Ghost in the Shell has certainly made an impact, one way or another, since its release. The film was already under an immense amount of pressure to follow on the popular Manga and Anime film. Hollywood don’t have a great track record when it comes to re-imagining foreign cinema at the best of times but when you add the whitewashing controversy it makes it worse. Much has already been said about the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the role of Motoko Kusanagi. In interviews before the film came out Johansson promised that she would never play a character of a different race but the film continued to face criticism for her placement in the role. Figures from Ghost in the Shell‘s opening weekend suggest that American audiences can’t forget about the issue and are avoiding the film at all costs. However, there is less controversy in Japan with most people not seeing an issue with Johansson’s part and audiences have praised many aspects of the new film. I don’t really want to go too far into this issue because much better people have said much cleverer things than I could. I agree that there is an issue within Hollywood as a whole with whitewashing but there are interesting arguments both for and against the casting of a popular, White actor in the role of Major. The question I’m most concerned about here is: has Ghost in the Shell shot itself in the foot by making this decision and is a gem going to end up being something of a failure?
The new Ghost in the Shell takes moments from the 1995 anime but reworks it into a new and original narrative. There are many traces that are similar but it makes things a bit more Hollywood. It still takes place in a future where humanity is using technology to upgrade their bodies. People are enhancing their physical forms without any fear of reprisals. However, there are those who fear these changes and worry what it will do for humanity and individuality. Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) was the sole survivor of a terrorist attack that killed her family and left her on death’s door. The only chance for her survival was a secret project that implanted her brain into a robotic body. Instead of Artificial Intelligence, the mechanical body is controlled by Mira’s ‘ghost’. A year later Major is working as part of a counter-terrorist group, Section 9. They end up tracking a terrorist known as Kuze who is hacking both robots and the enhancements of people to gain information about Hanka Robotics, the company that saved her life.Whilst she and her team are following their leads on the terrorist, Major starts to realise that Hanka haven’t been completely honest with her.
Ghost in the Shell has many scenes that will be instantly recognisable to people who have the seen the original anime. It lifts moments directly from the film and utilises them in its own story. It also melds the villain from the previous film, the Puppet Master, with another character from the manga, Kuze. The end result is an interesting but fairly underwhelming story that skips many of the intricacies that made the original source material so great. The terrorist storyline is fairly gripping as it is essentially just an edited version of the original film. However, the writers have decided to give the film an emotional side by having Major take a trip down memory lane. There is, apparently, a worry in Hollywood that film’s won’t reach an audience unless it tugs at your heartstrings in an incredibly sentimental and obvious way. The final scene of the new film is, frankly, horrendously twee and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film. But it fits the standard desire for closure that studios think we all crave.
Ghost in the Shell isn’t a bad film but it is a bad update. It is far less subtle than the original and doesn’t take enough time to deal with the existential crises that littered the source material. Major is supposed to constantly question her existence and wonder about her humanity. How can a human brain in a mechanical body be human? How much of her soul is left? It is a great discussion and adds much needed complexity to the story. The new film glosses over that in favour of more fighting, special effects and spider tanks. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that this film could have been made without fighting, special effects or, indeed, spider tanks. However, it would have been nice if it could have been more faithful to the original and given the characters some depth. The result is a superficial affair that, I have to admit, I cam super close to falling asleep in.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. Ghost in the Shell is absolutely stunning to behold and every scene is breathtaking in its own way. The rendering of the futuristic world is super cool and there is something interesting to look at wherever you turn. It’s a brilliant job but it’s still not enough to hide the fact that, underneath, there isn’t much going on. It doesn’t help that the cast are given such a small amount to work with. I know the controversy is nothing to joke about but it is Scarlett Johansson who carries this film through. Her performance, though hampered by a shitty narrative, is still pretty special. The way she carries herself as the character and takes the robotic nature of her movement into account is great. It would just be nice if, as well as acting like a robot, she was asking the right kind of questions. It’s a good job the visuals are as amazing as their are because, without them, audiences wouldn’t make it through.