Weekly Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

As a mysterious villain begins a vengeful rampage against scientists at Hanka Robotics, a completely cybernetic human is the only person capable of stopping them.

Ghost in the Shell is a 2017 American remake of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell from 1995. The original anime and manga were a cultural sensation, and American studios have been struggling to figure out how to adapt the material for nearly  2 decades.

So now, it’s finally here. After facing harsh criticism for the casting of Scarlett Johansson, as the main character Major Matoko Kusanagi, this adaptation of Ghost in the Shell was pretty much doomed to fail. Much of this early criticism centered around the fact that Johansson was given a role that could have provided work to an Asian American actress, but instead, studios chose a safe choice in an attempt to reach mainstream audiences.

Similar to Netflix’s recent adaptation of Death Note, I will try to keep my criticisms centered on the film itself. I will try to focus solely on the writing, acting, production value, pacing, etc. Despite any feelings I have about the casting choice of the main character, there are many other factors at work.

I will fully admit that it was incredibly hard to separate this adaptation from the original Ghost in the Shell film, and in the end, it became impossible for me to separate my disagreement with the choice of actress due to how they attempted to justify their choice.

Let’s begin.

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 3.09.35 PM

The most positive aspect about this movie is definitely its visuals. It really is stunning to look at. The production design creates a futuristic environment of neon lights and holographic advertisements that manages to seem impossible yet highly plausible at the same time. I found the imagery for the majority of this movie to be very intriguing.

The action sequences were well done shot-by-shot reenactments from the original film. For the most part, I was happy with how they turned out. The robotics and cybernetics imagined through this work were interesting to see. The opening fight sequence is pretty great. It’s everything I could have imagined it would be. The geisha robots were fantastic. The soundtrack is pretty great too from a steam punk standpoint.

Problems that I had with this movie were varied, but they all came down to one ultimate issue. I didn’t like the story. It felt like the writers were trying to go into too many directions, while simultaneously oversimplifying the message that the original work conveyed. This is where I had the hardest time separating the two movies.

The original Ghost in the Shell film from 1995 is very existential. It asks questions about what humanity actually is. When I first saw that film, I was taken aback by how deep it was. I was in awe. It took some time for me to fully unpack every message that was being told through the story. I knew straight away that the mainstream, Hollywood remake was not going to take this route.

This adaptation of Ghost in the Shell borrows the characters and situations from the original, but it does not attempt to convey the same story. Rather than looking at existentialism and humanity, this adaptation chooses to focus on man’s struggle with the advancement of technology. It’s a precautionary tale about where our future is likely headed. Essentially, it’s the same story American science fiction has been telling for decades.

That’s not a negative in itself. Many modern movies depicting this technological future happen to be quite good. I just wish that, in the case of Ghost in the Shell, the writers had chosen one direction and stuck with it.

As much as I appreciated Michael Pitt’s performance as the villain in this adaptation, I felt his character was unimportant to the plot as a whole. If his character had been omitted entirely, there would have been more running time for development with the main character and her team. As is, I had a hard time caring for Major in this movie, and I cared even less for all of the people on her team. I didn’t even realize they all had names.

The overall story is about Major discovering the truth about herself. A big villain isn’t necessary for that. It could have been entirely about the conspiracy of it all, the dark underbelly of the corporation she works for. Michael Pitt’s character could have simply been an anti-cybernetics activist who she eventually sides with. The movie could have still had the awesome action sequences, and it may have been more cohesive that way. We will never know.

Instead, Ghost in the Shell attempts to tell the self discovery story while shoving in bits and pieces of the existential story. The effect of this is that the story seems to meander along. For a bit I thought I was confused by the story, but I soon came to realize that what I thought was confusion was just an overall sense of not caring about where the story was going at all. It is unfortunate.

Even if I didn’t have any of these complaints about the production of this particular movie, the ending would have killed it for me. Through all of this time, I haven’t mentioned Scarlett Johansson as the main character because through the bulk of the movie it didn’t matter that she wasn’t Asian. I thought she did a decent job for the most part. The ending changes everything. I have a lot of feelings about this, so if you want more of my **spoiler** thoughts you can view them below the trailer.

Overall, if you have seen the original Ghost in the Shell, just know that this adaptation is completely different. You won’t get the same themes that were present in the original. There is a chance that you will still like it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you are disappointed.

If you have never seen the original Ghost in the Shell, then you may really enjoy this one. It’s a decent enough science fiction movie with some good visuals. If you are looking for something a bit deeper, then I would recommend seeing the original.

You can view the trailer below, and if you are interested into a bit more commentary from me, you can find that below the trailer and the asterisks.

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********************************SPOILERS*******************************************

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Through the bulk of the movie, Scarlett Johansson’s character isn’t Major Matoko Kusanagi. She’s Major Mira Killian, a seemingly completely new character. Say what you want about the movie not doing enough world building to explain why foreigners seem to be flocking to Japan, but it did not appear, for the bulk of the movie, that Johansson had been cast to play an Asian character.

This is completely blown in the last third of the movie when, in what I assume was a poorly thought out homage, it is revealed that she was Matoko Kusanagi the entire time! She was an Asian woman who was kidnapped, and her brain was transplanted into a cybernetic body with the appearance of a white woman.

I’m going to assume it was a poor attempt at homage. It feels more like a slap in the face than anything, honestly. At best, it’s just a very, very bad idea. At worst, it’s incredibly insidious. I will hope that the creators were not intending to be insidious but at this point, I would not be surprised.

It’s just such a poor justification for not casting an Asian American or Asian actress to play the character. They would have been better off if they had just created a new character all together in my opinion. Instead, they have the Asian brain inside of the white robot staring at the gravestone of the Asian body. I didn’t think it was tasteful at all.

In the end, she chooses to be Matoko Kusanagi, a character that was shown to be an Asian woman in the movie, her true identity, so every interview about Johansson not playing an Asian character was a lie to attempt controlling the damage her casting had caused.

Man, do I wish they hadn’t done this at the end. I may have actually liked the movie if it wasn’t for this.

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