Over the weekend, I dragged my best friend–a biracial Japanese dude I’ve known for over a decade–to watch the new Ghost in the Shell movie. Like Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech, we weren’t impressed. To my surprise, though, I didn’t actually hate Scarlett Johansson’s role in the movie.
Her casting as the Major has been controversial, in part due to concerns about “whitewashing” (using white actors to play non-white characters). Yet Mamoru Oshii, director of the original 1995 anime, was unexpectedly supportive of the decision. Maybe that’s because Johansson doesn’t pretend to be Motoko Kusanagi, the boisterous lead character from the original. Johansson’s new character, Mira Killian, comes across as pure automaton, a blank slate devoid of emotional ties.
But this blankness, which permeates the film, is a symptom of Ghost in the Shell‘s broader failure to understand its source material, and it’s here that the film’s deeper problems lie.
A missing philosophy
The new film’s director, Rupert Sanders, said in an interview with Motherboard that he loved the original anime and wanted to “be part of the legacy of Ghost in the Shell…The world really blew my mind… It was this beautiful futuristic world that I had never really seen anywhere: crazy characters, sexualized, philosophized.”
Sanders describes his movie repeatedly as an “international” film, one he has updated with a more familiar plot, because “you can’t lead” with themes of dualism, reflections on technology, and “all those things that are Ghost in the Shell.” So what does he think the franchise’s most memorable moments are? He names them: “The water fight, exploding geisha heads, Major on the tank, Major jumping off the roof. Those things are iconic, and if they weren’t in there, people would be upset, myself included.”
But I’m not sure Sanders understands how or why these moments became so iconic. His interpretation of the original film—which was slower, indeed almost glacial in places—centers on explosive energy and plumes of broken glass; it’s Daft Punk gone the way of the Boondock Saints. Consequently, Sanders’ rebooted version of Ghost in the Shell is a peculiar hodgepodge of original scenes and lines, sutured together without much rhythm. We get the hacked garbage collector without the poignancy of his subsequent revelations, while the water fight that Sanders mentions is almost caricatured. And Mira Killian has none of Motoko Kusanagi’s restraint as she beats her quarry without compassion.
As the action gets more frenetic, the thoughtful theme of humans merging with machines becomes blander. Kuze–another abductee crammed into a Caucasoid form–begs Major to merge with him. Why? We learn only that he was Motoko’s boyfriend in life. However, that romantic connection is never truly explored. It’s as if the love story was included because that is just what you do in Hollywood. What could be more compelling than star-crossed love?
Enlarge / In the Ghost in the Shell anime, we get a more complex vision of the Puppet Master, and why AIs want to merge with humans.