Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi
Director: Rupert Sanders
Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.
Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.
The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.
The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.
The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.