The original Ghost in the Shell manga came out in 1989 and it’s debut anime feature in 1995. A lot in terms of sci-fi has been made since then. Because I know so little about anime, I can’t say how much this source material influenced future filmmakers. Seeing this new live action adaptation that has such bold and gorgeous art direction I can’t help but notice it feels like an amalgamation of other films in the genre. The Fifth Element comes to mind with the hyper active metropolis with flashy interactive billboards, neon color pallet and a near nude bodysuit wearing female protagonist but also The Matrix with the plug in culture and the more grimy underbelly of the advanced society. While I question which came first, the chicken or the egg, there are much more complicated goings on with this remake.
Even entering into this movie a blank slate, the title details the thematic drive that defines this neo noir. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is part of a government assembled anti-terrorism unit but is a key asset to her colleagues as she is a human mind in a synthetic body. Her creation is said to be one of a kind but this is a future where cyber enhancements are the norm and few have their original body parts. Still, she has superhuman capabilities like invisibility and is impervious to bodily harm. The story is the most uninspiring aspect of this eye candy production. After the first opening set piece which is a big shoot out involving diplomats and robot spider geishas, the team is informed that someone sinister orchestrated the attack and while the shady character is proposed to be the villain, from moment one you know this is a grand conspiracy kind of narrative and sure enough, there’s something fishy about the genesis of Major. The genericness of the plot occasionally took me out of it, reminding me that I’m watching a soulless studio product but then the stunning visual effects pulls me back with more spider based monsters and colorful yet seedy locations.
Aside from pretty things to stare at (enhanced considering I saw this in 3D) like any good science fiction, Ghost is delving into some philosophical ideas, I assume originated in the book and not prompted by Paramount. What the title invokes and has such specific language used again and again in the dialogue is that with her brain is tied her ghost or a more western way of putting it, spirit, that makes her human even though she inhabits an inanimate body. The movie is about her search for identity because while she is human she lacks memories of what happened before the accident that put her in this shell and past experiences are often what inform our personalities. Johansson is a convincing robot, utilizing physicality and a dry vocal delivery but that coldness also services as a lost soul. The people around her be it friends or superiors treat her different depending on if they see her as more of a person or a robot. Her journey is trying to connect to the society she feels so removed from.
Within this conversation of humanity, free will and identity, the unexpected reveals itself and in the most surprising turn of the movie, Ghost confronts its own whitewashing. The film received a lot of backlash when first announced because a white woman was cast as the lead in a traditional Japanese anime. Now in the past when American studios remake a Japanese property, say The Ring, it’s set in the States and given a white cast. What makes this instance particularly troubling is that the movie is set in a specifically Japanese-esque city and then giving Johansson Asian features. All this left a bad taste in the public’s mouth and is speculated to have contributed to the poor box office returns but the funny thing is that the narrative is self-aware of what its makers have done. As the conspiracy unfolds we learn that the fragmented past Major can recount is a fabrication and in reality, she was a local runaway named Motoko. She and fellow runaway turned failed experiment Hideo (played by Michael Pitt) are literal products of whitewashing. Sadly the film does little to explore further than condemning that these innocent Japanese youths were harvested for robotic experimentation. I would have loved to have seen a scathing commentary of the status placed on whiteness, but this is an action movie at heart unwilling to brace such resistance. It does allow a bit of leeway to like the movie now despite its controversy, but not much.
With that missed opportunity so goes the movie. I left the theater having enjoyed my time but it’s ultimately forgettable. It’s Avatar syndrome where a film believes it can survive on spectacle alone and while James Cameron’s work made a billion times more profit, viewers are quick to critique the unoriginal story. If it had more creative freedom with the writing than just the graphics it could be something I could recommend even while entrenched with its problematic casting. Maybe Ghost in the Shell walks away as a learning experience, a concrete example of viewers pushing back on whitewashing. A small victory during a time when we need such triumph. Though does this make me part of the problem because I went to go see it? Damnit, we’re all screwed.