Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Opens March 31
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: There’s this semi-robot person in a world of vast and advanced technology, yet she senses a hollowness in her identity. Some of her creators fancy her a weapon, while her flashes of memory indicate that maybe she was once something more, or less. That nagging familiarity isn’t not just that Ghost in the Shell has already been made into a celebrated and piece of anime. It’s the way the culture has, in many ways, already processed and digested its details, on its way toward a dystopian future that the material anticipates in some ways (vast interconnected networks that most people can access from most place) but not in others (the way internet culture can rewire brains without “leaving” its handheld devices, rather than creeping into augmented bodies that might prolong life). The Big Ideas of 1989 (the original manga), 1995 (the animated adaptation), 1999 (The Matrix, a clear descendant), and 2004 (the animated sequel), among others, do not always stand so tall when re-erected thirteen, eighteen, twentysomething, almost thirty years later.
They do, however, look pretty fantastic. The live-action-ish Ghost in the Shell is a visual triumph, and not just in continuing to blur the human-robot lines with seamlessly removable face-plates and well-integrated body damage, both reminiscent of Spielberg’s A.I. Director Rupert Sanders can’t match Spielberg’s virtuosity (who can?), but he’s also not just there to make sure the special effects run on time. His images have their own psychedelic clarity, and they bleed into each other with a steadier, surer flow than they did in his Snow White and the Huntsman. When Major (Scarlett Johansson), a human brain retrieved and matched with a new synthetic body as part of a sort of special ops team (including boss Takeshi Kitano, right-hand man Pilou Asbæk, and the always-welcome Chin Han), converts from invisibility mode to gun-toting acrobatics mode to badass-action-pose mode, her plastickly body ripples as it settles in place. Later, she’s lowered into a pixel-y mental lake of memories and data. It all looks especially shimmery and trippy in 3D.
There is humanity here, too, of a sort. Like plenty of filmmakers before him, Sanders zeroes in on Johansson’s face and its ability to convey unnerved watchfulness, as if staring at a re-enactment of her life through a fog. Again and again, both her expressiveness and opacity—twined together in ways I don’t always understand—root the movie’s crazier action and effects; the teeming, hologram-topped towers and neon-flecked streets have cool production design, but it’s the addition of her tenuous humanity that turns them into shots that look frameable. (Seriously, can I get a poster of the shot where a red-lit ScarJo flips one of her partners the bird?) If the movie’s terminology and dialogue (regrettably, often more or less the same thing) remain rooted in 1995, the way Ghost works as a Scarlett Johansson vehicle feels very much of the past five years, as she’s continued to shape her cinematic persona.
Therein, too, lies the biggest cosmetic change to the 2017 Ghost in the Shell, the one that has generated plenty of pre-release controversy: the casting of the decidedly non-Asian Johansson in the role of Major. In a lot of ways, it’s a culmination of almost all of Johansson’s most notable performances: She walks the human/robot line (as in Her) while struggling with her evolution beyond the human form (as in Lucy), kicking ass (as in her stint as Black Widow) with a synthetic and often clothes-free skin (as in Under the Skin) and dealing with a sense of Asia-related dislocation (as in Lost in Translation)—all in a comics-based movie with “ghost” in the title (as in Ghost World). In another and very specific way, it’s also a white American movie star playing an Asian woman.
As it turns out, this shift is part of the movie’s text—a crucial component of its plot about identity erasure, where that scrubbing extends not just to body parts but to heritage, and Major is left to figure out how to piece together an authentic self. On paper, it’s thought-provoking, maybe even ballsy. But, it pains me to say as both an appreciator of Johansson and as someone who hates to use the word “beat” in the screenwriting sense, every single beat of the pivotal emotional scene that most directly deals with this plot element is rushed. The filmmakers back out of it quickly, as if uncomfortable with their own thought experiment. The movie’s emotional center becomes one more box to check in a story that (to my hazy recollection of watching the original cartoon in college) simplifies itself to match the functional tone of its dialogue. As a sensory experience, this Ghost in the Shell has its share of surprises. As a sci-fi tale, it has almost none.
Ghost also attempts to make amends, of sorts, for its American star (ironically enough, likely to boost the movie in plenty of international markets) through a more diverse ensemble, probably meant to reflect less rigid definitions of race. Why, then, did the movie have to be set in Japan at all? Why not just do a full-on American remake? It might sound like sacrilege, and would certainly involve re-conceptualizing a lot of the earlier film’s cultural specificity, but it might have given this movie a bolder reason to exist. So, for that matter, would have some avaricious action-first set pieces to free the movie from so many leaden rounds of gunfire.
Yet I must admit: Johansson is a major (sorry) reason that Ghost in the Shell is compelling to watch even as its script fails to develop its best ideas, or even its best secondhand notions. There are few young actors more interesting to watch quietly grappling with what the hell it means to be human. The movie, beautifully but not quite so gracefully, grapples right along with her.