The first twelve minutes of Ghost in the Shell expertly combines philosophical musings (the difference between (wo)man & machine, what it means to be human) with, well, copious shots ogling ScarJo’s butt. Which is to say, the film (or at least this preview) has its bases covered. It’s a pretty perfectly calibrated mix of the high and low brow, infusing each visceral gun battle with ponderous looks and thoughtful quotes.
For those unfamiliar with the namesake manga or anime, Ghost in the Shell – set in a futuristic Tokyo – focuses on a recently deceased woman (Scarlett Johansson) whose brain is put into a robot. After the operation, she/it struggles with her/its identity, becoming a violent tool for a shady intelligence department.
The twelve minutes screened in IMAX 3D Tuesday night basically consisted of two complete scenes from early in the picture: In the first scene, Major (Johansson) dies en route to surgery, only to be born again into a robotic body. The sequence almost plays like the big-budget, PG-13 version of Johansson’s transformation in Under the Skin, complete with a milky white backdrop and full frontal nudity. Except here the nude body has porcelain Barbie-doll like anatomy. The stark transformation of odd looking metal into the curves and features of ScarJo deliberately blurs the line between ‘it’ and ‘she’, sexualization used to highlight just how human machines may become (a la Blade Runner & Ex Machina).
The camera deliberately lingers (slow-mo) over each stage of the transformation, fetishizing not just the final product but also each bit of metal, the exposed brain matter, the flaking white skin… Objectification is the point, reflecting how each character views the re-born Major as a ‘thing’ first and foremost. To Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet, Major’s a ‘major technical achievement’ and ”a miracle”, but to Binoche’s shady male science partner, Major’s just “a weapon.” Neither, though, acknowledges their creation as anything more than a tool either for science or force. Later, even Major herself questions if she’s anything more than circuits and wires, staring at the remnants of a dead AI, comparing and contrasting it with herself.
Johansson’s played this part before, as an alien uncomfortable in human skin (the previously mentioned Under the Skin) and as a disembodied AI voice in Her. Ghost in the Shell seemingly completes Johansson’s triptych of people/things uncomfortable within their own flesh (or lack thereof). There’s a reason though why Johansson keeps returning to these existential heroines – she’s really really good at it, conveying vulnerabilities and depth sans any dialogue. There’s no other actress today that can reveal as much using so little. The thought of watching Johansson recreate the ‘other-ness’ of her Under the Skin performance in a film twenty times the budget is easily the most exciting prospect within this new footage.
In the second revealed scene, set one year later, Major tries to prevent the assassination (“hacking”) of a smarmy businessman (played by the always welcome Michael Wincott). It’s the scene you’ve more than likely seen glimpses of in various trailers: Major on the roof of a building, geisha AI attacking a group of businessmen sipping tea, Major slow-mo diving off the building and then breaking through glass, guns blazing… Yes, you’ve seen this type of slow-mo set-piece a hundred times before since The Matrix; but with today’s shaky cam, quick-cut action aesthetic, it almost feels revolutionary to linger for more than five seconds without a cut or to have, god-forbid, a wide establishing shot. Overall it’s a marked improvement for filmmaker Rupert Sanders, whose previous feature Snow White and the Huntsman suffered from the aforementioned shaky-cam aesthetic.