‘Ghost in the Shell’ Review: An Empty Shell With Nothing to Say
There’s a huge problem at the center of Ghost in the Shell. You already knew that, though. You’ve heard about the whitewashing controversy and the problems of co-opting Asian culture for western audiences. But as bad as you might have heard that whitewashing problem is, it’s even worse. It’s impossible to discuss the movie’s troubled treatment of identity politics without spoiling some big reveals, but before we get into those, there are plenty of other things that make the live-action remake a disappointment.
The opening of Rupert Sanders’ (Snow White and the Huntsman) live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s original Japanese manga franchise pays homage to the 1995 source material. The film gorgeously recreates the anime’s opening shelling sequence, visualizing Major’s (Scarlett Johansson) synthetic body as it comes together piece by piece. A newer version of Kenji Kawai’s theme music, reimagined by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe, plays as translucent nerves dance around one another and Major’s body rises through a pool of Westworld-like milk. For those unfamiliar with the source material, the film provides some quick and dirty exposition: Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelet explains that Johansson’s Major Mira Killian is the first of her kind; while humans in this futuristic Tokyo can enhance themselves with synthetic body parts, Major is the only cyborg with a human soul (a “ghost”) and a fully prosthetic body (a “shell”).
The film jumps ahead a year to find Major, working as a special-ops agent for Section 9, a police unit tracking down a hacker targeting Hanka Robotics, a Japanese company led by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). Sanders again re-imagines an iconic scene from the anime as Major’s nude body dives face-first from a rooftop. Yet, as true to the original movie as some of the visuals and action sequences are, they also feel tediously familiar and unremarkable. The 1995 anime made an indelible mark on Hollywood cinema, most notably inspiring the Wachowkis’ The Matrix trilogy and the futurism of Minority Report. So watching Johansson run up walls and shoot up bad guys in slow-mo is a bit of a bore; we’ve been there, done that.
Sanders does bring some magnetism to a few sequences, most notably Major’s camouflage water fight scene. Another stand-out sequence comes courtesy of the movie’s most interesting character, Chief Daisuke Aramaki, played by Takeshi Kitano. He gets the sharpest lines and a too-short shootout sequence near the end — I’d watch the hell out of an Aramaki spinoff. Michael Pitt also has a couple deliciously villainous moments (when doesn’t he?) as cyborg Kuze, but he’s mostly underutilized in the film. The rest of the characters are lifeless, and for all the exposition in the film’s opening, the plot races along so quickly that it hardly makes sense. The biggest problem is that Ghost in the Shell has nothing smart or interesting to say — it just thinks it does.
Major spends much of the film contemplating her existence and identity, ideas which the original anime approached with grace and poeticism. Here those ideas are presented with painfully on-the-nose, poorly written dialogue. At one point, Major’s partner Batou (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk) muses, “dreams and reality… what’s the difference?” Whoa man, deep. So much of the film’s philosophical ideas consist of things you’d think were profound if you said them while high, but they are actually pretty insipid. A lot of that has to do with Johansson’s line delivery, which comes off stilted and forced. You can see her trying to capture Major’s confusion as she oscillates between the character’s inner humanity and outer, robotic rigidity. There are moments where that works, especially in the physicality of Johansson’s walk and posture, but she never quite captures a believable balance.
As much as the whitewashing controversy has followed the film, the casting isn’t the most shockingly tone deaf thing about it — the script is. Though Ghost in the Shell purports to be a movie about identity, it advocates for the complete erasure of it. We’ve now arrived at the spoilery part of this review, so if you want to preserve the films’ final reveal, you should back out now.
Prior to release, the movie’s main counter-argument against the whitewashing controversy was that Johansson would be playing a different character from the original manga. Guess what? Johansson’s Major Mira Killian is actually Major Motoko Kusanagi trapped in the body of a white woman. Yes, Scarlett Johansson literally plays a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell — and, for the record, she isn’t the only white actor playing an Asian character in a white body. The new movie gives the lead character a backstory, revealing that Motoko, along with a handful of other anti-tech Japanese runaways, was abducted by Hanka Robotics and subjected to experimentation. The company took the brains of the runaways and used them create the ultimate superhuman weapon by encasing them in white “bodies.” Why, exactly? The film isn’t interested in exploring that.
As another writer pointed out to me after the movie, Ghost in the Shell is essentially Get Out, but without the awareness of, or commentary on, racial dynamics. Even worse, this film blatantly denies its character’s whiteness and urges its audiences to do the same. Motoko is in the sunken place, and it’s only through (literally) discarding her race as an Asian woman and (literally) embodying whiteness that she can become superhuman and transcend identity. Major spends the movie longing to discover who she is, and once she does she disregards it. This seems like the film’s way of getting around the race controversy, throwing its hands up to claim, “Hey, she’s not Japanese or Caucasian!” But beyond being offensive, the film’s “identity-less” credo makes no logical sense for the character. It undermines and devalues her journey.
At the very least, the film could have been a subpar sci-fi flick full of dazzling visuals and fight sequences. It didn’t need to give Major a backstory and it didn’t need to say anything intellectual. Though it’s mesmerizing to look at, Ghost in the Shell erases its ghost only to be left with a vapid, empty shell.