Film Review – Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
There was controversy surrounding the announcement of the new Ghost In the Shell (2017). Adapted from the 1995 Japanese anime (which was in turn adapted from the Japanese manga), the controversy involved the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the central role of the robotic cyborg, Major (in the Japanese iterations, the character’s name was Major Motoko Kusanagi). Critics screamed out as this being yet another example of big budget studios “white washing” characters of specific ethnicities by white movie stars. Hollywood has a had long tradition of this practice, from Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil (1958), Natalie Wood playing a Puerto Rican in West Side Story (1961), and Al Pacino playing a Cuban in Scarface (1983). The most egregious example is Mickey Rooney’s outlandishly racist performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
Defenders of Johansson’s casting contend that Major is a cybernetic organism. In this version, she is made up of a human brain transplanted into a robotic body. Some state that a cyborg doesn’t have an ethnicity, while maintaining that filmmakers should be free to interpret and change a story however they see fit. They’ve even pointed out that the director of the beloved Japanese anime – Mamoru Oshii – has said that he is fine with Johansson playing Major. While those points may be valid, they don’t dissipate what was incredibly wrong with how the production handled the backlash. It’s important to examine this further because the very idea of “white washing” plays a huge part of this film’s narrative.
Stories are not strapped to their country of origin, and that’s what makes storytelling so compelling. Stories can change and evolve, and can be seen from many different points of view. Is the story of Romeo and Juliet only allowed to portray the world of 16th century England? Of course not, and the same can be said about many other works of fiction, in written form or on the big screen. The best remakes or adaptations take the source material as a point of inspiration, and builds upon that foundation to create their own identity. That’s why The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a good remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), or why The Departed (2006) is a good remake of Infernal Affairs (2002) out of Hong Kong. These productions created their own worlds inhabited by their own characters, allowing them to inject their own voice and personality into the material.
That is not the same with Ghost in the Shell (2017). Here, director Rupert Sanders (along with screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger) took much of the original source material, particularly the Japanese anime, and transposed it into this version. Characters, costumes, environments – even certain scenes and camera angles – are identical. This is what makes the casting of Scarlett Johansson so problematic. If the production was free to transfer as many elements as they wanted, why then did they refuse to keep the central character the same? There are plenty of Asian actresses that would have fit the part. The answer is obvious: money. Johansson is arguably the biggest movie star in the world, who at the same time looks good in a skintight body suit. Utilizing her while working with a property that has a built-in fan base is a recipe for financial gain. The studio wanted their cake and to eat it too, in a manner of speaking. It’s simple math, but it doesn’t make it right. The motivation is so transparent that it’s almost a slap in the face. The criticism the production faced shows a growing number of audience members becoming more in tune with the current social landscape.
“But Allen, why can’t you just analyze the film on its on merits?”
I went into the diatribe regarding the white washing issue because the production had every opportunity to stifle the negativity on a narrative basis. For as bad a look as it is from an initial standpoint, every story has the opportunity to justify its actions, even on an ironic level. The opportunity was there for Ghost in the Shell to address the issue directly. Not only did it not do that, it actually made it worse with a third act development that is so tone deaf that it becomes literally about the controversy! More on that later.
The story takes place in a futuristic city that resembles a high tech Tokyo. Holographic advertisements populate the multilayered streets – some the size of a building to some small enough to fit in your hand. The production artists and designers should be commended for creating a world that looks flashy but lived in. For as advanced as this place looks, everything seems to be five to eight years behind the times. Urban areas have a kind a dusty sheen, apartment complexes look rusted out, and robots seem in need of an upgrade. On an aesthetic level alone, the film is worth a rewatch just to take in all the little details hiding in the edges of the screen.
We learn that Major is the first of her kind: a robotic body with a human brain, capable of kicking ass but with the ability to express compassion and empathy. She was built by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) for a large-scale corporation. Dr. Quelet operates as our expository source, explaining how Major’s body works and her role with the corporation. Her skill set is sourced out to the city’s police force, who call on her to infiltrate and take down hostile enemies. Major’s skintight bodysuit is an invisibility cloak, helping her maneuver through dangerous situations. Along with her partner, the blonde haired Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and her chief officer Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), Major becomes part of an elite super soldier squad.
As problematic as it is to see Johansson here, it is good for her use her star power to take roles of females in action. She could have easily used her beauty to coast her career to fame and fortune, but instead she’s chosen characters that put her in positions of strength and power (see also Lucy and the Avengers films). While I believe her turn in Lost in Translation (2003) is still her finest performance – and hopefully she doesn’t steer too far away from exploring that side of her acting – you can’t fault her for choosing roles that have traditionally gone to men.
Major gets put to the test when she is tasked to track down a cybernetic terrorist named Kuze (Michael Pitt). Kuze has created his own electronic network that allows him to hack not only into other robots, but into the minds of humans as well. He’ll take over as a person’s consciousness, or “ghost”, and force them to commit acts of crime. The majority of the plot deals with Major trying to stop Kuze. She even delivers the line “I will find him, and I will kill him,” as though she were auditioning for the next installment of the Taken franchise.
Once the stakes are laid out, the narrative down shifts to a slow pace as Major and Batou begin their investigation. There are a number of standout action sequences, such as a chase between Major and a mysterious assailant (lifted directly from the Japanese anime). But the action sequences have little energy. Rupert Sanders – whose previous directorial effort was Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) – directs as though he is in as much love with the visuals as we are. While Jess Hall’s cinematography looks great, Sanders unfortunately opts to use slow motion during the action. The problem with slow motion, particularly when overdone as it is here, is that it pulls us out of the immediacy of what’s happening. An early action scene between Major and an army of gun toting bad guys comes and goes with little fanfare specifically because of the slow motion. It sucks the life out of what is going on in the moment, calling attention away from the story and towards the presence of the filmmakers.
I’ll admit to you: I’m not the biggest fan of the Japanese anime. However, I do see the appeal of it. Coinciding with the rise of the Internet age in the mid to late 90’s, Ghost in the Shell (1995) asked intriguing questions about what it means to be “human,” and what it means to have an “identity” in an increasingly technological world. There’s no arguing the footprint it left in popular culture. Most famously, the Wachowskis named it as a huge influence on their work in the Matrix franchise. Unfortunately, because these themes and ideas have been dissected for some time now, Ghost in the Shell (2017) does not spur the same kind of thought provoking questions. Rather, it delves into a routine conspiracy plot that can be easily deciphered by anyone willing to pay attention. For as pretty as it looks, the story here seems noticeably dated, as though we’ve seen all of this before.
Which brings us to that third act. As mentioned earlier, the production had an opportunity to justify why it cast a white woman in what was a Japanese role. There is always a chance to turn something around and make it work. But shockingly, the production doubled down and inserted a third act twist that is so bad that it’s hard not to think of this as an example of white washing. For as much as the studio wanted to sweep the issue under the rug, it actually points it out in the final section of the movie! I won’t give away spoilers, but I will say that it involves a revelation of Major’s past. This revelation essentially tells us that the Japanese iterations are dead and buried, and this version is the “new and improved” one. It’s impossible to not compare the allegory to the controversy surrounding the film. Either the forces behind this decision are incredibly insensitive, or they have such a lack of self-awareness that they can’t see the implications staring them in the face. It’s a bitter exclamation point to what was a mediocre cinematic experience.