GHOST IN THE SHELL. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, and Juliette Binoche. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Rated M (Science fiction themes, violence and stylised nudity). 107 min.
Set in 2029, this American science fiction drama is based loosely on the manga of the same name by the author, Masamune Shirow. The term "manga" refers to Japanese comics created in 19th. style, and written by Japanese authors. A series of television tapes, videos and computer games has already been built around Shirow's comic-book fantasy, and the first manga (Japanese animated) movie appeared in 1995. This film depicts Shirow's work in Westernised fashion and non-animated mode, and is a live action adaptation of Shirow's original manga.
"The Major" (Scarlett Johansson) is a human-cyborg hybrid that has memories she can't quite fathom. As Major Motoko Kusanagi, policewoman Head of Task Force Section 9, she is a counter-terrorist field Commander dedicated to protecting the world from dangerous technological threats and she is responsible for stopping criminal hackers intent on terrorist sabotage. In the movie, the hackers' plan is to sabotage the artificial intelligence technology of a key IT company, "Hanka Robotics", and what is happening to the company and the scientists it employs constitutes a major threat to national security. Loyal to The Major is Batou, her trustworthy punk lieutenant (Pilou Asbaek), and Julliette Binoche, who plays Dr. Ouelet, the doctor in charge of putting human brains into the artificial bodies. Dr. Ouelet created The Major and is concerned that the "soul" of the human person should never be lost. Cyber-bodies are "shells" for human souls which are the "ghosts" in the machines that are created.
This is the third significant science-fiction film in which Scarlett Johansson has taken the lead role as a cyber robot, or intelligent person from some alternative domain. The first was "The Island" (2005). The second was "Under The Skin" (2013), and the third was "Her" (2013) where Johansson was the computer voice behind an IT Operating System programmed to be a companion to a lonely man. "Her" was one of the best movies of its year.
The key themes of this movie, apart from the contemporary threat of hacker-terrorism, are the nature of self-identity and the impact of human intelligence contained within cyber bodies. In the film, Johansson creates an impressive cyber-IT feel. The movie raises questions about what being human really means. It poses the question of how, when, and whether, artificial intelligence will change human kind. 21st. Century machine versus man is explored, and the film, reflects its Japanese cartoon origins by characteristically examining what happens when technology comes under violent attack.
Despite its futuristic look, the film is a police-crime drama, where realistic action scenarios compete for attention with sci-fi ethical issues that are related to them. Johansson realised the larger issues well in "Her", where the line between personal and computer identity blurred brilliantly, but this movie places the viewer somewhere between a manga fantasy and a thinking piece that attempts to analyse the dilemmas associated with a technology-driven world. The character of The Major is geared action-wise (with a lot of stylised nudity) to respond violently in a targeted and immediate way, and issues get lost in the rapidity of the action. The film's visual effects, however, are dazzling. They will appeal to cyber-IT enthusiasts, and educate the viewer about the machinery behind robot technology. One is reminded of "Blade Runner" (1982) and "The Matrix" (1999) by the film's visually daring, sci-fi sweep, and the movie attempts to create a virtual, hallucinatory experience.
The film somewhat distractedly uses violent action to challenge the viewer on the ethical issues posed by IT at some future time. But stunning visuals set this film apart from others.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 30th., 2017