The newest incarnation of the iconic cyberpunk series tells a new story- the background of its central character: The Major (played by Scarlett Johansson- don’t worry, I’ll get to that). One year before the events of the film, she was saved from near death by an experimental medical procedure which transplanted her brain into an artificial body. Although most people in this future are enhanced with cybernetics implants to some degree, she is the first person to be given a completely new body. Following this, she became the leader of a government counterterrorism unit called Section 9, which also includes her teammate Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and the team’s supervisor Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). But when researchers and executives working for the company which created her body, Hanka Robotics, start turning up dead, the Major quickly discovers a conspiracy which leads her to start questioning her own identity.
If I had to describe this version of Ghost in the Shell in a few words, I would choose “distilled, visually stunning, and cool”. In regards to the first of those, my one complaint about the movie is that its plot is somewhat rudimentary. It’s a story of how humans struggle to define their identity in a world where the boundaries between human and machine are increasingly blurred. It’s a plot we’ve seen done, and done better, many times before, most obviously by the earlier incarnations of the same franchise and by Blade Runner (which itself heavily inspired the franchise). I think some of this can be chalked up to the film's run time, which clocks in at a surprisingly brief 106 minutes.
However, where this film does succeed is what I call “the cool factor”. Although it heavily streamlines the philosophical mind screw that the original anime film is known for, I think that this film is the best cyberpunk action work out of all of them. The action sequences are very well done, topping any of the animated versions due to sheer production values. Many of the best action sequences are actually lifted directly from previous versions and recontextualized to fit into this movie, creating a sort of cinematic remix. The acting is also great, particularly by Johansson (who expertly communicates her character’s disconnection from the rest of humanity), Asbæk (who plays Batou very faithful to the previous versions), Michael Pitt (who plays the villain), and Kitano (who is just really cool).
And the visuals, both special effects and cinematography, are absolutely stunning. The film has a really unique visual style which draws on elements of the original anime, other cyberpunk works, and the crazy neon colors of a Nicolas Winding Refn film and then adds building-sized holograms and surreal cyberscapes on top. It’s honestly one of the best-looking films I’ve seen in a long time, and if you’re into cinematography and effects this movie is a can’t miss.
And, of course, I suppose I should address all the controversy regarding the casting of Scarlett Johannsson in the film’s lead role. Another full disclosure- I personally thought that the controversy was extremely overblown, especially because the majority of the people up in arms about it had seemingly never seen any part of the franchise. However, without getting into spoiler territory, there is actually a very good story reason why the Major is played by a white actress.
So is this version of Ghost in the Shell the best ever incarnation of the decades-old franchise? No- it’s nowhere as deep and complex as some of its other versions. However, the film is still a gorgeous and incredibly cool cyberpunk movie which combines old elements with a unique style to create something new. It won’t become a cultural touchstone by any means, but I think it’s a worthy addition to the (personally) beloved franchise.