There is so much baggage around the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell I have been struggling with where to start. I do not want to seem calloused by ignoring the issues, but at the same time I just want to talk about the movie. Yes, director Rupert Sanders (or whomever was ultimately responsible for casting) whitewashed the Major by using Scarlet Johansson. In the current climate that seems incredibly foolish, and while there are probably good enough reasons why (or even if there are not), I am not interested in pursuing them here.
Likewise, without seeing a single frame, this is bound to be radically different from the original anime. It is an American remake and as such will be changed to better fit the sensibilities of the (Occidental) audience. This is a factor that has ruined films for me in the past, but I saw the original Ghost in the Shell back in the late 90s and haven’t seen it since. Because of this I don’t remember much, and what I do remember are cool visuals, like the Major fighting the Spider Tank, and the remake did a good job of getting the visuals right. So, like the whitewashing, I am not going to look at how this fell short as a remake.
There are plenty articles which speak directly to these issues on the interwebs. Plus, I have noting to offer to the conversation so…
See, the lede is still too goddamned long after several weeks of thinking about it. I like to have time to think about a movie, but this is ridiculous.
I went into the theater expecting to be disappointed. Rarely do remakes of foreign films work for me, and I have yet to see a anime to live-action film that I thought was good. By the time the credits rolled that changed. Ghost in the Shell was a decent action movie. The special effects, particularly the world building, were really cool—that being one of the aspects that has always drawn me to anime. The visuals in the original obviously impressed Sanders too, because this remake really did the special effects right—often over-the-top, just like anime.
On the other hand, the story is weak and flat, a transplant flailing like a clipped bird thrown from a building. It is much like the Major is herself: a brain implanted in a cybernetic body.
The Major is trying to come to terms with who/what she is. As a completely new life form this makes sense, and as a pitch for a story poses an interesting question to explore. The film never quite gets to the heart of the Major’s story. It gets close and then opts for more cool special effects.
Take the scene where the Major hires a prostitute in order to study her. Because of her cybernetic body the Major can no longer feel. She is a beautiful young woman, but when she looks at herself in the mirror and touches her lips softly there’s… nothing. With the prostitute she does the same, asking her how it feels. The Major is trying to reconnect with the life she lost. Now the only way she knows how to connect is by literally interfacing with machines. These systems can even download her thoughts, much like downloading and uploading files to a Dropbox account, something far more intimate but somehow ultimately less satisfying. The scene is tinged with some sexual overtones as well, but is dropped unceremoniously.
Johansson does a serviceable job of playing the emotionally challenged automaton. I say serviceable because there are some moments where she is in an emotional situation and she emotes a bit more than the robotic exoskeleton could produce. That’s not to say the Major is incapable of emotion, obviously her brain is. But the body that she’s in is mechanical. And for all of it’s advancements there are some things it couldn’t mimic. Or could it? Eh. It’s confusing. And when confusion shows its ugly mug the movie cuts to something else.
Ghost in the Shell had a good source material, and good funding, which allowed it to be as entertaining as it could be, which isn’t saying a whole lot. It is the kind of movie that is worth seeing on Netflix or when you happen on to it when flipping through the channels one afternoon, but nothing worth going to the theaters to see. This is why it was released so early in the big budget movie season. It was good enough to release early, but not good enough to go up against the other summer block buster films.
Of course, this is my charitable viewing of it. As I stated at the top, there’s all the whitewashing and the straying from the original which is surely a trigger strong enough to make Ghost in the Shell too galling for some to sit through. I completely understand this reaction. I have been triggered to the point where I gave up on movies for about 8 months. (Thanks, Rubber!) All said, Ghost in the Shell is a hot mess. Even if taken charitably, it is at best a meh…