Ghost in the Shell a surprisingly watchable sci-fi Blu-ray disc
By Jim Bray
It may have started life as a Japanese comic book, but Paramount's Ghost in the Shell is a compelling and eye-dazzling adventure that's much better than I had expected going in.
The movie, debuting on 4K and conventional Blu-ray (our sample was the Blu-ray, darn it, which comes with a DVD and digital code in the package as well - and a 3D version is available, too) hearkens more than a little to Blade Runner, in its look and overall storyline, but more in an "inspired by" or "homage" manner than being a complete rip-off. It made me curious to see how the Blade Runner sequel will turn out when it debuts later this year.
Speaking of a not-too-distant future, Ghost in the Shell is set in just such an environment. Look at the streets, with their obtrusive (but perfectly logical given the way our society is going) holographic ads all over the place - and the abundance of neon and other signage, and it looks exactly like a 21st century take on the 21st century envisioned by Ridley Scott and his collaborators back in the 1982 Blade Runner (though I don't remember seeing flying cars in "Ghost"). There's less rain in this vision of the future, it seems, but that's okay because perhaps it means the seas didn't really rise after the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate accord.
Anyway, above and beyond the terrific setting (which looks really great in 1080p! Darn them again for not sending the 4K version, but 4K review copies are few and far between right now), Ghost in the Shell follows Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is apparently the first true human/machine hybrid and now works as a kind of cop/spy fighting against cyber-crime (Felonia von Pantsuit - thanks, Kurt! - could have used her in 2016!).
While cyber enhancement is very popular in this world - some people get their eyes done to have extra sight capabilities while one guy here gets enhanced so he can drink more beer - Major is the first person to combine a completely human brain with a completely robotic body (which just happens to look like Johansson's, a nice bonus considering her acting chops or, according to my wife, lack of same), supposedly as a result of her body's death while she was a kind of "boat person" refugee.
Naturally, there's a lot more to that than meets the eye and during the course of her quest Major discovers some really disturbing potential facts about her true genesis, facts that have her questioning not only who she is but what she is doing as a career. By movie's end she makes some life-affirming decisions that, I must admit, really surprised me. I'm not going to spoil the story by even hinting what happens, however, other than to note that there wasn't as much capitalism bashing as I expected.
In fact, there's far more action than ideology here and it gets pretty intense at times, though not particularly gross or gory (perhaps the movie's ordnance department got a deal on ammo and they had to expend it). There's also some interesting character development beyond Major's, some really interesting ideas and, of course, the movie's simply gorgeous look (it was shot in New Zealand, and the effects done by Weta, the company and studio set up by Peter Jackson for his Lord of the Rings masterpiece).
The international cast is great, though I've never heard of any of them other than Johansson. Major's boss ('Beat' Takeshi Kitano) is very stoic and by the time the movie was half over I was convinced the actor couldn't walk in real life - until he did so to great effect near the end. His lines are spoken in what I assume is Japanese, with subtitles, though everyone else speaks English. Major's "sidekick," played by Pilou Asbæk, reminds me a lot of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, though this time he's one of the "good men."
Johansson does a good job here, and as you can see via the extras, she really threw herself into the role, including doing a lot of her own physical acting. It appears to have been a lot of work, but probably a lot of fun, too. Some people were apparently put off by her casting - and apparently not because of any perceived lack of thespian talents. I seem to remember a bit of a kerfuffle when it was announced she'd be playing Major because Major is supposed to be Asian. So the ranks of the perpetually offended apparently whined about cultural appropriation, even though the fact that a comic book (or Manga, as they call it) from the Land of the Rising Sun was made into a Hollywood movie in the first place could be construed as cultural appropriate if you're into such stuff.
Hey, no one said these chronic complainers have to be capable of using logical thought!
Ghost in the Shell (the ghost, by the way, refers to a person's soul/personality etc., while the shell is the body in which it's situated) didn't do a lot of business when it came out, which is a shame. According to IMDB, the movie cost $110,000,000 to produce and between its debut in March of 2017 and May 19 it had brought in only about $40 million domestically (though it looks as if it made a bit of money worldwide). This is a shame, and it reminds me of the fate of Passengers, another terrific sci-fi flick that mostly stiffed theatrically.
As a Blu-ray, Ghost in the Shell excels. I watched it on a Panasonic 4K TV played via the latest audio and video equipment from Oppo Digital and Rotel (whose reviews will be coming over the next few weeks). I started it in 1080p for the sake of the review, and the (1.85:1 aspect ratio ) picture quality was excellent. Detail is incredible and the black levels are deep, with rich and very satisfying colours. It's a real treat for your home theatre eyes.
It got even better when I let the Oppo up convert it to 4K, which made me pine even more for a 4K version. Oh well; 4K review copies are as scarce as hen's teeth right now and one reviews the version they send.
The audio is presented in Dolby Atmos, but most people (including me) don't have that capability yet and so in such cases the Blu-ray dumbs itself down to Dolby TrueHD instead, automatically, and that works just fine. It's a very dynamic sound track, making use of all the surround channels and subwoofer very well. This comes in handy in a movie like this, with lots of gunfire and explosions and "atmosphere", and Ghost is very satisfying indeed.
There aren't a lot of extras, but the three featurettes that are included are very interesting. First up is about a half hour "making of" documentary that not only helps introduce the concept and its history, but also gives a lot of interesting insight into the filming process. The other two look more at Section 9 (the gang for whom Major works) as well as the concept of cyber-enhanced humanity itself. All three are worth seeing.
It's a shame Ghost in the Shell didn't do better in theatres. It's an interesting story told well, with an exquisite near-future world that's rendered believably. It's also an excellent home theatre experience.
Copyright 2017 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.