Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for this new installment, let’s begin with 2017′s Ghost in the Shell!
Boasted expectations have become a strange pylon with big-budget cinema in the contemporary age. That becomes even worse when they are connected to an iconic piece of IP, and then doubles down more when there’s a controversy before the release. All of which happened with the release of Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. From the heaping fanbase of the Ghost in the Shell manga and anime films to the lacerating blow of the white-washing controversy with the casting of Scarlett Johannsson as The Major, the film seemed destined to fail. And, well, in some ways, it did. Earning just $169.8 million on a budget of $110 million, the film was a box-office bomb, with it as well getting pretty beat up overall critically (if you’re a fan of the critical aggregators, the film holds a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 52 on Metacritic). Yet, I still very much feel there’s much more than meets the synthetic eye when it comes to this film.
In every way, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is a strange creature, an art robot, a cine-droid that replicates the pace and look in the uncanny valley of live-action. It isn’t a remake of Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi animated feature from 1995, an assured classic of the genre, but more a very studious homage; the plot is original, though it draws ideas from later animated adaptations of Masamune Shirow’s manga series. As in all the other versions of this multi-media, multiple-continuity franchise, the setting is a quasi-dystopian cyberpunk future where Japan is the sole world superpower and the United States no longer exists. The Major (a fantastic Scarlett Johansson), a gooey human brain encased in a high-tech cyborg body, is the most advanced special operative in Section 9, an anti-terrorist unit made up of cybernetically enhanced migrants, supervised by Chief Aramaki (a pitch-perfect Takeshi Kitano). Many of the characters in Ghost in the Shell‘s animated adaptations are drawn as ethnically ambiguous, but this version of the Major (who was named Motoko Kusanagi in previous iterations) is a very literal “model immigrant,” said to have been recused from a refugee boat.
The central image remains the same: the cybernetic body and digitized consciousness as a ship of global problems and transitions. But instead of the post-human philosophizing of Oshii’s celebrated adaptation, the underlying concern of this nominal Americanization is actually more Japanese: instead of tackling the idea of one’s soul, it tackles national identity with the Major’s prosthetic body as a metaphor for the futuristic cityscape around her, where the only vestiges of local culture are porcelain-skinned robot geishas. It’s a heady and very un-commercial theme for a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, and one that the movie does have some trouble fully articulating — but then again, that’s true to the original Ghost in the Shell (and to what I’ve heard, all the sequels), whose stories of replacement limbs, linked minds, and artificial life are interesting mainly because of what they could mean.
Visually, this Ghost in the Shell resembles nothing else in the contemporary blockbuster age or cinema in general (broadly you could compare the film with one that came out months after it, Blade Runner 2049, but if when you really dive into the finite, nothing looks like this movie!). Some of the ravishment arrives courtesy of the movie’s setting, a stunning pan-Asian metropolis that makes a boldly inventive use of the Hong Kong skyline, it’s tightly stacked buildings tricked out with enormous holographic billboards (Jan Roelf’s production design is staggering). In a few of cinematographer Jess Hall’s more hallucinatory shots, he (with some help from the incredible visual effects team) dazzlingly capture and mimic the tactile feeling of flowing water: We’re not just consumed with the world and its data, we’re swimming in it. From Sanders’ staging to Billy Rich’s editing, the overall aesthetic of the film mimics the styling of Japanese animation, turning the film into its own beguiling meditation on all things synthetic. If it isn’t from Japan and it isn’t animated, can it still be anime?
The script — written by William Wheeler, Jamie Moss, and Ehren Kruger — finds the Major and her hulking partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk), on the trail of the shadowy cyber-terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt), who appears to be targeting the same tech corporation that developed the technology behind the Major’s body. It isn’t the most eloquently written of movies or always the most suspenseful; a climactic battle with a spider-like tank (à la the one from Oshii’s film) is one of this movie’s lazier acts of pastiche.
Yet one of larger insights that came from Oshii’s movie does make a transition over; that being how a cyborg’s consciousness must merge with others, even risking the loss of its own identity, in order to flourish. It’s a lesson that sounds a bit more sinister when filtered through the cruel commercial logic of the movie industry. In the typical Hollywood studio mindset, the casting of a highly bankable, globally recognized white movie star over a lower-profile Asian or Asian-American actress requires no justification, especially when the goal is to bring a cult hit into the mainstream. But putting those economic imperatives aside, the fact that the Major can and does assume different shells throughout the Ghost in the Shell canon lends some credence to the argument — one supported by many, including Oshii himself — that she should, theoretically, be able to look however her makers desire. Should it bother us then that the face of a white woman was clearly perceived as the most desirable — an upgrade, even? Or does that add a meaningful layer of subtext about white beauty standards in Japan or the highly selective commodification of beauty in the machine age?
Honestly, I’d say the latter. Tackling such a reflexive and fascinating notion of a refugee’s brain (one who’s background is revealed to be even more involved) being put into a high-tech body by militaristic white men to be used as a weapon finds a haunting and hefty hook for the film to hang on. Major is a woman who’s been forced to think of herself as an outsider, tricked by a false and racially charged self-image that was literally constructed for her by commercial and government interests. In its designs of an immigrant filled cityscape and deeply felt cosmetic beauty, more so that its generic conspiratorial plot, this Ghost in the Shell finds tantalizing expressions of themes: in the faces and limbs of hacked androids breaking up into insect-like forms as they attack; the lonely futuristic sleeping quarters; the grotesquerie of cybernetic enhancements; red light districts where human prostitutes dress like sex-bots to attract clientele. Johansson’s Kubrickian performance and the technical precision of Sanders and Hall’s camera make its artifice seem almost haunting. It isn’t quite Ghost in the Shell, but from a metatextual perspective, it’s of a piece with its tale of a future where nothing is quite the real thing. Yet, for whatever does come to fruition, all I hope is for some re-evaluation.