Substance disappears in “Ghost in the Shell”



“Ghost in the Shell” features Scarlett Johansson as The Major. (Paramount Pictures)

By Ian Flanagan / Senior Staff Writer

Visually pleasing but ultimately hollow, “Ghost in the Shell” has problems that go beyond the whitewashing.

The Ghost in the Shell franchise began with the Japanese manga series in 1989, which then debuted as an anime adaptation in 1995. The new live-action revision piggybacks off the story elements and famous images of the superior anime adaptation, but scrubs the source material clean of its national origins and thematic complexities.

“Ghost in the Shell” takes place sometime in the mid-21st century, though the year isn’t specified. In the film, Scarlett Johansson stars as Major, the first perfected human cyborg synthesis and the leader of the counter-cyber-terrorism operation Section 9. She became a cyborg after the company Hanka Robotics used its artificial intelligence technology to save Major from a nearly fatal accident.

Her nefarious enemy Kuze, played by Michael Pitt, begins hacking into the minds of those involved with Hanka Robotics. Kuze becomes Major’s primary target as she simultaneously attempts to regain memories that she lost during her transformation into a cyborg.

It is hard to comment on this film without mentioning the whitewashing. The main cast members are white actors, even though the film is set in Japan and based on a Japanese franchise. Critics — both professional and on social media — have ripped into the directors for not finding the most suitable actors to play the roles, and for Americanizing a story that is solidly placed within a different cultural context.

But, these criticisms are self-defeating given the nature of Hollywood. High-profile studios would never risk a high-budget adaptation of this nature without one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood — and Hollywood is filled primarily with white actors. This criticism, then, falls more squarely on the shoulders of the broader Hollywood culture, not this specific film or its production team. Usually the choice to place an American star in a film exploiting cultures overseas is just a ruse for a higher worldwide box office tally — ahem, “The Great Wall.”

For Japanese audiences, original voice actors of the anime adaptation will voice the characters, so it seems Paramount’s heart isn’t in the wrong place, despite capitalistic intentions. Although, with an underperformance of less than $19 million at the box office in its debut this weekend, it seems the safety of casting white actors hasn’t paid off.

Johansson, aside from her skin color, just isn’t the right fit for the masculine, hard-jawed Major of the original film.

Her soft, round facial features are almost the antithesis of the physical aspects the original character. She tries to give to her all to the boiled-down role, but when most of your job is being stone faced, a physical match to the character would have been preferred. In terms of being a robot, Johansson’s emotional portrayal of a computer operating system in 2013’s “Her,” was far more suitable to her talents.

The rest of the casting yields as many mixed results as the film in question. Pilou Asbæk is perfectly suited to play Batou, Major’s bulky, x-ray-spectacled right hand man. Pitt is appropriately creepy playing Kuze, but the original character — called the Puppet Master in the 1995 adaptation — was much more interesting. In this adaptation, he’s another cyborg, but in the earlier version he manifested from the internet into a physical form. Juliette Binoche is wasted in an inconsequential role as a Hanka Robotics scientist who oversees Major’s recoveries.

Casting aside, the cultural appropriation handled in every other aspect of “Ghost in the Shell” is still troubling. The nameless “Blade Runner”-esque cityscape where the film takes place feels like a generic assimilation of watered-down Japanese culture mostly populated by Japanese people, where the primary cast is the ethnic exception.

Yet the film acts in an entirely race-blind fashion by virtually erasing the tone and identity of the movie. This comes across early on when the dialogue moves back and forth between Japanese and English without a care for logic.

The original storyline took place in post-WWIII Japan, but “Ghost in the Shell” acts as if the time and place in the future isn’t worth mentioning. Instead, the film glosses over specific details that were included in the source material, committing to a monotone “action sci-fi” ambiance.

Part of the fun of Japanese cinema, animated or live action, is the culture shock that goes along with the experience. “Ghost in the Shell,” without explicitly rejecting the original manga and films, softens everything interesting, or grotesque, about its universe. For instance, Major wore a spandex suit in the live action adaptation, but was nude in parts of the original. The violent scenes in the live action were also surprisingly bloodless — both of these changes garnered a safer PG-13 rating.

But the biggest shortcoming of “Ghost in the Shell” is how bluntly and gracelessly it handles its story’s themes. The series conceptually deals with questions of consciousness, identity, memory and the merging of the organic with the digital. This new film has almost no time for introspective dialogue with its short runtime and a propulsive, blockbuster sense of pacing. As a result, the few forced moments spent building themes are spliced in as recovery time between stylized violence or visually enhanced vistas.

Despite the missed opportunities in the film’s plot and character development, the cinematography and production design work together to bring the futuristic setting into a convincing live-action vision. The new film can’t help but recycle some of the best sequences and moments from the 1995 film — like the building dives and Major’s surreal fight in shallow water while utilizing her invisibility. In both the reenacted and original scenes, the action is cleanly shot and proficiently choreographed.

Recognizing the potential of its source material only in moments of inspired visuals from director Rupert Sanders, this adaptation thankfully doesn’t set up sequels.

Though there are some inspired moments of actual filmmaking, “Ghost in the Shell” is lacking in its own voice and personality, relying instead on the preexisting popularity of an established franchise.

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