Movie review: Ghost in the Shell falls short of even lowest expectations

by Allison Estremera, Staff Writer

2017 is shaping up to be the year anime fans take over. In addition to the announcement of Netflix’s live action adaptation of “Death Note,” anime adaptations are also hitting the big screen with the release of “Ghost in the Shell.” After being stuck in development hell for nearly a decade, the film is a reimagining of the beloved manga of the same name, with director Rupert Sanders at the helm and Scarlett Johansson starring as the protagonist.

Taking place in the not-too-distant future, the film follows the Major, a cyborg working for the anti-terrorism unit Section 9. As she investigates a series of attacks against the company who created her, questions about her past begin to arise. However, her search for answers reveals dark secrets about the corporation and the people who had a hand in producing the perfect combination of human and robot.

Much of the film is centered on ideas of identity, as the Major questions who she is and what it means to be human in an increasingly post-human world that favors machine over man. The film makes constant references to “shells” and “ghosts,” terms that it uses in place of “body” and “spirit.” This constitutes the fine line the Major walks as she attempts to reconcile her existence as a human ghost in a cybernetic shell, in addition to her discovery of who she was before she was placed in this newer shell.

However, Johansson’s stiff and robotic delivery seems to go against this exploration of humanity, as her performance speaks more to the idea of her “shell” rather than her “ghost,” leading the audience to forget her human element when the script does not bring it to the immediate forefront. While Johansson is somewhat lacking as a protagonist, the supporting cast does contain some noteworthy performances from Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche.

The film’s visual style, while not entirely new to fans of the cyberpunk genre, is well thought-out and pleasing to the eye. It’s a dark dystopia, but the cityscape is brought to life by various well-designed and colorful choices. These elements often come in the form of advertisements, speaking to the subtle criticism the film makes against commodification of every aspect of life with the popularity of cybernetic enhancement. One could find themselves admiring the detail of the set designs in favor of following the standard action movie plot the film presents.

While the film has plenty of action sequences and “shocking” revelations, at no point does it truly feel as though the characters are in danger. The plot is presented in a paint-by-the-numbers fashion to the audience, borrowing a little too much from other action movies which themselves pay homage to the original “Ghost in the Shell” franchise. This leaves the audience with a film that is a watered-down copy of a film playing tribute to that which it is trying to adapt.

It’s impossible to talk about this film without also discussing the massive controversy surrounding it. Many criticized the casting of Johansson as a Japanese character, with others defending her portrayal, due to the character being a robot, a non-human that transcends race (though this undercuts the themes the film explores in robbing the Major of her humanity).  

The film does attempt to justify its casting choices, explaining that the Major’s brain is taken from a Japanese runaway named Motoko (a nod to the original character’s name). Towards the end of the film, Major is seen looming over Motoko’s grave before telling her mother that she no longer needs to visit the site, implying that she has embraced this identity. However, this opens up a whole host of problems the film provides no answer for.

This subplot feels ultimately unresolved and superficial, serving as a means for the filmmakers to defend their choices without using this as a platform to discuss racial identity politics.  The film does not explore how Motoko copes with her new body (a body that represents the supposed pinnacle of human evolution, a white body) following the revelation of her past and the rediscovery of her memories. Motoko’s mother reveals that her daughter was an activist against the rampant use of cybernetics. This, in conjunction with the fact that the audience is only allowed glimpses at the original Motoko, with her face obscured, being brutalized before she is placed in a new body, raises many questions that the film outright ignores.

While few had high hopes for “Ghost in the Shell” because of the controversy, the failure of this film has more at stake than most realize.  Though on the surface it’s a typical action movie, it’s underperformance at the box office can lead to two possible outcomes. Either studios will make greater strides in ensuring diversity in its casting, or they will be willing to take less risks in their choice of movies. It’s easy to forget that “Ghost in the Shell” is a rarity among Hollywood productions as an action movie with a female lead and diverse supporting cast. However, taking such risks is meaningless when the studio cannot back up their choices, thus creating a film that lacks appeal across the board.

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