On identity, mixed messages, the self-defeating nature of middle ground, and why the ideal version of Ghost in the Shell is a Wachowski joint
Ghost in the Shell Paramount Pictures
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the manga series by Shirow Masamune
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, "Beat" Tikeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Danusia Samal, Peter Ferdinando, Anamaria Marinca and Kaoro Momoi
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 47 minutes / 1.85:1
March 31, 2017
(out of four)
Identity has been stripped from the central character of Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell; the film itself wishes it were so lucky.
Identity is the one thing the film can't escape, even as it tries desperately to mitigate it. It's the one thing it can't reconcile, even as it perfunctorily tries to embrace it. Every step it takes is one of avoidance or appeasement, and each of those steps winds up being an accidental pivot into the same set of footprints. This movie is in a circular hell of its own making. The situation is this: Ghost in the Shell is based on both a manga series and Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime adaptation of the same name. In remaking the film as live-action, this version retained the Japanese setting, yet cast the definitely-not-Japanese Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, with Caucasians filling most of the other significant speaking parts as well. Whitewashing criticisms have echoed ever since. Johansson defended the choice, arguing that her character is "essentially identity-less." Oshii himself even gave the casting his blessing.
And yet it's not as easy as all that. The filmmakers go out of their way to placate concerns over identity and representation, yet simultaneously sidestep the very ideas they're purportedly trying to (pretending to?) explore. They hedged their bets, trying to check too many boxes or please too many people, and wound up with a muddled final product that basically pleases no one, and as a direct result fails to achieve its substantial ambitions. It's one big illustration of the self-defeating pitfalls of playing something right down the middle, being too careful, leaning too much on a self-defined philosophy of compromise or "middle ground." That's a lose/lose. Better to ignore it all and set your own rules, divorced from any supposed requirements of the source material, than wind up with a watered-down jumble of lip service. This movie is the Thomas Friedman of dystopian cultural specificity.
Johansson's comment about her character - Major Mira Killian, her body a highly advanced cybernetic shell containing a recovered human brain - is only accurate as a starting point. Beyond that, the film attempts to be about Major discovering what her actual identity is - who she is or was, and why she is in this body she instinctively does not recognize or feel comfortable inside. The self-aware twist is that she was, in fact, a Japanese girl named Motoko who was kidnaped, her brain implanted into a synthetic body in a lab, a metaphysical union that apparently makes her a near-perfect super-soldier. That Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger decided to write an explanation for Major's race into the premise is ... well, it's something, except it's ultimately a meaningless gesture. It draws attention to a racial discrepancy without actually addressing it. There is no explanation as to why this manufactured body looks the way it does. And the fact that the hero, sidekick, doctor/mentor and both villains are all white characters* - regardless of any of their internal identities - essentially justifies the criticisms leveled at the film since its cast was announced.
* The only substantial exception in the primary cast is Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, the task force chief under whose command Major operates.
The whole movie is full of those kinds of half-measures. If this were a more traditional cross-cultural remake, we wouldn't have the same problem. Which is what makes these creative decisions so baffling. The filmmakers could easily have transplanted the whole story to an American city. Countries remake, and transplant, stories from other countries all the time. But instead, Sanders and Co. kept the Japanese setting and population, but just made all the important characters white.
Let me be clear: I have no interest in outrage. Not for Ghost in the Shell's casting of Scarlett Johansson nor much of anything else that earns the distinction. Short of extreme circumstances, anyway. But Johansson is no Mickey Rooney or Al Jolson. She would actually be a great casting choice for this role - perfect, even - if the movie surrounding her made contextual sense. Instead there's a strange incongruity. The movie has forced two independent things - 1) the racial politics of the casting choices; 2) the content and quality of the movie itself - to overlap. They're usually separate issues - or should be, despite how some cultural critics react to them. Consider the now-forgotten film 21, which was controversial in 2008 because, in its fictionalization of a true story, it "reimagined" some Asian characters as white dudes. The charge of whitewashing was correct - but ultimately that had no bearing on whether the film itself was any good. (It wasn't. It was pretty lousy. But a bad movie about a group of blandly written Asian guys ripping off casinos isn't any better than a bad movie about a group of blandly written white guys ripping off casinos.)
More recently, there's been a small but absurd outcry over Adam Wingard's pending Death Note remake, which transplants the original Japanese story to the United States and stars Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley and Lakeith Stanfield. This is not a matter of casting non-Asian actors in Asian roles, but of shifting setting and cultural point of view from one place to another - like any other remake of its kind. A movie like Death Note is no more appropriative than the Japanese remakes of Unforgiven or Sideways, or the recent Chinese versions of Blood Simple. and My Best Friend's Wedding. But I digress. Ghost in the Shell is the rare example of a film that openly invites its own scrutiny.
And if it didn't look and sound so damn good, we could write it off as a total loss. Sanders and production designer Jan Roelfs (Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Sally Potter's Orlando, Andrew Niccol's Gattaca) offer a full-bodied interpretation of the story's cyberpunk dystopia, using elements from the original 1995 version and (as always) Blade Runner, but with their own memorable flourishes. It's a remarkably evocative visual world - a pulsing, crowded urban landscape; a neo-noir light show, its neon-shaded skyscrapers colliding with virtual giants. A pivotal nightclub scene highlighting a culture of cybernetic body modification feels like a natural extension of the world outside. There's an eerily menacing ennui hovering in the air, a feeling accentuated by the music - composed by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe - which feels like the closest thing to Tangerine Dream since their late '70s/early '80s heyday.
Yet the unnerving urgency of the score can't be matched by the film's action, which is frustratingly inert, lacking the musicality of great action filmmaking. It looks great but doesn't know how to move. Like a would-be dancer with no rhythm. This is especially disappointing because the star Sanders is working with is such a uniquely physical performer. Johansson's body language in Shell is fascinating - arms straight, perpetually leaning forward, head slightly down, a deliberateness to her long-strided gait. It's not roboticism, but a discomfort with the body she's been placed in. Her physical performance expresses so much more about the character's identity than the rest of the film is willing to.
When you see a movie with such fertile material fail - even modestly - as this one has, you wonder who could have pulled it off. If you'll forgive the digression, I kept going back to the most obvious hypothetical: the Wachowskis. It's not just the influence of Oshii's Ghost in the Shell on their Matrix trilogy, but the extent to which their work has dealt with the relationship between the body and the mind. Between Sense8 and Cloud Atlas, they've spent the last half-decade seriously and playfully exploring the thorniness and fluidity of identity - merging, mixing and matching race, nationality, sex, gender, consciousness. Internal and external, soul and body. Just imagine what they could have done with this. I'm not saying Paramount would have been interested in hiring them or if they would have been interested in doing it. But I bring them up because their very impulses and obsessions - and the fascinating, flawed, brilliant, messy, deeply personal work that results from it - are in direct opposition to the psychological and physiological indifference we see in Ghost in the Shell's final form. Like Sanders' debut, Snow White and the Huntsman, he has crafted a terrific-looking film with nothing to say - despite ample opportunity to say it.