Shell is Other People
How much do I really know about you, Constant Reader? I'm guessing there's a good chance you're currently bored and have nothing better to do, have at least a passing interest in and knowledge of movies... but that's about it. So I'm going to assume you're not necessarily completely au fait with SF subgenres (which is why we're going to talk about cyberpunk for a bit) or that if you are, you're a considerate sort and won't begrudge me going on about things you already know. Okay? Glad we got that sorted out.
Cyberpunk has had mixed fortunes when it comes to the movies. The subgenre concerns itself with the nature and impact of mass information systems in a dystopian futuristic world, featuring characters of dubious personal morality and counter-cultural inclination. Themes of the porous boundary between human and machine are also common. The term itself dates back to about 1980 (although books with strong cyberpunk themes go back a bit further), which makes it slightly surprising that the first big movie in the subgenre, Blade Runner, came out only a couple of years later. After that, though, it was very much up and down – mostly down, in fact, with the likes of Freejack and especially Johnny Mnemonic leading one commentator to declare that putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff was a safer bet than investing in a cyberpunk movie. Then along came The Matrix and everything changed again, for a couple of years at least. If nothing else, the Wachowskis gave the subgenre a significant mainstream profile.
I mention all this because it seems pertinent to any discussion of Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a seminal Japanese cyberpunk comic series. There have been a number of other movies of this name in the past, all of them animated; I think this too is relevant. Significant amounts of money and talent have been directed at the new movie, the production of which has not been without controversy.
The film is set in an unspecified corporate future where cybernetic prostheses have become common, but something wholly new is afoot: the insertion of a living human brain into a wholly synthetic body. We see this happening during the opening credits, and as the resulting cyborg entity takes shape, we recognise the shape as being that of Scarlett Johansson.
One year on and Johansson's character, Mira, is a member of an elite security force known as Section Nine, under the command of fearsome old coot Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). When there is a series of murders of prominent cyberneticists and robotics scientists, the team goes into action, but as the case develops Mira begins to find herself troubled by hallucinations and long-buried memories. She has believed herself to be the orphaned survivor of a terrorist attack – but is there more to her past and origins than her manufacturers have told her...?
Before we go any further... Scarlett Johansson is an extremely attractive woman. I know that. You know that. She knows that. The makers of this film definitely know that, too, and if in the course of this review I ever seem to be (ahem) dwelling on the more spectacular elements of Johansson's physiognomy, it's only because the movie does so too. I have no interest in making prurient innuendos about, well, Scarlett's bod. Well, very little interest, anyway.
So – where were we? Oh yeah. I went to see Ghost in the Shell with a colleague of a similar vintage, and as the end credits rolled, we looked at each other. 'RoboCop, but with a much more resplendent set of -' I began, and he cut me off by making a big thumbs down gesture, which was not a comment on my rapid response review but one on the movie itself (I presume). I would go further and say that Ghost in the Shell doesn't just recall RoboCop, it also reminded me rather strongly of The Bourne Identity and even the 1995 version of Judge Dredd, in that these are all films wherein a fearsome, artificially enhanced enforcer discovers the truth about their own past and is forced to confront their own humanity.
And this isn't necessarily a criticism, because being derivative doesn't automatically result in a bad movie, as long as you approach your subject honestly and take the trouble to focus on the story and telling it your own way. Unfortunately, something has gone a bit wrong with Ghost in the Shell, and while this isn't a flat-out bad film, it's much more of a generic action movie than you would expect given this property's reputation.
After the film, we came out and discussed the idea of personality being something that can be copied, modified, transmitted, and reproduced, and the implications of this for the concept of identity. By the time we had walked up the street to the traffic lights we had discussed what it would mean to be the 'real' you in a world where this was possible, and come up with several interesting twists and variations on the notion. So at least the film made us think. The problem is that our three-minute conversation had more philosophical depth and complexity to it than the whole of Ghost in the Shell, which is getting on for two hours long. What does it mean to be You, if your memories and body are both entirely artificial? is the question the film probably thinks it's reflecting upon. Well, that's a good start, but it doesn't really take it anywhere, it just presents the question. You get a terrible sense that the film thinks it is being very profound indeed – you are practically beaten about the head by the profundity of it all, the profundity is rammed down your throat. If the film had concentrated on doing something more original with its SF procedural/action movie plot and left the audience to figure out the philosophical angles for themselves, it would have been more rewarding for everyone, I suspect.
I suppose the film also has as a theme the way in which modern society treats human beings as property: Mira is reduced to an object, a corporate possession, in the same way as Murphy in RoboCop. The key difference is that while the makers of RoboCop merely depicted Murphy's objectification, here the film-makers are complicit in it: the film's most indicative (not to mention absurd) moment comes when the bad guys open up at Johansson with the heavy artillery, and the only result seems to be that literally all her clothes are blown off. There's a very good reason why Johansson spends an appreciable amount of time in a skin-tight flesh-coloured body stocking, and while the results are undeniably spectacular, you can't help feeling that the film comes across as slightly leery, too.
Is this the juncture to discuss the tizzy that some people have got into about the way that an originally Japanese character has been turned into a Caucasian for film marketing purposes? Well, maybe. My default answer is that it doesn't really have to be a big deal: the entire cast of Seven Samurai changed ethnicity when it was remade as The Magnificent Seven, after all, and no-one ever complains about that. It gets a little more complex here, partly for reasons I am reluctant to go into as they constitute a mild spoiler, but also because the film goes to great lengths to present a world which is a non-specific amalgam of western and Asian cultures, without ever making it quite clear what country we're actually in. I think this is another problem, actually, as it results in a less grounded narrative, and (again) all the art direction almost starts to get in the way of the story. We end up with a sort of cyberpunk soup, full of elements that we have already encountered many times before in other movies, and not redeployed with any great originality here. Maybe this is a faithful adaptation of a truly groundbreaking piece of SF – but the problem is that it was a groundbreaking piece of SF over twenty years ago, and nothing dates faster than SF innovations. Too many genuinely bad films have already pre-emptively ripped this one off.
That said, the look of the thing, while not ground-breaking, is comfortably lavish, and this is obviously a movie with serious studio backing behind it. No film with Takeshi Kitano unleashing his special brand of stone-faced bad-assery can be wholly a waste of time, either, and to her credit Scarlett Johansson also gives a fully committed performance. And, as I say, this isn't exactly a bad film, but it feels curiously leaden and lifeless – neither the action nor the ideas sparkle or truly excite. Perhaps too many other films covering this kind of territory have already been made. Identity may indeed be replicable, because I feel like I've seen most of this movie before in other places.