization run by the thoughtful and calm presence of Aramaki (Kitano). This is a world where most people have some level of cybernetic parts, and hacking is now a crime against a person’s own brain. Section 9 is fighting a renowned hacker Kuze (Pitt). The closer Major and her team get to Kuze, the more the pieces of her own life fall into place. The film becomes more a journey of Major’s self-discovery than the thugs-with-guns battles that dominate much of the film’s running time.
And there lies the serious problem with the film. I guess it was decided that we have to have a full-out action film with plenty of gunfights and stunts to keep the audience attention while the larger story is being told. The entire affair plays out in a stylized world that owes a lot to the adapted works of Phillip Dick, most notably Blade Runner and the original Total Recall. It’s a bleak world of grand holograms and Asian design. All of this is incredibly wonderful to look at, but it ultimately distracts from the real film that’s unfolding almost as an aside.
Scarlett Johansson is making a bit of an industry out of these kinds of characters. In Her, she voices an AI operating system that becomes self-aware and has an emotional relationship with its owner. In Lucy, she plays a completely artificial intelligent android that also gains a kind of self-awareness. Here she has the human brain but lives in a totally artificial body, but even her mind is controlled by the company, and it’s that same journey to discover herself that drives all three of these characters. Johansson does a pretty good job here. There is nuance to the performance that feeds the material quite well. She has terrific chemistry with co-star Pilou Asbbaek, who plays her partner and close friend and confidant. If the film could have remained focused on these things, I believe there could have been something outstanding here. Instead director Rupert Sanders struggles for direction and falls into the temptation of wanting to do too much with his visual toys. Of course it’s a stunning world, but he forgets to put any emotion into the presentation. Yes, that’s part of the point. A great topic for conversation, but not an engaging movie in the end. The pace is too slow and the beats too uneven to follow smoothly. There are so many moments when I want very much to care about and engage with these characters, but Sanders always finds a way to push me away.
Ghost In The Shell is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The ultra-high-definition image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an average bitrate of 65mbps. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is as good as you might expect. There is a wonderful level of detail and sharpness. Unfortunately, the style of the film removes any kind of vivid color or nice surface texture. It’s an almost too-sterile presentation. This is the big danger of digital. You have to work to make the image alive, and this image, while pretty to look at, never truly comes alive. Black levels are fair, but often details are lost in the shadows. Again, much of this is intended, and you’re seeing the film that Sanders wants you to see. The real highlight here comes in character close-ups. Major dominates the screen at times, and the multi-faceted costume design really does stand out in 4K. The same can be said for many of the other characters as well.
The Dolby Atmos presentation defaults to a 7.1 track. Your subs are the really standout element in this audio presentation. From the eerie music that begins the film and throughout, there are wonderful moments of lingering sustained bass recreations. Of course, the shootouts fill the surround field with the expected immersive ear candy. The rest of the film has a nice subtle surround presentation that gives you a rather chilling perception of this world. Dialog comes through cleanly, if at times a bit somber and soft.
The extras are all on the Blu-ray copy of the film:
Hard-Wired Humanity – Making Ghost In The Shell: (30:05) There’s plenty of footage from both the 1995 anime film and this movie. Cast and crew talk generally about the material and how they have experienced it over their own lives. Plenty of behind-the-scenes footage along with conceptual art and production design from costumes to weapons.
Section 9 – Cyber-Defenders: (11:29) A look at the actors and characters of the team.
Man And Machine – The Ghost Philosophy: (10:36) Cast and crew talk about the themes and ideas of the movie.
I’ve often said that expectations can kill a movie, and that’s part of what’s at play here. The film only pulled in about $40 million domestically and remained in wide release for only two or three weeks. Honestly, this might be the best format for this particular film. While the big screen takes better advantage of all the nice CGI work, this is an intimate film that might be easier to follow in your own home theater. I encourage you to give it a try; I just think you might lower those expectations and “embrace change“.