REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell [2017]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: March 31st, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Rupert Sanders
Writer(s): Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger / Masamune Shirow (manga)

“I give my consent”

**Spoilers included**

The backlash against Rupert SandersGhost in the Shell remake has been fierce and constant—for good reason considering it’s inarguably racist. Is that racism intentional? Not necessarily, but it exists just the same due to choices made. While hyperbolic declarations about it being “the reverse Get Out” are exaggerated on an intellectual scale, they aren’t on an emotional one. You cannot decry people of color for getting incensed when a property very specifically connected to a race other than white is usurped by white culture. The filmmakers hoped a global melting pot aesthetic would achieve a compromise. But willingly allowing yourself to create a work wherein Asian characters are killed so their minds can be harvested into cybernetic white bodies nevertheless condones a depiction of ethnic cleansing.

If the filmmakers had cast Asian actors to portray the two cyborgs with human brains rather than Scarlett Johansson (as Major) and Michael Pitt (as Kuze), the problem would have been solved. That’s correct—no script changes need be made to excise the racism that has so clouded what could have potentially been an international powerhouse. There’s no line spoken about consciously erasing Asian features or performing ethnic genocide, but it happens nonetheless. If you cast Rinko Kikuchi—an Oscar nominee—as Major, you’re suddenly okay. Give the role to Rila Fukushima and the intrinsic political and racial connotations disappear because your Asian minds are being placed inside Asian bodies. Conversely, using the latter as the facial model for a silent, unfeeling robotic killing machine makes matters worse.

You may think that setting the film in America with an all-white cast would solve things too, but doing so still exacerbates the whitewashing issue lying beneath. This is a Japanese story with a staunch fan-base able to succeed on the merits of its name in a way that could help create the very Asian American superstars Hollywood says it doesn’t have. And you can’t use the argument that preconceived notions ruined its success either. Don’t cast white then. In an era of blanket marketing and social media rumor mills, preconceived notions have become a tool to sell tickets. Paramount hoped that announcing Johansson as the lead would spark excitement. Instead they were reminded how methods used to sell have just as much power to do the opposite.

It’s a shame too because while Sanders’ film epitomizes the American mainstream machine dumbing down intelligent international properties, it isn’t inherently a bad film as much as a poor adaptation. By removing the concept of an artificial intelligence becoming sentient—which was at the heart of Mamoru Oshii‘s film as based on Shirow Masamune‘s manga—you have created something wholly different. For all the plot mirroring and scene lifting (Major jumping off the roof and going invisible, the garbage men being hacked, or the spider tank fight with full arm removal), the theme of what it means to be human is absent. This script credited to Ehren Kruger, William Wheeler, and Jamie Moss is instead about finding one’s identity. Rather than human or robot, it’s past or present.

And that’s an interesting question if the one asked by the film being copied wasn’t more so. To ask it instead means introducing more exposition. You must give the brain inside Major’s body a history, the body a creator (Juliette Binoche‘s Dr. Ouelet), and that creator a boss of villainous intent (Peter Ferdinando‘s Cutter). This is why so many have called Sanders’ version “boring.” Objectively the pacing is very similar to the original. The lack of many all-out action scenes is comparable too. What makes it slower is this necessity to add more “story” so its question has context. The government conspiracy behind the Puppet Master’s creation now needs to waste time explaining itself as an over-arching plot imperative rather than simply being a means to an end.

Even though the idea of our humanity being lost by technology’s drive for perfection—to more or less erase the individuality that makes us human—was posited in 1995 via this franchise, 2017 America gets a generic mystery about kidnapped children, military experiments, and emotional collateral damage. So what’s the point of spending the money to option something with much loftier goals than your usual episode of “Law & Order” if you’re going to strip it all away? The answer is the title and built-in recognition factor. You know, the very things that Hollywood didn’t think were enough to succeed and thus “forced” them to hire white actors. It’s a never-ending circle of opportunities being squandered for safety net alternatives drawn up in a boardroom that fail regardless.

Did that boardroom also decide Section 9 boss Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) should speak Japanese with subtitles despite everyone else speaking English? Is this a concession? It actually amplifies the problem by forcing an audience that “doesn’t want to read” (if they did an English remake wouldn’t be justified) to have to read. If you’re going to force that, why not force an Asian American lead too? It’s unjustifiable. And even though I don’t think the “Asians would be better if they were white” as intentional subplot argument has a solid basis since it’s an after-effect of casting and not necessarily message, Ferdinando’s and Binoche’s involvement do give me pause. Suddenly it’s white people creating white cyborgs in their likeness—an unavoidably ironic self-fulfilling prophecy of the controversy itself.

But what about the film removed from this mess? Would it have been good if they cast Asian actors? I’d say serviceable. It wouldn’t have been great and definitely still wouldn’t hold a candle to the original, but it wouldn’t be an abject failure either. This idea of where Major came from—of the glitches that project memories she can’t quite wrap her head around—is worthwhile. The procedural search for Kuze is too, his being a person of interest who remotely wielded geisha bots to assassinate Hanka executives (the company that created Major’s body and most of the tech enhancements everyone but Chin Han‘s Togusa readily embrace). We can invest in the dynamic between Major and partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) all while appreciating the gorgeous art production.

The latter is the film’s strong suit with stunning Blade Runner-lite cityscapes and captivating scenes of human Ethernet cords connecting bodies as though servers within a network. The effects work on Kuze is impressive, the subtle flickers of characters as holograms effective, and the robotic stiffness of Johansson’s performance complemented by the constant glimpse of machinery beneath her skin as a result of injury. The visuals do the original justice—perhaps the one aspect that does. They allow for many sequences to recall the look and feel of those embedded in our memories despite the characters and dialogue being different within. Would letting Kuze be AI with a drive to merge with Major and thus create new life—the final vestige of humanity—be that difficult to comprehend?

The answer is yes. If the general public cannot handle an Asian actress in the lead role, they sure as hell can’t be trusted to handle existential and philosophical questions moving beyond the reprogramming of consciousness. The ability to solve a brainwashing plot by government and military operations is an easier sell than asking what the meaning of life is without receiving a concrete answer in return. This is the difference between the American mainstream and those of us who seek out works like Ghost in the Shell to escape it. This is why we cannot have nice things and must look abroad for substance before Hollywood appropriates it for the wrong reasons to again push us further away. Maybe this financial failure will finally teach them? Doubtful.

[1] Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.
[2] Scarlett Johansson plays the Major and Pilou Asbaek plays Batou in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.
[3] Danusia Samal plays Ladriya and Chin Han plays Togusa in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

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