I generally don’t do film reviews, but this is a franchise that is close to my heart. Major Motoko Kusanagi is easily one of my favorite characters in all of sci-fi. And Ghost in the Shell as a series has been one of my biggest inspirations for the harder science fiction stuff I write. I was really hoping, but without any real faith, that the new film would do the long-enduring series justice. But of course it didn’t. Remakes almost never do.
And I know I am late to the game on this one, but I have been avoiding this film, in large part due to the horrible reviews. But I had the chance yesterday to watch it for free, and as a die-hard fan of the source material, I had to give it a shot. It was far worse than I expected. The film is plagued by a horrible script, wooden acting, and little care or understanding of the source material. Ultimately, the film would have been better as a new franchise, rather than a poor rip-off.
Since the reviews have been out for a long time, I will skip the synopsis and dive right into my analysis.
Much of the flak this film has gotten was related to claims of whitewashing. This habit of Hollywood, and western entertainment media in general, has been a major concern of mine long before it started getting noticed by the general public. Whitewashing is far from a new phenomenon, though at this point in history it should no longer be happening. I refuse to watch Doctor Strange for this specific reason. I have spoken to friends who have seen that film, and they have convinced me that the filmmakers did nothing to cover-up the blatant asian-ness of the character “The Ancient,” besides saying, in words only, that she is Celtic, despite the fact that she bears no such cultural characteristics.
I was worried about the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell from the moment it was announced. But the first trailer relieved my tensions by showing the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural view of the city. In such a place, it was not completely absurd to be walking around in a white woman’s body. This doesn’t begin to unpack the idea presented in the film that whiteness is superior, embodied in the fact that when artificial bodies are chosen, they are always white. The cosmopolitan vibe of the film suggests a world where race has become a non-issue, but at the same time suggests that with absence of race, as in the case of artificial bodies, the default is whiteness. It is much too complex of an issue to cover here, but you can read about it in this other great article.
The core problem with Ghost in the Shell as a film is not the casting of ScarJo itself, but all of the changes made to accommodate that casting. There are now so many plot holes and absurdities in order to make her fit, that it kills the effectiveness of the film. Mira Killian simply doesn’t make sense as a character. It’s ridiculous that all the characters call her “Major,” when she has a proper name. It is clear the filmmakers were worried about calling the character by a new name, pissing off fans, but they didn’t hide the name. We know her name is Mira Killian, so why not just use the name? She even uses her own name, though no other character does. Major is a rank, no one throws around ranks like a name. No one introduces someone by their rank alone. They are always General So-an-so, or Captain Whats-his-name. But in this film Mira is just called Major, because the writers were so clearly ashamed of what they were doing. Mira even decides to use the name Major as her only name at the end of the film. It’s like Madonna or Cher, except not. Not at all. That’s not how our language works. Ranks are not names, they are titles. No one in their right mind calls themselves “Mister.”
Speaking of rank, how did this character manage to rise to the rank of major in only a year? They go on and on about how Mira’s memories were purged. Who in their right mind would put someone with no experience in law enforcement or defense in charge of the most advanced investigation and counter-terrorism team in the country? If she is, as is often stated in the film, just a weapon, how is she a major? We have a proper rank for grunts who simply do what they are told: private. Certainly not an officer’s rank. The name is an absurd call-back to the original material for a character that has no other real resemblance to her source. In the original, Major Kusanagi is the first member of Section 9 and recruits everyone else, thus it makes perfect sense for her to be senior in rank. But not here.
And speaking of memory purging, programming, and people as weapons, the story of the film diverges from the source material in ways that suggest the filmmakers had no clue what the original was about. What they’ve done in simple terms is transposed the plot of Robocop onto Ghost in the Shell aesthetics. Like Robocop, this film is ultimately about a person who has lost their past, their memories, and is seeking out their true identity. But Ghost in the Shell has never been specifically about Major Kusanagi’s identity. She has always known who she was, a consciousness that has passed through many bodies and even cyberspace, but maintained its memory and identity. The question of whether she qualified as human was always there, but there was no question who she was as a person. The story was always centered on the phenomenon that the Major encountered, not specifically about herself.
Which brings up the major confusion the filmmakers seem to have with the source material, the term “ghost.” They throw around the term constantly in the film, using it as a substitute for something we already have a word for: consciousness. Since we already have a word for it, there’s no reason to use another term for it. In the source material, the term “ghost” in the title has a more specific meaning. It refers to the phenomenon where intelligence and consciousness appear in artificial structures. In the original anime film, the Section 9 team come across an empty robotic body that spontaneously generates an intelligence inside of it, a “ghost” inside a “shell.” In the first season of the Stand Alone Complex, the so-called “Laughing Man” incident presents the idea of a collective intelligence, where people act completely independent but doing the same things, so they create a sort of collective identity or consciousness. The “laughing man” ceases to be a single person and becomes a social phenomenon. Again, another example of a ghost appearing in an empty shell.
I don’t think it was even necessary to make such absurd changes to the story in order to accommodate ScarJo’s casting. The cosmopolitan vibe of the city was defense enough for white woman walking around. They could have made it work without such a nonsensical plot and ignorance of the source material. However, that would not have saved the rest of the core casting. While it is reasonable to think there would be some white people walking around future Japan, it is not reasonable to expect all the Japanese people to have somehow disappeared. Even the bosses of the very Japanese-sounding company, Hanka, are white. Why? I can somewhat buy that you need a big-name Hollywood star to sell your film (no, not really), but that means nothing for the supporting cast. All of the elites in this society, company leaders and doctors and officers, are non-Asians. How does that happen? Even in hundreds of years, how do you expect a homogeneous country like Japan to completely lose its ethnicity, AND its language?
Speaking of language, I get that this is a film for Americans, who you still think are adverse to subtitles (despite the stunning success of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But if you are trying for the “this is ancient Rome but will just have them all speak English for simplicity” sort of thing that is common, why is there still one person speaking Japanese? I was shocked to hear him speak the first time as none of the reviews I read even seemed to notice this ridiculous problem. I’m sure “Beat” Takeshi is a amazing actor in his home country, but if he doesn’t speak English, he should not have been cast for a role in a film that you’ve determined is an English-speaking film. Every time Aramaki speaks, any suspension of disbelief I have is fully expelled. It is only made worse when we meet Motoko’s mother, a Japanese woman who speaks broken English to Mira, when we know full well the Major (and everyone else in the city) can understand Japanese fluently. And yet they never speak it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned by living in a foreign country and learning foreign languages is that you start using bits and pieces of that language almost instinctively. It would have been a great place to explore, had the filmmakers had any respect for the depth of cultural identity, or good sci-fi for that matter. But there is no exploration, the film is devoid of depth of any kind. There is no examination of language in this film at all, there is simply a guy speaking Japanese because the man they cast doesn’t speak English. It is yet again another poorly implemented appeasement to fans in order to defend ScarJo’s casting.
Ultimately what you have in this film is an obsession with the look and feel of the source material, but not with its characters or theme. Which begs to question, why even make it a Ghost in the Shell film? Many of the problems with the movie would have been fixed if they had just created their own new story about a Robocop-style identity crisis in a cyber-punk, anime-inspired world. There would have been no worries about casting or whitewashing, no need to try (and fail) to appease fans.
Of course that would not have fixed the horrible script, acting and direction…but nothing would have. Easily the best part of the movie was Pilou Asbæk. He managed to do a decent job despite the rubbish he was given.
It’s disappointing. The (sometimes) great visuals of the film suggest that they could have actually made a good Ghost in the Shell live action film, but they didn’t. They ignored the source material and created a nonsensical plot to defend a poor casting choice. ScarJo was really bad in this film, an unknown actress could have done an equal, likely better, job of it, without the controversy or financial cost. I cannot help but think it was little more than a heartless money grab, in which case it is nice to see it backfire on the executives who decided to toy with a beloved franchise. If only people were more resistant to all the other bad remakes were a constantly bombarded with.
But that’s just my two cents. Let me know if you think different.