Ghost in the Shell has been around for a long time. Since the release of Masamune Shirow’s seminal manga in 1989 and Mamoru Oshii’s arguably more influential 1995 film adaptation, the saga of the cyborgs of Section 9 has influenced pop culture and science fiction for nearly a generation.
That puts Rupert Sanders’ new film in a difficult position. The ideas Ghost in the Shell deals with are now old hat, and approaching looking a bit quaint, all things considered.
How would a new movie, with Scarlett Johansson representing the Major’s latest, flesh-and-blood incarnation, be able to feel fresh and cast its shadow over a new generation? Is that even possible?
Ghost in the Shell Studio: Paramount Pictures Director: Rupert Sanders Release: March 29, 2017
I’d say it certainly is, but this film probably isn’t the one to do it, and not least because of its biggest political and narrative missteps. I’m not just talking about the whitewashing, but let’s tackle that part first, since it’s the most salient point and a clue-in as to how the adaptation fares more generally.
Personally, I never thought much of the case being made that the Major should’ve been played by an Asian or Japanese actress. As Shirow and Oshii put it, there’s no compelling reason in the source material to assert the character of that “Major Motoko Kusanagi” must be of any specific ethnicity. Arguments insisting on that point as a matter of "remaining true to the original" smacked of unpleasant cultural essentialism, not to mention missing the point of the Ghost in the Shell story.
I would’ve left it at that in regards to this film, if not for an eleventh-hour plot twist that retroactively validates the complaints critics had before release, and also reveals just how little of Ghost in the Shell's actual spirit survived the transition to Hollywood. In light of that bafflingly tone-deaf development, it’s impossible to see the casting decision as anything other than pure cynicism in action: Johansson was picked because she’s a big name and was willing, and the failure to cast a more appropriate lead actress is a tragic and frustrating misstep that threatens to retroactively torpedo the whole film up to that point.
This is a shame because, before that part, the film is eminently watchable and frequently gorgeous. Ghost in the Shell features some jaw-dropping design work that manages to capture the look of the Oshii movie, while adding a more novel, Blade Runner-esque visual twist. Things like car designs and the Hong Kong-inspired urban crush make the film's cyberpunk metropolis feel pleasantly retro. The world of the movie is host to a more embodied, all-encompassing take on the cybernetic future than the reality we're drifting into on our own.
Johansson also turns in good work playing the Major. Or is it just “Major”? The film is oddly inconsistent about using the moniker as a proper name or a rank. Takeshi Kitano, playing Section 9 Chief Aramaki, uses the rank, so out of respect for the master, I’ll go with that.
As the Major, a prototype full-body cyborg constructed by the Hanka corporation - “the first of her kind” – she sells the struggle and alienation of her condition well, often achieving it through a simple gaze rather than more conventional, more “human” expression. Her take on the iconic anime character is less the hard-partying badass of the manga or the reserved, introspective thinker of the 1995 movie. Hers is a Major at the beginning of her career, the head of the first wave in human evolution, along with the fear and vulnerability that comes with being part of it. To take gaming analogy, she's more like Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Adam Jensen than the consummate professional cyborg cop portrayed in other Ghost in the Shell adaptations.
Her action credentials are also well-earned, through a series of bang-up set pieces inspired by iconic scenes from the anime and manga. If anything, Johansson's physicality, and her apparent superhuman capabilities actually feel a bit undersold, compared to her antics as Black Widow. The movie's successes on the style front are so compelling that in some ways it's easy to see Ghost in the Shell as the most expensive and fully-realized cosplay shoot ever made. I mean that as a compliment.
This approach is instructive, as cosplay shoots aren’t usually known for their narrative chops. The film tries admirably to forge some new territory, taking names and references from across Ghost in the Shell’s varied canon to tell a story that’s not the Puppetmaster, or the Laughing Man, or even the Ghost-Dubbing, Individual Eleven, or any other extant case.
Then again, maybe things would've turned out better if they had chosen a more straightforward adaptation, as the end result feels more like The Bourne Identity with cyborgs, not to mention incorporating that ghastly clanger of a final twist. Further, it appears to have been chopped up a bit in the editing room. Despite inspired and diverse casting for the other members of Section 9, most characters besides Aramaki and Batou (played by Borgen’s Pilou Ansbaek) barely graduate past the role of extra. Togusa (played by Han Chin), in particular, feels like he had more to do at some point between the first trailers and release.
The plot, in the end, comes across as a pastiche of Ghost in the Shell fan service, limping around like Michael Pitt's Kuze, assembled from a hodgepodge of components and unable to quite bring it all together and look like a real boy.
Given that this seems intended to start a franchise, the tidings are grim for this iteration of Ghost in the Shell. But there is, if nothing else, some (neon) light at the end of the tunnel.
Nailing the style angle certainly helps with keeping hope alive. Ghost in the Shell fans, yours truly included, are used to having wildly different adaptations across the years. And thankfully, the nature of the setting leaves some room to course-correct, even in casting. As the Major says, the net is vast and infinite, and there may be room left to redeem Ghost in the Shell next time around.