Ghost in the Shell
Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.
1 hr. 47 mins.

I went into this cold, knowing nothing about the Japanese manga series or the original animated film Ghost in the Shell (1995). I don’t know if naiveté is an excuse for my opinion, but how you react to this film will probably depend on whether you know of and/or appreciate the history behind manga and have a taste for this type of futuristic noir.

If you’re looking for something to compare it to, think of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In this case, however, despite carrying British, Danish, French and American actors, the visuals, atmosphere and story are all connected by an Asian viewpoint.

You can’t define this film in 25 words or less. Ghost in the Shell’s complexity lies as much in its presentation as in its acting. It’s a constant barrage of digital images that make you wonder what is real. Not just the story. The actual philosophical question: What is real and what is imagined? What’s more, it’s linked to the idea that humans might be interchangeable in their parts but not their souls.

Major (Scarlett Johansson) is part of an undercover unit operating under the corporate logo of Hanka. Hanka seems to focus on thwarting corporate espionage and cyberterror. Its scientists and doctors have designed artificial bodies into which actual human brains are inserted. The technical body and brain meld together to create a kind of supercyborg, i.e., Major.

But how did Major come to be? During a series of murders of members of an obscure project called 2751, she discovers that her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), has not been honest about Major’s creation. The story behind Major has been darkened by Hanka’s willingness to sacrifice humanity for science.

Someone knows this and is hacking other cyborgs to knock off members of the project. When Major finally confronts the hacker killer Kuze (Michael Pitt), she learns that she is part of a cruel evolutionary process fronted by both the government and Hanka. Angry that her life’s story has been a lie, she breaks away, leaves her unit and undertakes a journey of self-discovery and revenge.

Not everything in this film is about story. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) has deliberately overwhelmed his viewers with digital technology to the point of distraction. Following the story is a bit like following code to find the origin of the code itself. There are multiple layers and more than a few rabbit holes to jump down. Suffice it to say that one viewing of this film is insufficient.

Good thing Sanders has Johansson in his corner. She doesn’t need much dialogue to carry her weight. It’s a role designed for minimalism, and Johansson takes to it like fingers to a keyboard.

Her strongest relationship is with her Danish sidekick Batou (Pilou Asbæk), who suspects she’s more than she knows and waits patiently for her other self to emerge.

There’s also the good work of veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, Major’s director, who never bats an eye in the face of confrontation and, when threatened, utters the best line in the movie: “Never send a rabbit to kill a fox.” Good point.

Ghost in the Shell is not for those hoping to find popcorn sci-fi entertainment. Its complexity is built into its own technological and cinematic viewpoint. It’s not a new vision or a fresh story, but it holds its own.

You might be puzzled, put off or annoyed, but that’s part of the attraction of this type of genre. It’s meant to be dug through, piece by piece, like a good puzzle. Never mind that some pieces may be missing. You do what you can to find the picture and draw your own conclusions. But, like Major, you must first question your existence to find it; and that, as Major discovers, is what real life is all about.