US Release Date: Friday, March 31, 2017
This movie really made things hard on itself. The white-washing controversy that surrounded it, over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the cybernetic body of this film’s manga and anime-sourced heroine, had brewed negative buzz long, long before its wide release today. Now, it should be explained here that it makes total sense, in the context of the film, for Johansson to have been cast. Major Mira Killian, her character, is a mere construct, housing the consciousness of someone we really don’t get to properly meet until later. And the contruct’s “owner,” the nefarious industrialist Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), is himself Caucasian (as he was in the source material). Placed side-by-side, the anime version and live-action versions of the one we know as Major actually look pretty similar:
Asians feel justly underrepresented in mainstream Western cinema, and this would have been, could have been, a chance to begin to balance the scales. Taking a character from a Japanese comic book — and later, acclaimed cult film — and then making it all about its lead actress’ star power was a gamble that the studio simply did not think through. They seem to have believed that the Johansson name (and, it must be said, general and abiding beauty) would serve them better than testing the waters with an unknown, or little known, actress of Asian descent to carry their sci-fi dystopia out to the masses.
They were wrong.
After all, the anime has such a huge cult following, among all populations and throughout almost every country in the world, that this film should have been a slam dunk at the box office, but it is already being predicted to fall well below expectations. It should be noted that Mamoro Oshii, director of both the 1995 anime and its sequel, 2004’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, supported Johansson’s casting. And, having seen it, so do I. But then, I’m neither of Asian descent nor a particular devotee of anime. So I’m probably not the person to decide if it’s okay or not.
Simply as a movie, though, this film is very pretty, and also pretty good. Oh, it takes 45 minutes of running time to get to the part that actually begins the anime, and there are perhaps a few too many times when a shot from the film felt like such a direct copy of the anime that you almost have to wonder why they bothered. But there is a lot that is good here, and even improves upon the 1995 effort. (This is probably heresy, but I’m not scared.) For example, the fights are well choreographed, the visuals of this cyberpunky Japan are slick and Johansson is truly excellent as the brainwashed soldier/lost little girl that is Major. Juliette Binoche plays Dr. Ouelet, and Binoche is never not amazing, and for all the white-washing controversy, there is a vast and distinctly Asian cast who all get their chance to shine. (Sure, Major’s main sidekick is a white guy, but hey, that was also true of the original.)
Where the film is probably most let down is in the revelation of our main bad guy, who is really a good guy, just misunderstood. It goes on a little too long and there is just a little too much emphasis on his rather tired revenge plot and not enough emphasis on the Big Picture, Very Important Questions raised by the story’s previous incarnations; themes of loyalty and redemption and longing, and what makes us human, and can machines have souls?
Another missed trick is a lack of time spent with, for me, this universe’s most intriguing character, Togusa (Chin Han), who works with Major at Section 9 — oh yeah, she is part of a cyber-security, anti-terrorist team fielded by the ruthless Cutter — and is determinedly un-enhanced. See, this is a future in which most everyone has some kind of cybernetic adaptation in their body, whether a brain implant to help them learn faster or a fake liver so they can drink all night without suffering the debilitating effects, and Togusa abstains. I always wanted to know more about him, and why he is such a technophobe, and I was hoping this movie might explore his beliefs a little more (or really, at all). As it is, Togusa introduces an an interesting philosophical conundrum and then is quickly dismissed in favor of more shots of Scarlett Johansson in a figure-hugging catsuit, and while I doubt any human on this planet would complain too loudly about her perfection, one feels she could have been in the catsuit and discussing the corruption of humanity by technology at the very same time. (They also don’t explain her stealthing-technology suit very well, it has to be said. If I hadn’t seen the anime I might be still wondering what that was all about.)
So, when all’s said, though, Ghost in the Shell is a decent action film with a gorgeous aspect, a stunning lead, a few tenuous — though largely unexplored — universal themes and some missed opportunities. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I really don’t know how much of that is due to the movie and how much is the controversy surrounding it. Do I feel guilty for enjoying a film so many people consider cultural appropriation, and am therefore mitigating my enthusiasm? Or did I honestly just find it a bit mediocre, as a movie, even while appreciating the eye candy it so graciously afforded? I simply don’t know.
And I can only hope that next time the filmmakers won’t put me in such a moral quandary. But that’s probably a vain hope indeed.
Cyberpunk Dystopia | PG-13 | 107 minutes
Based on the manga by Shirow Masamune
Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger | Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche
US Release Date: Friday, March 31, 2017