Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche and ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano
Major Motoko Kusanagi, a human brain in a robot body (the ‘shell’ which holds her psyche/soul/’ghost’) pursues cyberpunk criminals in a cyberpunk world. I’ll be honest, this is about all I know except a) she has an active camouflage system in her robot skin and b) jumps off high roofs while looking into the camera. I will try to watch the anime (the actual original is a manga comic, originally titled ‘Mobile Armoured Riot Police’,) and maybe even Stand Alone Complex and the new movie (imaginatively entitled ‘The New Movie’.)
What we’re looking at here is of course the US remake starring Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian, a woman whose refugee boat was blown up by terrorists, leaving her brain to be implanted in a robot body by not-even-slightly-dodgy corporate giants Hanka Robotics so that she can fight crime.
Major and her squad, Section 9 (primarily grumpy chief Daisuke Aramaki (Kitano) and Major’s cyclopaean wingman Batou (Asbæk),) track a killer (Pitt) who uses robot proxies to terminally hack the Ethernet-enabled brains of Hanka scientists. When she finds the killer, she learns that he is an earlier version of the project that created her. Her Hanka handler, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), decides that she should die, but her creator, Dr Ouelet (Binoche) saves her. She gives her a key to her original identity – as a Japanese runaway and techno-sceptic Motoko Kusanagi – but Cutter kills Ouelet and declares war on Section 9.
What’s wrong with it?
The question of whitewashing on this one is, frankly, hella complicated; not least because most of the people making a noise about it aren’t Japanese. It turns out that Japan has a long and thorny post-war history of reverse cultural appropriation, which I am not really positioned to speak of. It does seem that perhaps the problem is more endemic than one of simple casting. Remaking anime classics is perhaps something that America ought not to be doing in the first place; that any Western-led anime adaptation is likely to be inherently problematic. The matter is complicated by the fact that many people don’t see the original Major’s shell as Japanese. That is likely just a Western perception, and while it has been said that the creator of the original manga didn’t see the shell as Japanese, he’s reclusive enough that that’s basically hearsay.
The fact that both Major and red herring villain Kuze are played by white actors but revealed to have the brains of Japanese youths is… It’s complicated. It kind of makes sense within the world, but means that Johansson actually is playing a Japanese character, instead of just a role that was originally Japanese.
The movie opens on a series of the most tedious text cards in film history. The information in them is crying out to be presented in a montage, or even as some sort of narration.
While most of the CG integration is good, there is one moment where Major clearly turns into a computer generated rag doll for the purposes of extreme parkour.
The film’s message is seriously conflicted. It states that action, not memory is defining, but who Major was originally is treated as fundamental to her person.
What’s right with it?
For what it is, Ghost in the Shell is steeped in an anime aesthetic. I don’t know if it’s Japanese, exactly, or if it captures more than the surface features, but it looks great.
There’s a good balance of practical and SGI stunt work, and the film does not rest on its action sequences and leave the plot and characters hanging in the breeze.
The supporting cast is excellent and several of them even get to be competent arse-kickers – especially Kitano, who is a fucking septugenarian badass – which is regrettably unusual in hero-centred action movies.
The creepy geisha-bot much featured in the trailers…
Yeah, that one, grabs an uncredited Michael Wincott and drags him into a corner of the room, then unhinges all of its limbs to scuttle up the wall like a spider. It’s freaky as hell, and part of an aesthetic approach which recognises that robots are not constrained by human anatomical design.
How bad is it really?
On one level, it’s hard to judge how well this film works without knowing the original better, but on its own merits it’s an okay transhuman, cyberpunk action adventure without quite being outstanding. The action is competent without being exceptional, the script never drops a clanger but doesn’t really excel either, and the philosophy is interesting, but by neither picking a side nor exploring the issues in any depth the result is the cinematic equivalent of ‘Transhumanism for Dummies’.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Ambushed in his car by three gunmen, Aramaki reveals that the reason he carries a briefcase in this paperless world is because it unfolds into a bulletproof shield, allowing him to take out all three assailants with an antique revolver. “Never send a rabbit to catch a fox,” he growls, in Japanese because that’s how he do.
What’s up with…?
- Batou’s dogs? There are four strays that he feeds, but when he sends Major to feed them so that his new cyber eyes don’t spook them, there’s just one. It felt like this was going to be a thing, but it’s never explored in any way.
Production values – Honestly, there would be no excuse for getting this bit wrong, and yet there are moments where the CG really doesn’t work. 6
Dialogue and performances – The film has an excellent cast, but suffers from a script which, while not bad per se, takes itself very seriously without really being as deep as it wants to be. 10
Plot and execution – The film’s plot is pretty good, but peppered with relicts of either the original story or just of a more complicated original script. It also fails to match its narrative to its stated themes. 11
Randomness – What happened to the dogs? 4
Waste of potential – This is a complicated one. On the one hand, the anime is widely regarded as a classic, not just of anime, but of all cyberpunk; on the other, it could be much, much more offensive. 10