Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Ghost in the Shell

“The Boss Baby” is also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

The title “Ghost in the Shell” derives its name from the description of its heroine, Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), who is simply known as Major. As explained to her by the kindly Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche)--who pieced her together, so to speak--Major is a living brain inside of a cybernetic body. That is, Major was once a living, breathing, full flesh and blood human being until she was involved in a terrible accident. In order to save her spirit, i.e. her ghost, she was put inside of a robotic body, i.e., a shell.

Such begins one of the major debates within “Ghost in the Shell,” and it’s one that is even more relevant today than it was when the original animated movie, based on the same Manga, came out in 1995. The main question of the debate is this: At what point does a human stop being human and start being a machine? The world of “Ghost in the Shell” is one that is inhabited by people like Major, who are mostly robotic, to people like her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), who have minor cybernetic enhancements, to those who are not enhanced at all.

The leader in the field of cybernetics is Hanka Robotics, headed by a ruthless man named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). He sees fully cybernetic beings with human brains as his crowning achievement, and demands perfection. He also sees their potential to use their enhanced abilities (Major can cloak herself to become invisible, for example) to assist in fighting terror. To this end, he puts Major in an anti-terrorist group called Section 9, where she is partnered with Batou. Together, the two must track and locate a terrorist named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who is killing off high-ranking members within Hanka.

What’s immediately the most striking about “Ghost in the Shell” is the bright, neon-colored cityscape. It’s what the futuristic city in “Blade Runner” would look like if it wasn’t raining so much in that movie. Huge advertisements project everywhere, all in video and in living color. There is so much of it and it is so crowded together, I can only imagine how overwhelming and oppressive it must be to live in such an environment.

Underneath all of the lights and joyful advertisements is a run down, dystopian city. Everything is metal, asphalt, and concrete. Trees are a rare sight. It’s very cold, impersonal, and depressing. No wonder people in this city seek to enhance themselves. It’s their only escape from this drab, mundane existence.

Set against this backdrop is a surprisingly thoughtful movie. Moral and ethical questions are raised about right and wrong concerning robotics and its impact on humanity. There’s also a bit of political drama involving Cutter and the head of Section 9, Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano). Cutter wants control over what Major does and does not do. Aramaki resists this, since even though Cutter’s company designed and built Major, she is part of Aramaki’s team. Scenes with Aramaki are interesting too, since he speaks Japanese and everyone else around him speaks English, yet they converse with no issue. There’s precedence for this in the “Star Wars” movies, and it doesn’t take anything away from the overall enjoyment of “Ghost in the Shell,” but I found it odd at first and it took some getting used to.

Much like “Blade Runner,” there is a neo-noir angle taken by this movie. As Major and Batou move along in their investigation, the rabbit hole they find themselves in gets deeper and deeper. Conspiracies are uncovered, questions are raised, puzzles are solved, and eventually, the truth comes out.

What about the action? The trailers and TV spots for “Ghost in the Shell” certainly were action heavy, and those moments are in the movie along with a few others. But I hesitate to call this an action movie. In keeping with its roots, I’d say it’s more of a futuristic neo-noir crime thriller with elements of political intrigue and some smart philosophical questions about humanity and morality. Then, to keep from getting too stuffy and intellectual, some action scenes are included. However, to focus too much on the action would be a disservice to the much broader and smarter movie that “Ghost in the Shell” has to offer. Rent it.

Also New This Week

The Boss Baby

I have to give “The Boss Baby” credit for an original and out-there premise. There’s a battle for cuteness going on, and babies are losing the battle to puppies, which humans seem to prefer since they regard puppies as cuter than babies. So, it’s up to a Babyco corporate honcho (voice of Alec Baldwin) to infiltrate a family that works for the competing Puppyco organization and get the scoop on what they’re planning next to put Babyco out of business. No, the ethics of corporate espionage are never brought up.

The originality really ends there, and perhaps even goes a bit too far. The logistics of how things all work in the real world are never fully explained. This can be written off as pure fantasy since the movie is told through the eyes of Boss Baby’s older brother Tim (voice of Miles Bakshi), and it is established that he has an overactive imagination. So how much of what happens in “The Boss Baby” is real and how much of it is Tim’s imagination? It feels like a cop out to not fully know how this world works. Think of “Toy Story” or “The Secret Life of Pets.” Those movies make it clear what the real world sees vs. what the toys/pets see. With the exception of one quick shot through a window of Tim holding on to a toy car driven by Boss Baby, we never get much indication, and that one shot is not enough.

The plot is also fairly uninspired, with the usual progression and big plot twist trotted out with such perfect cadence that you can set your watch to it. I did, however, enjoy two things: The comparison of the despotic demands of Boss Baby to the despotic demands of real life, adult bosses. I think a lot of us have at one point or another had bosses, or even known other supposed adult folks, who basically act like overgrown children. The swipe at them is not subtle, and I did relish it. I also liked Baldwin having fun with his forceful “Put the coffee down!” line from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It’s good when the folks behind kids’ movies throw in a wink or two for the adults. If only they would have also thrown in a better developed world and a more original plot, “The Boss Baby” would have been a whole lot better. Stream it.

More New Releases: “Barbecue,” documentary about how the meat and fire gathering is done in different cultures throughout the world; “Liberators,” documentary about an investigator tracking down art seized by Nazis that went missing after World War II; and “Gifted,” about a man’s custody battle for his child prodigy niece, starring Chris Evans, Jenny Slate, and Octavia Spencer.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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