I spoil a reasonable sized twist in this movie, but without it, you can’t discuss the film in full. Read with caution.
Ghost in the Shell is such a monumental pile-up of bad decisions and fatal errors that, at the end, one can only be left wondering when it will make its presidential bid. A film indicative of every failing on the part of modern Hollywood, those moral and aesthetic and narrative, that it stands less as a flop and more as a cautionary tale for those who desire to work in this industry to tell each other around the campfire.
It begins with the choice of source material. Ghost in the Shell is based on the Japanese franchise of the same name, though most directly on Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated feature. That 1995 Ghost in the Shell is perhaps one of the most influential pieces of sci-fi ever released. Beyond its direct influence as a work of cyberpunk and its role in the popularization of anime in America, Ghost in the Shell is the primary influence for The Matrix (The Matrix functionally being made because The Wachowskis didn’t have the the rights to GitS) which went onto influence the next and current generations of action and science fiction filmmaking.
In other words, from the jump, Ghost in the Shell is a culturally specific property that now suffers from being so ubiquitous as to seem unoriginal (see: Seinfeld). A property so immersed in Japanese culture and questioning has an uphill battle to move to a Western context, and that’s if the filmmakers try (hint: they don’t). But it would be even harder if its questions and themes and aesthetics hadn’t already so passed into cliche that one would have to wonder why revive it.
The answer is because Hollywood is so desperate for property to start franchises with that they will make any compromise to get there. Fine, let’s continue.
The script – churned out by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger – follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) and her Section 9 team – led by Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and consisting of Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Han (Chin Han), Ladriya (Danusia Samal), Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere) – investigating the murder of Hanka Robotics scientists as their robots start to malfunction around the city. This is the fault of Kuze (Michael Pitt), a mysterious hacker who seems to hold a series of answers about the Major’s past. This mission pits The Major against threts she’s never faced and will force her to dive into her past and ask the toughest questions of identity, memory, and human existence.
At least it might had Ghost in the Shell ever really bothered to address those questions or created reasonable threats.
Perhaps the major mistake was hiring Rupert Sanders. A former commercial director who made his bones for making us care about a gritty Snow White reboot because Kirsten Stewart had an affair with him on the set, he directs this film exactly like you would expect a man with that resume to. There is perhaps no one less suited for this film, no evidence in his past that he can handle philosophical questioning or stylized storytelling or nuanced acting, certainly not anything as delicate as the complex racial issues that go into making this film at all.
It’s pretty, I’ll give it that. Design work is strong and fun to look at and it certainly maintains a distinct sense of visual identity. The cyberpunk city’s giant glowing holographic advertisements are impressive, and there’s a surprising tactility to its world. But Sanders can do nothing else but that design, and once his film is required to speed up or slow down, it instantly plummets over the edge.
When it’s required to slow down, his fatal inability to direct actors is exposed. Ghost in the Shell‘s cast seems to be in something like five different films, no one absolutely sure what tonality or style or mode they should work. Johansson is better than expected, especially given that this is the sort of role she’s been playing for years, slowly perfecting her posthumanity. She’s good, even if she’s the totally wrong choice for a host of reasons we’ll get to shortly. Kitano is the best, the only person in the film who feels like they’re giving a performance without a rod up their ass. Everyone else is passable to embarrassing.
When it’s required to speed up, Sanders’ weaknesses as an action director show. Ghost in the Shell simply never conjures a satisfying action sequence. There are ideas, but they all fall apart in the execution, a jumble of shadows and mediocre gunplay. Any of the best ones are all ripped from the original anime (the water fight stands out for this) and those still don’t overcome the feeling that Sanders doesn’t know how to handle them.
But lest I make it sound like there’s something in between these two modes, I must dissuade you of that notion. In between, Ghost in the Shell is a mystery story that never manages to come together in a satisfying way. It’s at the same time all too easy to figure out and all to difficult to track. It’s simply poorly laid out, a cobble to achieve the necessary beats rather than properly unfold something compelling to watch.
Perhaps narrative isn’t the point? Ghost in the Shell was popularized by the questions it asked, the philosophies it worked through. Maybe the 2017 Ghost in the Shell can succeed there, in being a blockbuster for the thinking man.
Unfortunately, no. In fact, it is perhaps where one asks questions of Ghost in the Shell that it most falls apart.
This is partially because, as I said earlier, the script is just not prepared for any of this. It can let no theme play on its own, it’s so terrified that its audience won’t understand that it must lay it out every message. The idea that it is what you do that defines you, not what you were made to be? Then that is said roughly every conversation it can fit in and roughly in those exact terms. Ghost in The Shell 1995 believed that its audience was smart, Ghost in the Shell 2017 is scared its audience is stupid.
But beyond that, its thought rests in two ideas that undermine any chance of being a legitimate work on part with the original.
First, its generic tech-phobia, the idea that interconnectedness is terrifying and dangerous. This isn’t so much insidious as frustrating, that when backed up into the wall, a work can do nothing but fear technology is bad, because we have to be able to rationalize away its control in our lives. There is no relevant criticism, no thought, no specificity, just fear. Fear that remains unquestioned, fear that is not talked through. Black Mirror this isn’t.
Far worse than this are its racial politics. Yes, Scarlett Johansson plays a white-washed character, changing Major Motoko Kusanagi into Major Mira Killian. But also, it’s worse than that.
It is revealed late in the film that before she was The Major, she was a young Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi, which we find out by meeting her Japanese mother. The (not) villain of the film, Kuze, was her love Hideo. For those of you putting it together, that means the film makes its whitewashing textual, that a large faceless corporation took a Japanese person and forced them into Western standards, removing her racial heritage and forcing her into their own purposes.
I’m willing to believe this may have been done with the best of intentions had there been any evidence of intelligence or sensitivity up until then or any ability to navigate complex or delicate issues. But I’m also a white man, and I’m easily tricked on racial issues, willing to believe things like that because it isn’t my reality.
The fact is that the whitewashing here is an insulting slap in the face to the Asian-American population. A dangling of the issue is worse, a knowledge that they did something wrong. A dangling that they could have had a role for an Asian-American woman, maybe one that might have made her a star if it had been in the hands of a director who’d been in the right mindset to cast properly, and managed to have done this property justice. Ghost in the Shell knows it has done wrong, but chose to do the wrong thing anyway and covered its ass in the hopes that it would get a pass. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. What Ghost in the Shell has done is wrong and it absolutely should be condemned for it.
Especially given that none of those implications are ever addressed. Not just improperly addressed, never stated. Its implications are just left up for the audience to figure out, sitting out there. Ghost in the Shell introduces this idea simply to justify Scarlett Johansson’s casting, never thinking through what it has.
Let’s go back up to that title. What makes Ghost in the Shell the worst Hollywood has to offer?
It’s a film that craves the recognition of a property, but seeks to strip-mine it of anything unique. It’s a film that is so pleasing to look at it briefly fools you, but has no substance in its filmmaking. It’s a film that has so much going on, but never anything happening, never anything speaking. It’s a film that exploits the stories and labors of cultures not its own and yet does not seek to compensate them.
Ghost in the Shell is simply bad. The kind of bad that only Hollywood can offer.