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Front Page - Friday, April 7, 2017

Critic's Corner: Ghost in the Shell offers smart, visually thrilling sci-fi

I went into Ghost in the Shell a little apprehensive. Although the trailers were promising, I knew nothing about the 1980’s Japanese manga on which the film is based and had seen none of the animated movies. If it was a picture for insiders – people who were familiar with and adored the original property – I was afraid I’d be lost.

My concerns melted off me like warm chocolate the moment I saw the first rich and colorful image of the futuristic metropolis in which “Ghost in the Shell” takes place.

Rendered in exquisite detail, the city consists of an intricate grid of buildings and roads overlaid with pastel-hued neon lights. Massive three-dimensional holograms, some larger than the buildings themselves, fill the empty spaces and give the skyline character. From a praying monk to a school of fish that slowly circle a high-rise, there was more than my eyes could take in.

As I looked closer, the veneer of the city seemed to change shape. Many of the lights were actually holograms that served as building signs, directional arrows on roads or something else. These vibrant pixels played a role in operation of the city but also hid its true bones; while gazing at the high-tech vista, I couldn’t always tell the difference between concrete and steel and computer-generated imagery.

While undeniably beautiful, the setting of “Ghost in the Shell” is more than eye candy; it’s part of the story. Just as the intermingling of real and virtual components built a city that was both there and not there, so the line between man and machine is disappearing as humans are augmented with cybernetics to enhance vision, strength and even intelligence.

Hanka Robotics is at the forefront of augmented technology, having developed a mechanical body (or shell) that can interface with a human brain. A young woman, Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), was chosen as the test subject after her body was damaged beyond repair in a cyberterrorist attack. To ensure a lucrative contract with the government, Hanka trained Killian as a counter-terrorism operative.

We see Mira at work in the opening scene as she foils a terrorist attack at a Hanka business conference. Following the incident, the anti-terrorist bureau for which Mira works, Section 9, learns the strike was carried out by an entity known only as Kuze.

Mira’s search for Kuze makes up the plot of “Ghost in the Shell.” But the story that weaves itself through the movie is merely a thread on which the filmmakers hang their exploration of identity and what it means to be human.

For all intents and purposes, Mira is walking, talking, shooting, kicking metaphor. Reduced to brain inside a mechanical body, she’s encased in technology. Yet pesky remnants of her former self keep bubbling to the surface.

There are the fragmented visions of a young girl escaping a burning pagoda; there’s the nagging feeling that the people who remade her are not being honest about what happened to her; and there’s her tendency to disregard authority and follow her instincts. While the latter makes her a better asset in battle than a robot, her stubborn individuality frustrates her superiors at Hanka.

No matter how deeply Hanka buries Mia’s brain in computer circuitry and synthetic muscles and bones, her humanity remains an intact and active part of who and what she is. It also drives her to find answers.

This level of thought is present in every aspect of the film. I especially like how director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) frequently focused on the eyes of Mia’s partner, Batou. When Batou loses them in an accident and is given cybernetic replacements, it’s jarring.

Mia’s journey and the mystery of who she was held my interest throughout “Ghost in the Shell,” although I thought the film’s key emotional moments were a touch muted. While I did enjoy the shootouts, fistfights and other sundry bits of mayhem, the action scenes borrowed too heavily from the “Matrix” films. I can only praise the visuals, though. Although they often echo the 45-year-old “Bladerunner,” they were a pleasure to behold.

Many critics have panned “Ghost in the Shell” but I found it to be thoughtful, visually exciting and satisfying sci-fi. While it might not be a classic like its source material or the films that inspired it visually, I enjoyed it and will likely see it again.

Three out of four stars