There is almost nothing in the steampunk urban wilds of Ghost in the Shell that does not invite further exploration, so completely is the film’s cyber-enhanced near future stretched over the geometry of a recognizable city and society. Major (Scarlett Johansson), a cyber-enhanced, terrorist-thumping soldier roams a world where everything is at once fantastical and completely plausible, a realm where even the workaday infrastructure of normal living seems exotic and alien.
For example, her apartment:
And what is lurking in her brain:
On every detail, the film, which opens today, executes flawlessly, seeding these elements in a holograph-laced live-action dimension as dazzling as the anime that inspired it.
“Visually, it resembles nothing else in theaters,” writes AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. “…It is in its designs … that this new Ghost In The Shell finds tantalizing expressions of theme: the faces and limbs of hacked androids breaking up into insect-like forms as they attack; the lonely, recessed spaces of futuristic sleeping quarters; the grotesquerie of cybernetic enhancements; red light districts where human prostitutes dress like sex-bots to attract clientele. Johansson’s Kubrickian performance and the technical precision of the camera make its artifice seem almost haunting.”
This is a common sentiment – the Telegraph’s Tim Robey writes: “As Blade Runner did before it, this slinky, cyberpunk action flick makes its style the entire statement, pondering a future of human-robot synergy simply by visualising it in as much eye-popping detail as possible.”
And Variety’s Guy Lodge: “Still, it’s as spectacle that Ghost in the Shell operates principally and most effectively, as one glittering digital marvel succeeds another.”
This spectacular pulsing world is just a backdrop, however, to Major’s quest to unlock her identity, a fraught journey that slithers deep into questions of morality and humanity in an age of ever-increasing technological capability.
“Ghost in the Shell is like an amalgam of 2017 anxieties,” writes SFGate’s Mike LaSalle. “Fear of technology. Fear of big business. Fear of being spied upon. Fear of the sacred disappearing and of the crass, the loud and the empty crowding into every corner of existence — crowding out life itself. But the movie doesn’t just exploit these fears. It communicates an idea that may turn out to be important, that sooner or later, we as a species are going to have to decide about the limits of technology. And the limit may have to be the human brain.”
It is these metaphysical explorations that make the film appealing even to those not naturally drawn to movies resplendent with robots, gunfights, crypto-mafia corporate overlords or dystopic fiction. “The genius of Ghost in the Shell is that you don’t have to care about cyborg-anything to enjoy it,” notes Stephanie Zacharek of Time.
It is a difficult balance – to be at once human and machine – but Johansson plays this role as perfectly as if she’d been programmed to do it. “Johansson, known to global audiences for many roles but mainly as Black Widow in the ongoing Avengers destruction larks, has by now perfected her unblinking, unsettling, uncanny way of creating nonhumans with a human pulse,” writes the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips.
And, despite its serious overtones and techno-noir backdrop, the film is just plain fun, as Variety’s Guy Lodge explains: “Spectacularly honoring the spirit and aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s beloved animated adaptations without resorting wholly to slavish cosplay, this is smart, hard-lacquered entertainment that may just trump the original films for galloping storytelling momentum and sheer, coruscating visual excitement.”