I’m shocked. Like, I’m really shocked.
No, not because the American adaptation of the popular 1995 Japanese anime, Ghost in the Shell, is surprisingly good or anything. I’m shocked that the film is as big a disaster as it is. I mean, it was already a bad enough movie in the same ways a many bad movies tend to be, but they pull the rug from under you in such a way that is so bafflingly misguided that I might suspect that the filmmakers were actively trying to piss off their audience. To say the film shoots itself in the foot would be an understatement, a person can survive a shot to the foot, this film shot itself in the dick point blank with a shotgun, there’s no surviving that shit.
So, to answer the two question that I’m sure you have in your head – yes, there will be some spoilers ahead (I’ll give another warning later), and yes, I will be diving deep into the whole whitewashing thing.
You know how when films that find themselves in whitewash-related controversies end up being panned, you’d hear phrases like “the whitewashing was the least of the film’s problems?” Well, that’s not the case with Ghost In The Shell, the whitewashing is the biggest problem in a sea of problems that plagues this movie. I know whitewashing is a topic that makes people uncomfortable for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand, but it’s crucial in getting why some of the choices made in the new Ghost in the Shell are so bad. First, the setting of Tokyo, which in this future is presented as this multicultural techno dystopia. From what I remember in the original film, it was a reflection of point in Japan when innovation in tech started to surpass America, which unintentionally caused job loss, and increased poverty that didn’t fully recover until the 2000s. Social factors aren’t really brought into consideration with this new film as the it doesn’t really allow its environment to breath the same way the anime did, reducing the fascinating designs and social underpinnings to uninspired establishing shots. And it’s not just the designs, but the culture that takes a backseat as well. While, some remakes have been smart to adjust certain elements to make the material speak more to an American audience (like The Departed), Ghost in the Shell keeps the same setting and visual aesthetic, but it ultimately results in feeling like Japan is being used as a thoughtless backdrop while all the key players are white. Despite the admirably diverse background, our attention is always given to white characters. The only real exception being Takeshi Kitano, who plays Major’s (Scarlett Johansson) boss, Aramaki. However, it’s a mostly thankless role, and oddly enough, he is the only character in the entire movie to speak Japanese, as everyone else responds and talk amongst each other in English, which is just bizarre to watch. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of Asian actors wandering in the background. It’s one thing that the focus is on white characters in this setting, but it’s another when all of the goons that our heroes have to kill – so they can get to any of the two big bads (both white because they’re important, I guess) – are Japanese. Literally all the disposable lackeys in the film are Asian, and once I noticed it, it was impossible to unsee the genuinely uncomfortable racial politics at play here.
And it only gets worse.
By the way, this next paragraph will have spoilers. Skip it if you want to remain unspoiled, but also don’t because I don’t have much after that. Also, it’s bad, so who cares about spoilers? But there’s your warning.
Scarlett Johansson got a lot of flack for taking the role of Major. And as much as I genuinely like her as an actor, it’s completely understandable. After all, it was based on Japanese source material, and the original character was named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and Asian actors are having a hard enough time getting lead roles in big movies, and also the fact that we’ve dealt with this exact same controversy with like several other big movies before this was even made. Common sense overruled by nonsensical film industry self-fulfilling economics, what else is new? So, what does the film do? Well, it changes the Major’s origin to that she is a refugee whose parents died in an accident that almost killed her before she was taken in and had her brain transferred into a cybernetic body, or a “shell” if you will. OK, create a multicultural environment, make it plausible that our main character would be white in a story that takes place in Tokyo. It doesn’t necessarily excuse the film, but at least they provide a reason for getting someone like Johansson for the role. That is, until they suddenly don’t. The big arc for Major is to find out who she was, her memories are distant, fading, appearing as sudden glitches, she’s not who she once was, like a “ghost” if you will. Anyway, we do eventually find out where she came from when she visits the home of an elderly woman…who is Japanese. Major finds out she was a young Japanese runaway named Motoko that was forcibly taken, among many others, by the (laughably obvious) evil corporation called Hanka. Yes, Scarlett Johansson is literally playing a Japanese woman. I have never been this close to audibly saying “oh, no” in the middle of a packed theater in my life. Why make this choice? Why fight the whitewashing controversy by practically washing white over a Japanese character. It’s made even more annoying because Ghost in the Shell was fascinating in how it explored the idea of fluidity in identity, be it gender, sexuality, etc. The film could’ve easily thrown race into that mixture as well. However, Major doesn’t ever talk about how she looks so different, and how it affects her, how it challenges her feelings on her identity. Even on a basic surface level, the film could’ve somewhat salvaged a horrendous decision by applying some thought to it, but it simply chose not to. None of the possibly interesting ideas are explored, and we’re left with the same kind of shit that made people go nuts like when Emma Stone played a partially Chinese woman in Aloha. Remember that nonsense?
OK, end of spoilers.
Like I said, the whitewashing is really what pushes this film over the edge of the cliff and onto a pile of sharp rocks. The other problems are fairly basic stuff. It’s dull. It’s characters are thin. It feels lifeless. Everyone talks in that super serious, moody, whisper-voice. The action is awkward, with the choreography and editing being devoid of any kind of rhythm. It took every fiber of my being to not check my watch every five minutes. There’s nothing particularly interesting about this film that hasn’t been done better in countless other sci-fi films like Blade Runner, or The Matrix. Hell, we even got a Blade Runner sequel, and a film called Mute coming out later this year, and they both look like they basically take place in the same universe. Or you know, just watch the original Ghost in the Shell. The animation is still impressive to this day, and way more watchable than the obnoxious CG overload in this garbage.
The 2017 Ghost in the Shell will undoubtedly go down as a disaster that future filmmakers will look at and study, so they will know what to not do if they decide to tackle another anime or any other foreign intellectual property for that matter. It’s a good thing Scarlett Johansson already has her credibility as a legitimate talent and endless Marvel checks to keep her set for life because if this was some nobody, it would be an instant career killer. Some decent production design, and a reasonably solid ensemble is simply not good enough anymore. This is 2017, not 1997. We have the technology, we have the resources to do better, and insert Uncle Ben quote here. The quicker we can learn from the mistakes made in Ghost in the Shell, the quicker we can all forget that it ever happened.
Oh, and in case any of you were wondering. That kissing shot in the trailer (1:01 in the video above)? Yeah, it’s not in the movie. The scene is, but that moment isn’t. Just fyi.