This Hollywood action blockbuster is a remake of the 1995 anime which was the most successful film of its type. The original is also credited as influencing the Wachowski brothers, who gave a few stylistic nods to Ghost In The Shell in The Matrix. The use of digital rain and the holes in the back of the neck to plug into the Matrix are just two examples. Had the Wachowski brothers written and directed this remake straight after The Matrix, it may have been the live action adaptation it deserved to be. Instead, the story was adapted by three different writers, one of whom (Ehren Kruger) wrote for the Transformers franchise.
It’s yet another example of action and spectacle over substance.
Where the film succeeds is in its design and graphics. Set in an urban near future, the cityscapes are littered with advertising holograms. This feels like a sci-fi cliche now, harking back to Blade Runner and featuring in almost every sci-fi cityscape since. It still looks great though, and really sets the scene.
The film starts much like the original: A naked (actually dressed in skin-toned bodysuit) cyborg woman with short black hair crouches on a rooftop. She’s tuning into a conversation in the building across the street. She listens as a geisha robot tries to kill her master, then she throws herself through the window to catch the robot. It’s a stunning opening sequence.
The cyborg in question is Major Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson), the first of her kind. Rescued from a terrorist attack, her human brain lives on inside a cyborg body. Physically, she feels nothing but is haunted by her own ‘ghost’ (consciousness). Her memories have been removed but she still has flashes of what came before. Built to be the perfect cyber-crime soldier, Major is the only one with the skills to stop a new breed of criminal: one who can hack into cyborg minds and control them. In this world, many humans have had cyber-augmentation. These physical enhancements link them all to the same network, and make them susceptible to hackers.
Along with her partner Batou (Pilou Aesbek), Major is assigned to find a hacker who has infiltrated the network. The hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt) can become any cyber-enhanced person he chooses. I can feel myself getting Matrix flashbacks at this point. (Think Agent Smith, only slightly less annoying and a bit creepier). Kuze knows Major and the two of them share a connection that goes beyond the law. She finds something familiar about him and it’s not just in his design. She wonders if he has hacked her memories. Then she sees that he has a tattoo of the same glitch that has been haunting her.
Less complex than the original, this remake attempts to give Major more human qualities. Unlike the original film, Major has a maker, Dr Oulet (Juliette Binoche). Dr Oulet cares for Major like a daughter and shows concern over her glitches. She runs regular diagnostics on her and cries at the drop of a hat. Binoche’s character seems to serve no purpose other than to make up for the lack of emotion from Major. Major is a female protagonist who’s emotions range from robotic to morose. Johansson gives a solid performance in a physically demanding role, but I’m sure she isn’t expecting an Oscar nomination any time soon.
As if having one mother wasn’t enough, Major also meets the mother of her brain later on in the film. All that remains of her Japanese daughter is her brain in the body of Scarlett Johansson. Despite this, her mother still recognises her. I’ve got two sons and if one of them came knocking on my door in a completely different body, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have a clue who they were. But that’s just me.
This diversion into sentimentality misses the point of the premise entirely. The original film asks, ‘What if a cyber brain could generate its own ghost (consciousness) and create a soul all by itself. And if it did, what would be the importance of being human?’
Major reconnects with her old life and learns that her rebirth was a lie. She wasn’t saved, she was taken. What Major chooses to do with that information gives her character its identity. A rebirth from within and a new purpose.
In the end Major is back on those rooftops again and this is the extent of her philosophy. “People say our memories define us but it is our actions,” and off she goes.
The story itself seems to be a ghost of a film locked inside a shiny Hollywood shell.