I totally understand the controversy surrounding the apparent ‘whitewashing’ of the main character in this live action remake of Ghost in the Shell. It is a story set in Japan based on a seminal Japanese Manga cartoon and yet the lead role has gone to America’s favourite action heroine Scarlett Johansson. I appreciate the sensitivities surrounding this, as a Brit I’m still uncomfortable with the fact that James Bond was once played by an Australian, but as is so often the case the people who are criticising the film obviously haven’t yet seen it.
As it is the casting of a non-Japanese actor to play Major, the futuristic cyborg law enforcement agent, is totally relevant to the plot. First off she is a robot; she has no ethnicity (something that the original film’s director Mamoru Oshii pointed out when asked to comment on this). It is also significant that she is built by a French woman in something close to her own image, supporting the heavy parent metaphor that runs through the story. Even if you want to argue that this other character should have been Japanese too the fact is that Major’s western appearance adds real power and tragedy to her back story. If the part had been played by a Japanese woman it simply wouldn’t have worked as well.
Also, this whole thing isn’t even a change; it is entirely faithful to the original source material. If you look at the 1995 movie Major doesn’t appear to be Japanese either, certainly not compared to many of the people around her. This is entirely typical of Japanese animation, Studio Ghibli has long done the same thing with their lead characters, and even if you want to see this as a sadly necessary convention to make the movies appeal to an American and European audience, in the case of Ghost in the Shell this has always been part of the narrative. Admittedly this element of the plot wasn’t so clearly laid out in the first movie but to be fair no elements of the plot were clearly laid out in the first movie. Admittedly I was quite young when I initially watched it but it took me a little time to work out what the ghost was in the shell. Nope, you can take exception to the casting if you want, but that is not the problem with this film.
The problem is that they have taken a property that was totally ground breaking and hugely influential in its original form and turned it into something predictable and generic. Part of the issue is that Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell has shaped so many other films. The Matrix is the most obvious example of this but its themes and styling have been emulated by many directors. Even those who have broken the mould themselves have borrowed heavily from Ghost in the Shell as is the case with James Cameron and Avatar, Spielberg’s A.I and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Even allowing for this though this new Ghost in the Shell does very little push to the conventions of science fiction, artificial intelligence or robots in the way Ex Machina and Westworld have recently shown is still possible. The movie’s trump card is its visuals which are stunning but actually these are quite repetitive. The cityscapes and design of Major are eye catching but you’ve seen all of this in the first fifteen minutes and seeing similar images rolled again and again do not really add anything. In fact you see most of this in the trailer.
Taken entirely on its own merits this Ghost in the Shell is not a bad film. Like last month’s Beauty & the Beast as well as Let Me In, the Bridget Fonda movie The Assassin, Vanilla Sky and The Grudge, enough of the film it imitates survives to make it enjoyable in its own right but it isn’t a touch on the original work. If you’ve not seen the anime version then you’ll probably like this but if you love the ’95 movie then this isn’t going to add anything other than the small pleasure involved in spotting where some elements have been closely recreated. To be honest I go a little bored with the middle section and it was only when (surprise, surprise) the main character was double crossed and had to go on the run to discover the truth about her past that I got interested again.
Is this one for the kids?
Ghost in the Shell (2017) is rated 12A which highlights another way in which it doesn’t quite match Ghost in the Shell (1995) which was a 15 even though it was a cartoon. It isn’t that brutal and only has a small amount of bloodshed and swearing. Those youngsters that are fans of Johansson from The Avengers won’t find anything to disturb them here.
The Ripley Factor:
Scarlett Johansson’s characterisation is good, this is one way in which the new version is better, but it’s not as though we’ve not seen the efficient but conflicted professional killer with questions about her past thing from her eight times before. It is obviously good to have a another female lead though and she is empowered yet vulnerable as we want all of our role models and heroes to be.
Major does have an attack stealth mode that involves her wearing a very skin tight, skin coloured outer skin that objectifies her to some extent but it actually just makes her look like a shop mannequin so it’s not that sexy. She also seems to have this under her clothes on some occasions and not at others which is a little confusing. Generally in the film the females, cybernetically enhanced or otherwise, are presented as smart and strong and most of them are key to the plot. There is one of them that thematically gets stuffed in the fridge but as a rule they play a bigger part than the men.