Ghost in the Shell (2017)

You’ve probably heard of Ghost in the Shell for all the wrong reasons. So had I. And just to set the record straight – the only reason I saw this film was because my friend and I were super bored, and the only viable activity for 4pm on a Monday is to see a movie. It was this or Beauty and the Beast.

In the near-ish future, in a Tokyo-like city, humans and AIs are being hacked, and if anyone is capable of cracking the code it’s Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a member of the government anti-terrorist organisation, Section 9. In this reality, most other humans are augmented with cybernetics, or are obstinately au natural, but Major is the first of her kind – a human brain (“ghost”) with a mechanical body (“shell”). Major is the creation of Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), a scientist at Hanka Robotics, who salvaged Major’s brain after her family was killed in a cyber-terrorist attack. Since then, Major has been caught between two worlds, with few memories to ground her.

The Tokyo/Hong Kong-ish setting serves Ghost in the Shell very well. The city is sprawling, filled with dingy alleys that weave between skyscrapers and gigantic holograms. The special effects/animation/whatever is flawless, and communicates a future that is only a stone’s throw away from the one we have. Ghost in the Shell is a stunning film and the cinematography perfectly encapsulates its murky cyber-noir tone. However, perhaps the film relies too heavily on its “Tokyo in the rain” aesthetic, using the trope to give the film character, rather than the plot.

Now, the real shit – whitewashing. Huge disclaimer before I jump into this paragraph: I am not of Asian descent, have not watched the Ghost in the Shell anime and have not read the Ghost in the Shell manga series (although I might now). Basically, there was controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira who, in the anime/manga, is known as Major Motoko Kusanagi – clearly a Japanese woman. Now, whilst this choice was disappointing, it was definitely expected. But it gets worse. Way worse. Alert: spoilers ahead!

Major discovers that her backstory, involving the death of her entire family, is a lie. She discovers her true identity – a Japanese anti-cybernetics rebel named Motoko Kusanagi who ran away from home and was abducted by Hanka Robotics. Motoko’s mother was told that she committed suicide in prison. As soon as Major meets her mother, the “plot twist” is clear to the audience. And it’s uncomfortable. Major doesn’t look like her Japanese mother, and she can’t remember her either. We might as well have Johansson playing herself in these scenes.

I’m not sure what idiot okayed this decision. It’s not true to the original story, so there’s no justification there. There’s no explanation for why Motoko was resurrected as a white woman either. All it shows is that the studios responsible for producing the film just about bent over backwards to allow for the casting of a white woman. It feels oddly cruel too. Not only is Major robbed of her memories, she is robbed of her culture and ethnicity.  Why not just make Major a white woman from the start if that’s what they really wanted?  It was honestly a very bizarre (and completely unnecessary) choice. I expected whitewashing… but meta-whitewashing? Fuck me sideways.

As far as the actual content of the film goes, it wasn’t great. Ghost in the Shell gets away with a lot thanks to its stunning visuals. Seriously, this movie is 95% visual effects and 5% story. It’s low on dialogue and pretty much follows two undeveloped story lines. Both of them are “resolved” so to speak, but neither are explored to their full potential. Instead we get some cringey Marvel-superhero-spiel which almost lends itself to a sequel that I hope doesn’t pan out.  I reached the end of the movie feeling unsatisfied, but to be honest, I only realised this in retrospect because I was quite content with the cinematography and design alone.

I wish I didn’t pay for Ghost in the Shell, but this is what happens in a cinematic lull. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I would watch it again, but on mute at 4am with a jazz-noir soundtrack playing in the background. If there’s one thing that Ghost in the Shell succeeded at doing, it was encouraging me to check out the source material – which actually looks pretty awesome and infinitely better than the movie.

Ghost in the Shell (2017): 6/10

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