‘Ghost In The Shell’: Production Design Tells The Compelling Story The Script Doesn’t

A few years ago, during a press screening introduction that I found slightly pretentious at the time, a local film lecturer said something like, “sometimes, maybe style is the substance.”

Never have I felt that was more true than watching Rupert Sanders’ new Ghost in the Shell remake starring Scarlett Johansson. The story is light on details and even lighter on logic, but unlike, say, the Wachowski Starship’s monument to preposterousness, Jupiter Ascending, where the story itself became such a spectacle that you almost forgot about the visuals, in Ghost in the Shell the story mostly just stays out of the way. Ghost in the Shell‘s narrative is utilitarian rather than conceptual, doing just enough to get us from scene to scene. Which turns out to be not so bad, because Ghost in the Shell‘s production design tells an engrossing on its own, much more so that the ostensible plot.

About that. So I don’t remember much about the 1995 animated version other than that it blew my mind, maaaan (drugs), but in this incarnation (also adapted from the Masamune Shirow manga), Scarlett Johansson’s character, who doesn’t have a name yet, wakes up in a lab after having her brain connected to some sort of robot body (complete with robot bewbs and everything). The attachment montage, featuring thread-like synapses being fused and musculature being weaved by machine inside some sort of floating tank (?), feels like it borrows heavily from similar sequences in Westworld. It was actually the other way around, but I didn’t realize that at the time. As she comes to, we see two government/corporate functionaries celebrating the successful attachment and debating what to do with their creation. The good one, Dr. Ouelet, played by Juliette Binoche, says “She’s a person!,” while the bad guy, Cutter, played by Peter Fernandino, growls “She’s a weapon!” and sends her off to Section 9, which we’re given to understand is some kind of military agency.

An evil government functionary wanting to weaponize technological developments, whatever the human cost? Why, I’ve never seen that before! No, it’s not exactly fresh, and the scene is a bit of a microcosm of the movie, which combines sumptuous visuals with blah blah blah who cares.

Luckily the visuals just keep getting better. The very next scene features Scarlett Johansson (now called simply “Major”) helping Section 9 do whatever it is Section 9 does (didn’t they used to make skateboards?), which in this case is either infiltrating a shady business meeting, protecting a shady business man, or trying to arrest a shady business man, but in any case involves ScarJo taking off her trenchcoat and swan diving off the top of a skyscraper, through the giant holographic fish circling the building, and into the business meeting, which is being held at some kind of robot geisha sushi bar. Can’t swan dive with clothes on, I always say. A gunfight ensues, with Major initiating some kind of cloaking device, while one of the robot geisha’s limbs twist into crab-like appendages and she (?) skitters off backwards, dragging the shady businessman with her. Then her face opens up Transformers-style, revealing a dongle-like tongue that attaches to the guy’s neck to begin sucking out his thoughts.

Or something like that. Honestly, the details of the brain-hacking plot are hopelessly convoluted, but it hardly matters. The look of the scene is sort of a mix of The 5th Element, the restaurant scenes in Cloud Atlas, and Pan’s Labyrinth, and when you’re watching a crab-Geisha suck out a guy’s brain in a robot sushi bar while a naked hologram girl uzis everyone to death in slow motion, the story sort of fades into background noise.

It mostly remains there. The villain’s hacking plot never makes much sense, nor does ScarJo’s “deep dive” into the brain-code of the dead crab geisha (apparently you can just kill them with bullets like a regular crab), not least of which because a “dive” was just used to refer to a regular dive (as in, off the top of a building) five minutes earlier. This by Major Scarjo’s commander (played by veteran character actor Takeshi Kitano), who speaks to his underlings only in Japanese, who in turn respond only in English. Pilou Asbæk (Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) plays her partner, and while the story doesn’t demand a lot from them, acting-wise, they all have notably interesting faces. As for the setting, the gist is that they live in a world where everything can be hacked and where people are nonetheless shocked every time it happens. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Major turns out to be hunting an evil version of herself (shocker) who in turn reveals that her employer has been withholding secrets about her past (double shocker with a back one and a half twist). Neither does the film have anything especially new or salient to say about AI and the nature of consciousness, though it’s unclear whether it’s even trying to. Memories are worth killing people over in one scene and then a voiceover tells us they don’t matter in the next (the film also posits that silky bomber jackets will be just as fashionable however many years from now this story takes place as they are now, which is neither here nor there).

We don’t feel much emotion about Major finding her birth mother at her own grave in a cemetery (a stock scene so common that it even showed up in the last Fast/Furious movie), but the trellised, amphitheater-style future cemetery is so fully realized, visually and conceptually, that it tells a story by itself. I don’t care about the mom reveal, and it doesn’t matter because the design of the scene itself is the reveal. That’s the movie. Ghost In The Shell doesn’t have The 5th Element‘s humor or whimsy, but it has the same kind of story-defining (defying?) production design, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a 3D movie where I actually kind of enjoyed the 3D.