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Ghost in the Shell review: a solid film built on a broken foundation

Ghost in the Shell review: a solid film built on a broken foundation

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Paramount Pictures

Of all the ideas the new Ghost in the Shell offers up, one emerges as its thesis. Memory, it posits, doesn’t define our humanity. Instead, our actions define us. As the lines between human and machine are blurred, we’re afforded the radical opportunity to create new selves that are shaped by the past, without clinging to it. That notion aligns well with the film itself, and how it was made. As part of a far larger cyberpunk tradition, it draws on old ideas and tries to forge a new path forward. And through its treatment of its franchise’s history, the movie succeeds in some ways — and crucially fails in others.

As a live-action adaptation of a cherished anime masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell is a technically solid, though lesser, homage to the film and the sundry TV series that inspired it. It wrestles ably with questions about posthumanity and individuality in a visually sumptuous origin story that leaves plenty of room for follow-up. And maybe that would be enough, if it weren’t for the controversy at the heart of the film. Where 1995’s Ghost in the Shell skirted the problem of race almost entirely, the update not only brings it to the surface, but makes it into a monster. The approach exposes the cracks in the aging premises that informed the first film, and possibly even the entire cyberpunk genre.

Major spoilers ahead.

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg operative who heads the counter-terrorism task force Section 9 in an unnamed futuristic city in East Asia. Led by section chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), she and fellow operatives Batou (Pilou Asbæk), Togusa (Chin Han), and others investigate hackers and cyber-criminals in a future where terrorism can mean planting false memories into citizens’ digitally enhanced brains, or even turning them into puppets. Their work leads them to a hacker known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who has a vendetta against Hanka Robotics, the powerful robotics company and government contractor that created Mira’s body. But Kuze takes a special interest in Mira, and he drags her deep into a conspiracy that implicates the people closest to her.

Sanders and company did their homework

It’s clear from the outset that Sanders and company did their Ghost In The Shell homework. They demonstrate a real appreciation for Masamune Shirow’s original manga and the adaptations and spinoffs that followed it. Though Ghost’s story is framed around the narrative established in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 classic anime film, story elements and setpieces from Shirow’s manga, the 2004 sequel feature Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series, and other cyberpunk classics are peppered liberally throughout, making the film feel fresh, yet familiar.

VFX outfit MPC and special-effects company Weta Workshop have made Ghost in the Shell one of the year’s most visually beautiful films. One early scene borrowed directly from Oshii shows the birth of Mira’s cybernetic body, with skin layered over synthetic muscle and bone in a way that’s both captivating and unsettling. Later, Mira bursts into a room in a cloud of pixels and glass to dispatch the terrorists and robots hacking into a Hanka executive’s mind. The scene draws from Ghost in the Shell and Stand Alone Complex, with the fight choreography and camera work pulled right out of The Matrix. Sanders’ movie sometimes comes across as slavish to his source material, but it’s gorgeous in ways that make it stand apart from the craftsmanship in today’s superhero movies.

Paramount Pictures

The film does tend to put style before substance. Action is the film’s main concern, though as a Ghost in the Shell adaptation, it does spend some time meditating on how to locate the soul when the biological merges with the technological. That thread centers on the Major and her relationship with her past. Hanka’s Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche) claims Mira and her parents were in a terrorist attack, and left so close to death, she needed a full robotic body. But Mira has no memory of that event, and she’s haunted by memory “glitches” tied to Kuze. That laser focus on Mira and her need to better understand herself limits the film’s scope, where the original, by grappling with the existential effects of computerization on humanity, felt vast. That’s by design; in a recent interview with CNET, Sanders suggested that the original film’s “stillness and quietness” wouldn’t land with today’s audiences. (Fans and critics might disagree.) The result is a sci-fi thriller that touches on concepts like how thinking machines must consent to having their minds opened like hard drives. But those concepts aren’t allowed to reach past the point where they directly concern the Major’s experience.

Scarlett Johansson is only serviceable in the starring role

Johansson is only serviceable as Mira, though. While she comes alive in the latter half of the film as the plot kicks into high gear, she never fully conveys the complex mix of frustration, verve, and wry wisdom that voice actress Atsuko Tanaka has delivered as the animated version of the character since 1995. Johansson certainly has the physical authority of a powerful killing machine — she’s been doing action movies since 2005’s The Island — but she’s the Major by way of Black Widow and the title character in Lucy. More often than not, she’s a cipher whose anxiety about her past simmers beneath the surface. Arguably, that’s the point. Asbæk and Binoche more readily offer up human emotions like dread, affection, and gruff concern in their respective roles, and they serve as foils for Mira as she struggles to uncover her humanity. But the movie sets out to show Mira’s transformation into a being with a complicated and resonant inner life, and Johansson’s mostly flat performance never sells that arc.

That idea of transformation and its relationship with lived and cultural memory ultimately breaks the movie. It runs deeper than casting and representation. Ghost does go to some lengths to turn its setting into a culturally diverse metropolis inhabited by technologically enhanced bodies. The principal cast is predominantly white, but actors of color are afforded some opportunities to shine. (Zatoichi star Kitano brings an almost effortless presence to every scene he’s in.) However, the larger issue is how the film presents the shift from human to posthuman. By the film’s climax, we learn that Hanka Robotics abducted a young Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi, and its her brain that was linked to a synthetic body to create the human-machine hybrid Mira is now.

That narrative turn, though of a piece with the entire “more than human” idea, is horrific for a few reasons. First, the name “Motoko Kusanagi” carries weight with fans of the franchise. In the original, Motoko simply is the Major. Here, Motoko is a Japanese woman destroyed to allow the Major to exist. Seeing the film replace that character with “Mira Killian” is deeply discomfiting. Second, and most importantly, there’s just no escaping the terrible optics of planting a Japanese person in a white body. Ghost in the Shell, as a product of late-20th-century thought about cyborg identities, trafficked in ideas about a self that can be divorced from race and gender in favor of a higher form of consciousness. The dream of the ‘90s was a digital utopia that left such categorizations and hierarchies behind. The problem is that, nearly 30 years after Masamune Shirow put pen to paper, we’re nowhere near that reality. Despite the long, sad history of self-erasure in Japan that allowed anime to obfuscate ethnic identity, race is a real, global, and unavoidable problem. Johansson can’t help but be caught up in the Ghost franchise’s racial history. She says she’s playing a raceless cyborg, but she is an unmistakably white actress working in an industry that privileges white stories.

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That problem cuts to the core of Ghost in the Shell’s vision of humanity’s future, where “absence of race” aligns uncomfortably with whiteness. And since we can’t yet untangle ourselves from that fundamental problem, it means that it’s not enough to say that Scarlett Johansson was miscast. We need to question whether an acceptable live-action adaptation of this property could exist in any form without addressing that issue.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ fails to treat race and cultural identity as realities

In Ghost in the Shell’s closing moment, the Major tells the audience: “We cling to our memories as if they define us. But it’s what we do that defines us.” I’ve struggled with that line ever since I left the theater, because I don’t agree. If our memories, like our history, don’t matter, I could simply say that this is a gorgeous little film with a decent story and fair acting. I’d recommend it to friends who’ve loved the franchise for years, though I’d give caveats to temper their expectations. And I’d wonder where an inevitable sequel could go. But the truth is that we live in a world where Ghost in the Shell collides with questions about race and cultural identity, but fails to adequately answer them or even treat them as realities. The inequalities it reifies expose the limits of the posthuman, post-racial philosophy that helped bring the entire series about.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s instructive that Ghost in the Shell is a solid film made on a broken foundation. Maybe this is the movie that needed to be made so the backlash would help Hollywood question the kinds of cross-cultural adaptations it can make.