Disclaimer: This has spoilers for the new Ghost in the Shell movie. Do you care? I don’t.
I ended up seeing Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell and boy howdy was that ever a movie someone made. I know the biggest talking point being thrown around is why the main character isn’t an Asian woman, and maybe the movie would have been better if they cast a Japanese actress to play the Major, but visibility is the least of this film’s problems. Take it from someone who actually saw the bloody thing when I say that an all-Asian cast could not have saved this film because it is dull and has very confusing characterization.
This review is coming to you from someone who saw both films and Stand Alone Complex. I haven’t powered through the manga yet because it’s, like, enormous, and there’s a lot of material from Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell universe that I haven’t touched yet. While I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this franchise, I also feel like I understand enough about GITS to know what its core ideas are.
At its core (unless I’m mistaken), the GITS series is about transhumanism and AI ethics, all wrapped up in a cyber-noir thriller that name-drops different theorists and philosophers like mad. It asks what defines a human in a world where people can plant their brains into synthetic bodies and where anything from comfort droids to AI-controlled tanks could gain sentience and start making demands. It shows us how quickly that world would fall apart, the cracks that would form in such a society, and how people can take advantage of the memories and lives of others.
Rupert Sanders wanted nothing to do with any of this. In fact, in an interview with Vanity Fair, he was quoted as saying “I locked Masamune Shirow in the basement and I’m not letting him out! Anyuck-nyuck-nyuck.”
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, the movie is very visually impressive. The CG is nice and the aesthetic is well-realized. The monolithic holograms and neon lights of this new Tokyo the characters explore are all intricate and interesting to look at, and there are certain scenes and images that do stand out on their own. Furthermore, some of the synthwave that plays in the background is, yes, atmospheric, but ultimately utterly forgettable. Seriously, I tried to recall one track from this movie and all the memory centres of my brain could give me was a long and drawn-out hum.
As for the actual movie part of this movie, well, that’s where Goat in the Shill: Scarlett Johansson Complex falls apart. A lot of visual set pieces from the first film are revisited for the sake of reminding people that this is a Ghost In The Shell movie – the Major’s body being assembled, a naked-esque Major cloaking and shooting up a room full of dudes, the fight with the amnesiac truck driver, the night diving scene, and the fight with the spider-tank – but the nuances are stripped from them. They’re loaded down with slow-motion shots and the cool professional demeanour of the Major Kusanagi we knew is replaced with Scarlett Johansson’s standard cop-on-the-loose character.
One of the scriptwriters for Goat in the Shill commented that the film had about seven writers working on it, and can I ever believe it. The quality of the script jumps around, the story’s the most basic thing you could do with the setting, and the characters’ decisions don’t always make sense – like, why did our main villain Cutter decide to take control of the spider-tank himself? Isn’t he the president of a huge company? Shouldn’t he have employees who do that for him? At what point was it ever established that Cutter was a man who liked to get his hands dirty? It’s true that GITS Actual doesn’t have much room for character exploration, which is itself another identifier of the show. However, the opportunity to maybe address that was given to the filmmakers, and they fumbled hard.
What we have is a film that’s as much of a betrayal to the source material as the Wackowskis’ adaptation of V for Vendetta, which notoriously took a story about life under the Thatcher era and explored the ideas of anarchism versus fascism and turned it into a “George Bush is bad” film. That same boiling-down of basic ideas is present here. Gone are the deep questions of whether a machine can be human – or, indeed, if a human can be human – and what would happen if machines attained sentience and, say, a desire to procreate. What we have instead is a Jason Bourne movie. We have the bog-standard plot of “an evil corporation stole my identity and memories, and now I am out for revenge.”
Then there was the matter of that identity the villains of the movie stole, and man alive did they shit the bed with this one. In the film, we learn that the character of Major “Mira Killian” was not a refugee whose parents died in a boating accident, but a Japanese anti-technology activist named Mokoto Kusanagi who was abducted by Bad Corporation Hanka, had her memories wiped, and then placed into the synthetic body of Scarlett Johansson. So, yeah, she’s literally been whitewashed. And then after the president of Hanka is killed by Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) AKA The Only Interesting Character In Goat In The Shill, Kusanagi keeps the body that was forced upon her for a year and symbolizes the destruction of her old self.
See, that could have been interesting. The idea that Kusanagi’s identity was actually destroyed by a rich white corporate-type and she ends up on a mission to become herself again could have been an interesting character arc. Hell, it would have even been a good jab at the Hollywood bigwigs who wanted to keep Kusanagi as Scarlett Johansson because the idea of Black Widow in a flesh-tone bodysuit sounded more bankable to them. It would have been a great admission on Sanders’ part, as if to say “Yeah, we know this was divisive and sorry for deceiving you.” Then you could turn it around at the end and have Motoko played by Ellen Wong or Tao Okamoto or Anna Akana or whoever’s free for a weekend of filming.
So this film was a bust. A pity. At the very least, we hope can hope for a Japanese studio’s rebuttal to this boilerplate mess. And if we do get it, it better be the version we all were asking for: ninety straight minutes of Rinko Kikuchi in a body-suit breaking dudes’ assholes and shouting Marshall McLuhan quotes over kabuki music.
Motherfucker, I wouldn’t leave the theatre.
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