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How Ghost In The Shell is spearheading cyberpunk’s new era

The film has been met with controversy over casting but it’s a non-stop white-knuckle ride that deserves to be canonised alongside the best films of the genre

A dazzling spectacle of design, digital effects, balletic violence and analog stagecraft, Rupert Sanders’s Ghost In The Shell represents a rare aesthetic landmark. Rocketing to IMAX screens worldwide this weekend, the film ushers in a new moment for cyberpunk, certain to be continued this year in upcoming films like Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Denis Villeneuve’s update on perhaps the genre’s most influential property, Blade Runner 2049. Could this be the beginning of a much-needed respite from the unyielding cavalcade of artless superhero movies that have plagued the box office over the past decade? That may be wishful thinking, but every android can continue to dream of electric sheep.

Based on Masamune Shirow’s late-80s manga serial of the same name, as well as Mamoru Oshii’s anime film adaptations, Ghost In The Shell tells the story of The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a weaponised cyborg who is the first of her kind: an entirely synthetic, engineered body housing a conscious brain rescued from the body of a dying girl. Unable to feel physical pain or pleasure, Major must continue to adapt to her own corporeality while being dispatched to assail cyberterrorists who seek to hack the government’s military operations, along with her counterterrorist task force, Section 9. The plot kicks into gear when Major, her fellow commander Batou (rising star Pilou Asbæk), and the task force must hunt down a mysterious adversary who will stop at nothing to sabotage the technology that created her, and the team at a big-brother company called Hanka Robotics who developed it.

Much controversy has been raised over the casting of Johansson in a part considered to be of Asian origin, an accusation quickly sidestepped by this film’s narrative arc for the character. The Major is entirely synthetic physically, and therefore has no ethnicity. Of course, it helps that Johansson can sell a movie. In 1995, the role might have gone to Sandra Bullock. In 2001, we may have had Angelina Jolie. In 2006, the Major could have easily been Halle Berry. That today, such an idealised body would be depicted in the form of Scarlett Johansson feels almost too obvious, but is rescued by a performance that is both restrained and intensely physical.

Johansson maintains a streamlined physicality on the exterior that quite literally masks a world of anxiety and existential peril trapped beneath the surface. Through her eyes, Johansson tells a different story than she does with her body, and it is a level of control that testifies to her otherworldly talents as an actress. Science fiction has become Johansson’s vehicle for exploring characterizations that go beyond the limits of traditional dramatic roles, as demonstrated in films like Lucy and Under the Skin. Following the controversy, which has failed to take root in Japan, anime director Oshii praised the casting, saying “Scarlett Johansson has gone above and beyond my expectations for the role.”

However, outspoken critics of the casting nevertheless perform a great service in voicing a current widespread fatigue with the market-tested financial approach of big Hollywood studios. It wasn’t long ago that actresses like Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi were commanding international films that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. In 2013 Rinko Kikuchi co-anchored the bloated and mediocre Pacific Rim to a global take of $411 million. To cast an Asian lead in a multi-million-dollar film would not signify progress as much as a refusal to slide backward in a xenophobic era where diversity and cultural representation in the media is more important than ever. While Johansson excels in the part, there’s no denying that The Major could have been a star-making chance for a talented Asian actress. One can only hope that this uproar will help initiate conversations in the offices where it counts, much as the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has begun to do in the past couple of years.

Interestingly, Sanders has amassed a diverse international cast around Johansson that is more impressive than most. In the role of Section 9’s chief Daisuke Aramaki, Sanders tapped cult Japanese actor/director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, giving him much to do in terms of action, and even offering a sly nod to his own gangster films for which he is famous. As Batou, Danish actor Pilou Asbæk is afforded a breakout part, anchoring much of the action of the film alongside Johansson with all the charisma of any marquee name that comes to mind. A male character in the original manga, Major’s creator, the scientist Dr. Ouelet, has been reenvisioned as a woman played with an ambivalent emotional grit by French actress Juliette Binoche. Chin Han, Lasarus Atuere, and Danusia Samal round out the Section 9 team, and model Adwoa Aboah makes her big screen debut as a beautiful and fully human streetwalker, whom Major brings home to explore the memory of touch. Perhaps most poignantly, Kaori Momoi gives a tender and surprising performance as Major’s biological mother, marking a big international moment for one of Japan’s greatest actresses. As Kuze, Michael Carmen Pitt gives a truly haunted performance that grabs back at some of his early promise in films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Dreamers. He’s one of his generation’s most gifted actors and it’s incredibly satisfying to see him operating on this scale. According to production notes, the extended cast represents a variety of countries that include Japan, New Zealand, Australia, France, the United States, England, Canada, Zimbabwe, Denmark, Singapore, Poland, Turkey, Fiji, China, Romania, and Belgium. This should do well for the movie’s global prospects.

“No one-liner can etch itself into memory quite like the image of Michael Carmen Pitt’s Kuze, shrouded in a hood, dissolving into streams of data that cascade to the ground like falling sand”

Politics aside, Ghost In The Shell takes the source material and turns it into something digestible and rip-roaring, gripping you to your seat full-throttle and never letting go. Not everything works: a few of the film’s CGI scenes don’t quite capture the same authentic adrenaline of, say, the analog robotic Geishas shown in the opening action sequence. Much of the dialogue is lifted from the manga, and feels a bit lost in translation. While the characters of Batou and Togusa offer brief moments of comic levity, the film could have used more wit and personality among its characters. But to harp on these glitches is akin to grasping at straws. No one-liner can etch itself into memory quite like the image of Michael Carmen Pitt’s Kuze, shrouded in a hood, dissolving into streams of data that cascade to the ground like falling sand. How “real” do we want our cyborg to be when she’s jumping through a plate-glass window or ripping her own arm off to disarm a spider tank?

On its own merits, Ghost In The Shell warrants canonisation alongside the best films of the cyperpunk genre: Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995), and The Matrix (1999). This mantle also includes Momoru Oshii’s two Japanese-animated Ghost in the Shell films from 1995 and 2004. Those films aren’t made obsolete by this film, but are revived. Purists will stick to the originals, whereas new fans will find themselves falling down a rabbit hole of sublime cinematography and 3D hologram effects, reminding them of what it is that we go to the movies for. Either way, as escapist cinema with unnerving technological themes, it should give us all something fun to argue about for a change.