Ghost in the Shell has been on my list of to-sees for some time. While I was never a reader of the original Japanese manga which premiered in 1989, I am a fan of the televised anime from 2002. Indeed, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex entertained me during many late night binges of Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. However, the film adaptation has been dogged by controversy ever since Scarlett Johansson was cast in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a role that some consider should be played by someone of Asian heritage, as the source material seems to suggest. I won’t weigh the film’s merits factoring in consideration of the controversy, as the central issue of racial disparity in casting is larger than this one film and cases have been made both for and against how casting played out here. Regardless, Johansson very much fits an image of the Major—she’s well-cast in that light, at least. But beyond that, the casting is irrelevant to the issues that mar the film as a whole: a lack of emotional resonance that might connect the audience to what’s happening onscreen; a story that’s so watered down, it’s not only thin, but hard to care about; and ultimately, a hollowness that’s without even a ghost in this particular shell. Barring incredibly strong visuals and effects, this movie would rate lower even than it does: it’s kept afloat as average by fantastic special effects that hold the eye and entice the mind.
Ghost in the Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Release Date: March 31, 2017
Ghost in the Shell takes place in the mid 21st century, in a fictionalized city in Japan. The story focuses on Section 9, an elite anti-terrorism task force, led by Major Motoko Kusanagi [Johansson], a cyborg with a human brain and robotic body. Johansson comes to this state of existence after an accident leaves her body irreparable, but her mind in tact. They have the technology. They can rebuild her. So they do. After some deliberate voiceover and a forced introduction between ancillary characters that are forced into the story, we come right to the action: a diplomatic party and executives from a military-industrial-complex company, Hanka (the same company that developed the technology for Johansson) come under attack by tech-enhanced terrorists. Section 9 thwarts the attack, but discovers a mystery as the Hanka head honcho has been hacked, a process possible by the augmentation of human beings with technological enhancements, allowing the mind to be accessed and used much as a computer. From thereon out it’s a series of fast-paced, visually stimulating episodes that rely not so much on logical detective work, but special effects to wow the audience while Johansson suddenly intones: “I know where he is.” How she knows, we don’t know. She’s done a “deep dive” into the mind of one of the tech-terrorists, a hacking process which might go horribly wrong, and from what we see, it certainly does. But, thankfully, she emerges from the mind-link unharmed, and with the necessary information for the plot to progress. Phew.
There are a lot of plot progression points which rely less on clever writing than on heavy-handed allusions to catch phrases like ‘hack’ (computer related, technology things, guys! Don’t worry if you don’t understand it, you’re not programmers) and ‘yakuza’ (gangsters—people are definitely going to start shooting for no reason!). While relying on technological vagaries may have worked for 1995’s Hackers at the vanguard of personal computing and the latest technological revolution, it’s dated here—audiences are smarter (if only slightly), but again, the modern visual effects do compensate sufficiently enough to keep the film from being downright awful. The disparity between what constitutes hacking, visually, between Hackers and Ghost in the Shell is stunning, and expected, since we’ve evolved filmmaking techniques some in the corresponding twenty-two years.
I’m reminded of Director Rupert Sanders’ last major box office effort Snow White and the Huntsman (which many, no doubt, remember more as Snow White and the affair with the Director) and how weak the film was on story, too. And similarly, the film relied heavily on visual effects which, at times, were utterly stunning. But here the theme emerges which dictates how good a film is: no film, no matter how amazing visually, will ever be considered great, even good, with no story to back it. But here too, I would expect more from Sanders to deliver bigger since he’s been handed source material with plenty of story. The remake of the Snow White story was a weak concept and imagined even more weakly, so perhaps you get what you design. Here, pure laziness or incompetence has led to story being supplanted by special effects, rather than augmented by them.
Much of the storytelling is a diluted collection of mise en scènes dealing with philosophical matters of self, identity, humanity, reality, and the reason for existence. At what point do human being stop being human? What makes a human human? What makes reality real? How do you ever truly know what is real? As technology and humanity blend how do these questions play out? The source material for Ghost in the Shell predates The Matrix by a decade, but audiences are familiar with these philosophical questions on the silver screen. Positing philosophical issues interwoven with visual effects is not story either. Nor is it a riveting enough reason for audiences to care to what’s happening to our protagonist. Cue Keanu Reeves saying ‘Whoa.’
And there’s a sense, that maybe, just maybe someone realized this when making the GitS. Repeatedly, Johansson tells us that she feels nothing. Not emotionally, clearly, despite her blank visage, and monotonous intonations, she feels on that level, but physically. As a cyborg, with an artificial body, she is beyond pain. However, at several points, people dose her with electrical current or charges and she screams in agony. Electricity! A robot’s only weakness! Aside from bullets, cars, self-inflicted stress wear, swords, molten metal, bigger robots, aliens, monsters, falls from too-great-heights, viruses, hacking, explosions, terrible writing, etc. If she feels nothing, why does she feel? Not only is it bad storytelling and a glaring bit of discontinuity, it’s almost a cover-up for the inefficiencies in creating emotional resonance for the character. The backstory is dictated, rather than shown. Her emotions are robotic and implied, rather than acted. And the drama, antagonist, and plot drivers are more reasons to get to the next action sequence than compelling. I was actually hoping the movie would end sooner than it did, and coming in at a scant one hour and forty-four minutes, that’s saying something. When the end did come, it was a relief, in all its anticlimactic glory.
The action sequences are not stand out in of themselves. You’ve likely seen better fight sequences—the visual effects here take place in the setting of the scene, the vision for what the future may be: vast cityscapes dominated by advertising holograms ranging in size from squirrel to Stay Puft Marshmallow Man; moody and brooding one-offs that are modern and designed to live in dioramas; and one particular sequence playing out through puddles and tidal pool that makes lovely use of water, reflections, and splashing-via-optically-camouflaged-Johansson that was a joy to watch.
Casting, was well done: again, bypassing controversy, the filmmakers seem to have hired from every ethnicity they could to create a setting both Japanese, yet non-defined as a future reality where cultures have perhaps blended, detracting from issues of glaring miscasting. The GitS characters of Batou and Chief Daisuke Aramaki played by Pilou Asbaek and Takeshi Kitano are brilliant. They pass the optical test, and do everything they can with what they’re given, as actors.
Fans might find themselves appeased, having found GitS brought to live-action for the first time. Maybe they’ll leave the theater satisfied. Others, may find themselves hardpressed to find reasons to love it, especially if they dwell on it. Dwell on it and find yourself getting past visual effects that dazzled your mind and satisfied its questions of ‘why’ with ‘wow’ and you might find the ‘wow’ fades while the ‘why’ lingers.