‘Ghost In the Shell’ Is Pretty Except When It’s Not
Eye-catching designs and an intriguing performance by Scarlett Johansson aren’t quite enough.
It’s a new world, one where cybernetic enhancements are the norm to aid people in everything from vision and movement to the quicker absorption of alcohol, and Major Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the shiniest toy on the shelf. While others are human with electronic additions, she’s a human brain inside a synthetic shell. A terrorist attack one year earlier left her body ravaged, but thanks to the work of Hanka Robotics and Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) Major is now a top agent with the city’s anti-terrorist unit.
Her latest assignment sees her tracking a mysterious threat named Kuze (Michael Pitt) whose digital wizardry and armed goon squads have led to the murder of several Hanka executives and scientists. The closer she gets to him though the closer she gets to a truth about herself destined to threaten everything she believes to be true.
2017’s Ghost in the Shell is an overly familiar tale regardless of whether or not you’ve seen Mamoru Oshii’s classic 1995 anime (or read Masamune Shirow’s original manga). Rupert Sanders’ new film presents a world where technology has become an evolutionary force, where the hybridization of (wo)man and machine leads to questions of identity and struggles for control. We’ve seen it in films like Blade Runner and Robocop, but while this one ups the ante on the visual front it still pales beside the depth, commentary, and relevance of those decades older classics.
And no, I didn’t say “pales” as a sly reference to this film’s arguable whitewashing of a beloved Japanese character and piece of pop culture. But we’ll get to that.
Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) once again proves himself to be a capable, workman-like director of CG-heavy action light on character and narrative weight, and along with cinematographer Jess Hall he delivers an attractive-looking movie. The city-scape is a less atmospheric and ambient take on Blade Runner, but its brightness and blend of color and hi-tech touches like flying crafts and building-high hologram-like billboards succeed in presenting a believable environment. Action scenes are a bit cramped at times, but they usually succeed at raising the tempo if even temporarily.
As impressive as most of the visuals are there are more than a few wonky CG shots that feel either unfinished or less than polished. The transitions between flesh and blood Major and the CG version glimpsed in some large-scale action are too distinct, and some of the traffic shots featuring CG cars can’t hold a candle to what Luc Besson achieved two decades ago for The Fifth Element.
The futuristic look can’t hide the stale story though, and the dialogue – courtesy of a trio of screenwriters – is a series of obvious genre beats and dull observations. Most of the cast fades into the wallpaper along with what they’re saying, but a few manage to stand out from the crowd. Pitt finds some personality and pathos in his “villain” while ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is just a blast to see onscreen on principle alone. His section chief gets a couple of fun moments guaranteed to leave you hungry for more (in which case I recommend Boiling Point, Brother, and Battle Royale).
As is befitting the film’s lead role though, it’s Johansson who truly engages with her commitment to the character. A human trapped in a mechanical body, she carries herself like a tool or weapon constantly at the ready for action. From the way she walks to the expressions she wears in conversations or silence, she succeeds in feeling like an alien among humanity. It’s not nearly as dramatic as her mesmerizing turn in Under the Skin, but it’s noticeably affecting. One step removed from the film itself, Johansson’s attraction to roles like this, Under the Skin, Her, and Lucy reveals an interesting element to the idea of a woman struggling with her identity as a human/other composite. Her excepted, these other three films offer an intriguing and compelling contrast between Johansson’s own perceived physical beauty and a differing, sometimes frightening reality beneath the surface.
That about sums up the nuts and bolts of Ghost in the Shell for most viewers, but the accusations of whitewashing deserve attention even in the context of a review. Skip to the final paragraph if you’re uninterested in the topic or want to avoid what amounts to a minor spoiler for the film itself. While simply transplanting a story of foreign origin to a Western construct does not alone constitute whitewashing – sorry those of you complaining about Netflix’s Death Note – swapping a white face into that existing world most likely does.
Major is an iconic Japanese character, and her eventual embrace (in the original) of technology’s ultimate calling feels a part of the culture’s own open-armed approach to the advancements and possibilities inherent in humanity’s merging with the inhuman. The American film makes this character an unmistakable white woman – as opposed to an animated creation whose appearance allows for interpretation – and changes her name from Kusanagi to Killian. It’s still set in Japan though, features a majority Japanese cast (albeit in supporting/extra roles), and – this is the kicker – reveals Major to actually be a young Japanese woman.
It would take a mind greater than mine to determine if this decision stems from subversive brilliance or giant balls of stupidity, but it seems to undermine any argument for Johansson’s casting in the first place. Why embrace every last surface detail that identifies as Japanese except for the actual race of your lead actress?
Ghost in the Shell is ultimately as slight and neutered of a reboot as José Padilha’s Robocop was of Paul Verhoeven’s original. It’s glossy and features the latest technological upgrades, but beneath its shiny surface sits the essence of nothing.