You know, even with its merited whitewashing controversy, I was willing to give Ghost in the Shell its fair day in court. Scarlett Johansson is a supremely talented actress, its concept is interesting, and the world it takes place in was visually beautiful. While not familiar with the original anime myself, I knew just enough about it to know that it could deliver some truly kick ass and enjoyable sci-fi. Yeah, the whitewashing of the main protagonist was always going to serve as a well-deserved thorn in the film’s side, but nothing more than that.
Then I watched the film, and oh man, this film is even more problematic than expected. But I’ll get to that later.
Anyway, what’s this thing about?
Ghost in the Shell is a live-action adaptation of the 1995 anime adaptation of the 1989 manga. Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, a bad ass cyborg lady with the brain of a human and the body of a robot, who, with the help of her team of cyborgs, fights cyber criminals in a naked stealth suit in a futuristic Japan which looks suspiciously like Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. In the Ghost in the Shell world, cybernetic enhancement has become extremely common, which leads to the ability for cyber-terrorists to hack into civilian consciousness and commit, well, terror. One such terrorist is doing this to kill off some scientists that work for Hanka Robotics, the very corporation that engineered Major. Thus, Major begins her investigations, only to end up uncovering a conspiracy that’ll change the very foundation of… blah blah blah blah blah.
It’s the same trite story we’ve seen a thousand times in various other cyberpunk/science fiction films, with all of the tropes played straight. It’s like director Rupert Sanders had the opportunity to create something fresh, new, and unique within the genre, but stubbornly refused. By the end of the film’s first act, you know exactly where this film is going (besides maybe the problematic part). A film being predictable usually isn’t a big issue if it’s at least told well, but unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell is not. If you’re like me, you’ll be checking your watch repeatedly by the halfway point.
This general boringness extends to the film’s characters, as well as the actors playing them. Every character in Ghost in the Shell, Major included, is extremely one-note and straightforward, devoid of any amount of charisma. Major is cold and emotionless, and Johansson’s performance is uncharacteristically flat. The rest of Major’s team is so unremarkable and forgettable that they’re barely worth mentioning, with the exception of Pilou Asbæk as Batou who does his best with the material he has to work with. Michael Pitt attempts to go big Hideo Kuze, the cyber terrorist that Major is pursuing, but he honestly comes off as laughable. All in all, there’s not much going on in the acting department.
The action and visuals aren’t anything to write home about either. The film’s world aesthetic simply apes of what Blade Runner created in the 80s, only adding a gray filter on top. The film is nice to look at, but that’s about the best compliment I can give it. The actual visual effects are sub par. Every visual effect looks like a visual effect. It doesn’t seem like there was any real attempt to make the visual effects come off convincingly, which leads to the whole of the film appearing overly artificial.
Overall, just about single aspect of Ghost in the Shell is horrendously dull. In the entirety of its running time, the film fails to conjure any genuine sense of excitement. Ghost in the Shell was honestly a chore to get through. I have no idea how one manages to make a naked robot Scarlett Johansson beating up dudes boring, but somehow they pulled it off. Hats off to ’em.
And now, to the problematic part. Warning, there are spoilers from here on out.
In the original anime, Major is a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi. Now, ScarJo’s Major is named Mira Killian, and obvious attempt to avoid any further backlash by giving an obviously white character a Japanese name. Except that completely falls apart at the end of the movie.
As I mentioned in my synopsis of the plot, Major is a robot with the brain of a human being. We’re told that as a human, Major was in a terrible accident that killed her entire family, caused by the very same terrorists she hunts and that only her brain could be salvaged. Her life was saved by the procedure that made here into a weaponized cyborg. At least, that is what Major, and by extension, the audience, is told. In her investigation, Major discovers the truth. All of her memories are false, implanted by Hanka Robotics. Her original identity was, you guessed, a young Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi, who was killed by Hanka Robotics for protesting their awful practices. As it turns out, Major’s mother is still alive, and the film ends with ScarJo being embraced by her Japanese mother in the presence of Motoko’s, who accepts the “improved” version of her daughter.
Is anyone else’s bullshit meter going off yet?
Repeatedly, the film tells us that Major is the next step in human evolution; that she is perfect. In essence, scientists finally succeeded in creating the perfect human by placing a Japanese girl’s (whose face is never seen!) brain into Scarlett Johannson’s body. Its’s like the reverse of Get Out, with none of the racial commentary. This racial insensitivity feels terribly offensive at best and deeply insidious at worst.
The thing is, this could have been subverted if the film actually used this brain-swapping plot device as a means of delivering social commentary, like Get Out, touching on cultural appropriation and the all too common whitewashing that goes on within Hollywood. But no, this is played without a semblance of self-awareness or competency.
Instead, we are told that ScarJo’s Major is the perfect specimen. Fuck that.