It's hard to imagine Ghost in the Shell being made at another time. We now have the technology that allows a photo-real, futuristic city come to life and the kind of enhancement that drapes every frame in delicious detail. However, in modern times, when faces are often lit by the glow of mobile devices, Ghost in the Shell offers themes of isolation in the modern age and how technological enhancements/advancements can distance us from our "Ghosts".
The "Ghosts" often mentioned and leading the title, refer our souls. When Major's brain is placed into a one-of-a-kind, cyber-enhanced, human shell there's a lot of reassurance by her handlers that her "ghost" is still there. Enhanced she may be, but her humanity is still very much intact. Between gorgeously framed slo-mo action, Major is haunted by glitches; a reappearing, burning pagoda that gives you the idea that not all may be as it seems.
Rupert Sanders beautifully realises the world of Ghost in the Shell. While it's been attempted, in the likes of The Matrix, never before has Manga or Anime so convincingly come to life in celluloid. The opening creation of Major is exquisitely delicate. Her manufacture is both hypnotic in its reverie and oddly uncomfortable. While it's not explicit, the cityscape looks like Tokyo on techno-acid; as if Bladerunner had a baby with Fifth Element. Buildings are crammed into every available inch of real estate and gaps between the towering megalopolis are filled with towering holographic advertisements for human cyber-enhancements. While Sanders remodels some of the set-pieces from the original anime, he's not beholden to it. The action, particularly the first time we see Major boot up for battle, is a just as much a manifesto of style as it is adrenaline inducing.
The unsettling meshing of technology has a vague ring of body horror and while it may not be a commentary on cosmetic surgery, it certainly raises a question about how far humanity could go. That being said, Ghost in the Shell doesn't get lost in the kind of laments Westworld was laden with. More concerned with Major's story, subtexts are offered to think about later or offer insight into the emotional state of Major herself. Scarlett Johansson manages to imbue Major with a capable, yet hampered physicality. Perfectly mercurial in the action, she may be able to out do Neo in the run-and-gun stakes. Yet while her gait at any other time is an awkward stomp, like a toddler that's just learned to walk, the two states don't seem to be at odds with one another. More difficult still, is making a character convincing in a sci-fi setup and still deliver encumbering exposition that would cause fatal errors in other performers. Her furrowed brow may do overtime, but Johansson does her best with the rusty mechanics of the dialogue, whether she's strapped to a gurney, dangling by her head or straight-up conversations.
Even with everything Ghost in the Shell has going for it; stunning visuals, beguiling action, fast pace and bonus themes to philosophise about on-line, the main conceit holds it back. While Major's plight to find her humanity is easy to ping for even the most techno-phobic audience member, by the very nature of her struggle she's emotionally kept at a distance.
3* - Replican't Quite