“Ghost in the Shell,” adapted from the anime film of the same title, which was adapted from a manga of the same title, was the recipient of a fair amount of backlash before it was released.
Early criticism mainly centered around the casting of Scarlett Johansen, a white woman, for the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi. While this on it’s own is problematic enough, the movie repeatedly makes the case worse for itself by its treatment of Asian characters versus its treatment of Asian aesthetics.
The film is full of these aesthetics, set in near future Tokyo, recalling to mind “Blade Runner” mixed with the art of the magazine “Giant Robot.” There are huge hologram billboards featuring primarily Japanese text, and cliche images that will recall even to the most western focused viewer of Japan, such as koi fish or geishas. And yet, only two Asian characters even are allowed to speak lines or given name. Sadly, both are stereotypes of the wise Asian master.
It’s Pai Mei in “Kill Bill” with none of the cultural awareness. These “geisha-bots,” as they are called directly in the film, are the most glaring example of complete appropriation of vague Asian “culture.” They serve as literal props for the white characters to fight and play with and are decked up to look like stereotypical geisha figures from feudal Japan.
The film centers around Kusanagi, the first human conscience transput into a robotic body in order to advance the practice of global policing. Though pretty much everyone in the film is robot to some extent, from eyes to hands to inner organs, she is 100 percent machine, apart from for her consciences – the titular ghost in the shell that is her mechanized body.
Already things are different from the original story, where Kusanagi is just one of many of these kinds of medical procedures. In most cases, I would applaud a remake from making large plot changes like this to differentiate from the original, but part of what makes 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell” such an incredible film is that it doesn’t start at the beginning of anything. The viewer is thrown into this world and the film, set at a brisk 87 minutes, and never slows down to explain or give inner-world historical musings on this technology.
In the 2017 version, everything is a first: the villain uses moves the police haven’t seen before and Kusanagi is a completely new concept in the field of policing. This effect renders everything boring to the viewer, since we have no baseline for how typical police matters go about in this world. That’s the beauty of the ‘95 version – it isn’t really anything special for the first hour or so. The audience just gets to see how this world works.
Murky-at-best racial elements and strange world building are not the only problems with this incarnation of “Ghost in the Shell.” The film is led by Johansen, doing her best attempt at a big budget reflection of her alien character in “Under the Skin.” Everything inhuman that worked beautifully in that performance feels like an old hat here.
She plays Kusanagi as having little to no emotion, to the point where one is forced to wonder “What could happen that would actually make her look like she cares?” Joining her is Pilou Asbæk, playing Batou, her partner in crime fighting, a stereotype as old as time, the lecherous, grey-haired, ripped cop, and a completely wasted Juliette Binoche as the creator of Kusanagi’s robot body.
The acting is flat throughout, the CGI can be groundless, and the lines cliché. Nothing brings down high concept science fiction like people grunting out lines like “They created me, but they can not control me,” or “They did not save your life. They stole it.” It’s a tedious film. This kind of mind bending sci-fi is supposed to leave you wondering what it means to be a human, but instead its best impression is that it had some cool looking robots.
“Ghost in the Shell:” 1/5 Cigars