No one will accuse this movie of not looking great.
Ghost in the Shell as a 20 years removed live action adaptation of a seminal anime film is at once completely unnecessary and completely inevitable. We live in a weird period where the tropes and signifiers of the cyberpunk genre are everywhere we look. It makes a sort of sense that the most influential pieces of that history are being reclaimed and re-positioned for modern audiences. Not only is Ghost in the Shell a thing that happened, but Blade Runner is getting a sequel, shows like Incorporated also pay direct homage to and update the William Gibson and Margaret Atwood cyberpunk vision for the 2010s. But when you watch Marvel movies or the CW superhero shows, the technological gimmicks as well as many of the technological themes stories address (artificial intelligence, human enhancement, etc) are also present.
This is because we kind of live cyberpunk now, we’ve got all the big elements: sketchy corporations accruing more and more power, poorly understood technological progress unevenly distributed and always dovetailing between transcendence and frivolity, and a world where high-tech gadgets and cybernetic crime, warfare, and identity are taken for granted.
So what time could be better than now for an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell? This movie’s historical and iconographical relevance is only rivaled by its failure to address another cornerstone of our times: the latter days of white supremacy in an increasingly global context. Make no mistake, Ghost in the Shell is a very political film but it accomplishes this accidentally and becomes a “useful fool” in the discourses of identity politics, racial/cultural hegemony, and the gyre of entertainment representation. Now, maybe you’re not interested in all that shit. Read the review anyway, because I’ll be getting into the more technical stuff that works or doesn’t first. If you’re looking for a quick summary of the kind I usually put here, let’s say that Ghost in the Shell is… okay. Too much of the narrative is simplified or compromised, and while the imagery and action is beautiful and memorable it also frequently feels cheap outside of the really great practical effects and props that are sprinkled throughout the movie. It also has pretty rad music, though they should have used the ’95 theme more.
Isolation and dehumanization are themes that are present but sort of clumsily executed.
In the film’s opening, we are introduced to an overlong crawl explaining the world (but leaving out important terminology like “ghost” that is frequently used in the movie) and a completely unnecessary scene where villainous Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and conflicted Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) discuss their latest project, a unique cybernetic body housing a human brain and destined to work in counter-terrorism with Section 9. Did I mention this scene was unnecessary? They don’t bother to explain Section 9 and otherwise deliver information we already know or are hearing too soon. Better to do a cold open, but they completely chicken out. So Ghost in the Shell is off to a great start.
It gets better during the scene where Major (Scarlett Johannson) defies orders and intervenes in a corporate meeting between representatives of Hanka Robotics and an African political organization. Creepy geisha bots, camouflage body suits, and ugly thugs with uglier cybernetics… you’ve seen the trailers. This is when the movie is at its best and thankfully it offers like three times as many action scenes as the 1995 anime. All of the action is good and, like the plot of the film, it mixes up stuff from the anime film and other media in the Ghost in the Shell sphere. One of the reasons, by the way, that I never became a super big fan of Ghost in the Shell is the three or four different versions of the same story that exist across manga and several overlapping anime series which frequently re-adapt the same storylines as if attempting to emulate American comic book superheroes. And who knows… maybe that’s what they were doing? In any case, the barrier to entry for Ghost in the Shell fandom is kind of stacked. Which is relevant to this review because it is part of the reason why I disagree with people who thought a live action film was a bad idea. More on that later.
If you haven’t, check out the Tested coverage of WETA workshop’s work on these things and other Ghost in the Shell props.
Major Mira Killian is the most cyborg of the cyborg hitters in Section 9, joined by her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and an unfortunately marginalized multi-ethnic and interesting-looking support team. Their boss is Aramaki (Beat Takeshi) who always speaks in Japanese and has one of those hairdos where the art department unwisely decided to try and emulate ridiculous anime hair. Aramaki should have been a cool character but instead, he’s distracting even when he gets badass moments. Others’ mileage may vary on that, though. More interesting is Batou, who looked silly as fuck in the trailers but in whom Pilou Asbaek is able to infuse a quiet, affable humanity that nicely balances Major’s stoicism. Batou was possibly my favorite part of Ghost in the Shell. Their relationship is central in the movie, which is exactly right and one of the wiser story choices director Rupert Sanders and his writers made. Major, meanwhile, shows off Scarlett Johansson’s seeming fascination with quiet, transhuman, calculating characters. She seems to like playing characters that are on the outskirts of humanity (Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy demonstrate this) and this is no different. However, it does showcase her physical acting. As the Major, Johansson gets to act with her whole body and even her walk is informed by the character, which tells you what a character who is a woman of few words cannot verbalize.
The attack on the geisha meeting was carried out by a shadowy figure called Kuze (Michael Pitt) and most of the second act is about tracking him down. Kuze is a fascinating character and is the most stark example of an interesting visual theme in the movie that also represents one of its few departures, and most interesting one by far, from the source material. In the Ghost in the Shell stuff I have seen (the ’95 movie, Arise and parts of Stand Alone Complex) the cybernetic enhancements are usually aesthetically pleasing or at least functional. In this 2017 adaptation, they are ugly and kind of scary and underline the tension and anxiety of humans merging with technology. Nowhere is that better embodied than in Kuze, whose appearance is an intricate and powerful statement about the world of the movie, where this character fits into it, and its somewhat sparsely illustrated underlying themes. It helps that Pitt completely owns the role, coming out of nowhere to create a performance and character that transcends the flawed film he’s in. The scene where he interrogates Major is probably the best in the film, and both actors will make you think you’re watching a far better movie during it.
There’s also some really weird underlying shit between them.
The intersection of this film’s politics/social relevance and its storyline appears toward the end of the second act as Major finds out more about where she really came from, what Hanka Robotics has been up to, and why Kuze is so bent on vengeance. To come back to my earlier comment about not thinking an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell was by default a bad idea. See, I think Ghost in the Shell is an amazingly potent platform for exploring both the philosophical and ethical issues of technology as well as the social justice, representation, and identity issues this movie’s very existence raises. It is only too bad that it fails to really accomplish anything with any of that. To talk more about this, I need to explain a couple of things my readers may not be aware of.
First off, Ghost in the Shell has been catching heat for its racialization of its lead characters since the casting was announced. At one point, they were allegedly looking at using CG to make the actors look more Asian. The movie largely tries to sidestep this stuff by resetting the story in Hong Kong and frequently adding characters, visuals, and reminders of the multi-ethnic, global context this adaptation takes place in. This is a departure from the isolationist Japan of the 1995 film, where almost all the characters were ethnic Japanese and this was probably an integral part of the world-building. Here, it makes some sense that Major “Mira Killian” is white and though some of the world-building changes were probably done to retroactively justify casting a white lead in an ostensibly Asian role, it almost did the job of saying “hey, we aren’t just shoehorning a white person into an Asian context but changing the context so everything fits”. It’s a flawed argument in many ways, since they would still have been shoehorning a white person into an Asian context (Hong Kong instead of Tokyo but still). So you can kind of see how they were trying to secure this movie against deserved criticisms from a representation and identity politics standpoint.
It’s a nice touch having a multi-ethnic team, but none of them have any real screen time so it falls flat.
The second thing I want to explain is what is called “race-blind discourse”, which is a kind of logic for dealing with racism that is all too common among well-meaning but somewhat ignorant people. Race-blindness is people who say they “don’t see colour” or who react to the anger and complaints of nonwhite people, in this case North American audiences, with “why does that matter?” or meritocratic justifications (meritocracy is a fiction only white people are privileged to believe in) like “best person for the job”.
Race-blind discourse is an “ideal world” reasoning, which only works if we actually live in a world where race doesn’t matter. Yeah, we all understand that race is a social construct but social constructs do, by design, have real world implications and outcomes, especially in North America. A good example would be another argument typically trotted out by people defending this movie, including screenwriter Max Landis, who say that the reason it had to be Johannson is because no Asian actress could have opened a $100million+ scifi action movie, so without Johannson there’d be no movie. Well, the lack of bankable Asian actresses is not some cosmic law handed down on stone tablets. It’s a consequence of racial privilege in the Hollywood system which manifests itself most obviously through representation issues. It’s circular as fuck and a very poor argument to address what is a systemic problem. Yeah, it’s true that there are no Asian actresses who could have played this version of the role in this version of the movie. But throwing up our hands like this is exactly why this shit continues. It’s easy for white people to do that, but ask nonwhite friends (if you have any) what they think about this shit and you’ll either get a response that satisfies and reinforces white fragility, or you’ll get some truth that it will be up to you to deal with.
Another example in the form of apologia for this movie is the fact that its Japanese creator, Shirow Masamune, doesn’t care about the whitewashing and gave it his blessing. Yeah, duh he doesn’t care. Japan does not have the same social or racial issues that we do and because this movie was made for North American audiences, those issues matter whether Masamune cares about them or not. He is not the gatekeeper here, Japanese and Asian-Americans are.
The film also misses juicy opportunities to comment on its cultural impact and instead doubles down on unwise attempts to cover its ass.
Race-blind discourse is how anyone involved with this movie thought it was a good idea for “Mira Killian” to really be “Motoko Kusanagi” all along. Yes, in this movie Scarlett Johannson’s hot white cyber bod is housing the brain of a young Japanese woman. This could have provided a rare opportunity to rage against the systemic issues that lead to Johansson being cast in the first place, as an Asian character with white skin. Kuze was also Japanese before he was whitened by Hanka Robotics. While some have stretched the movie’s reach to say that yes, Cutter and Ouelet being white and designing white bodies is a subtle dig at white Hollywood executives whitewashing everything nonwhite, I don’t think this is really intended by the movie. There will be a lot of debate about this, though, and I’m sure some people will say it’s there but muted by attempts by Sanders or whoever to protect their career by not twisting the knife too much. I have a different theory.
I think they were really hoping that Major’s Japanese identity and backstory would satisfy some of the complaints that this movie was casting and proceeding in very poor taste. However, this is even poorer taste even though I understand the logic of wanting to push past all the thorny racial politics shit and just be like “hey, she has a Japanese mom and there’s some heartfelt scenes here and COLOUR OF SKIN DOESN’T MATTER”. I liked the departure from the original where now Major has a family and more human, emotional connections. But I don’t think anyone should follow this movie where it’s asking them to go, in terms of ignoring the fucked up nature of Major’s ethnic past and current body to enjoy them feels. It seems to me that Sanders et al could have made this more meaningful by using some of that runtime to directly address these issues. Even if it was still problematic, at least an attempt would have been made. Without this, it’s just a mess all the way down.
I don’t know what feminist critiques will make of the bodysuit, but I think they did a good job of trying to be true to source and reducing the gratuitous qualities.
Rupert Sanders showed he had chops back in Snow White and the Huntsman, a movie that I sometimes think I’m the only one who liked, but he really needs to either become a good screenwriter or do smaller budget movies with better screenwriters and more authorial control. It’s obvious that a team of people were brought on to Ghost in the Shell to “right the ship” at some point or points in its production. There are telltale scars, which are typical when a movie is recut or reshot or cut down from a much longer running time. It’s impossible to know, unless you were involved, whether this was to address the race issues or restore confidence in a movie that by all rights should be more challenging and weird than it is, or the more conventional and boring typical big budget movie problems of pacing, performance, and production issues.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell is worth a watch even if you only give a shit about one of either the cyberpunk stuff/intellectual property or the social justice issues it raises. I happen to enjoy both and find this movie a fascinating watch in the wake of other social commentaries happening in genre entertainment right now (Get Out and Sweet/Vicious come to mind). Even though Ghost in the Shell fails to address its own troubling subtexts and themes and even though it frequently looks cheap and sounds hollow (bad dialogue, my gawd), it is also pretty well-crafted and well-designed. In my opinion, it’s best enjoyed as an exercise in its own shortcomings and as an interesting marker of a cultural period where maybe, just maybe, people are starting to realize we can and should do better.