Sometimes you watch a movie, and between the seemingly endless screentime of criminally dull characters spouting nonsense dialogue, you marvel how something so lame and expensive got made. It takes a lot of people to make a movie as big as Paramount’s “Ghost In The Shell,” which is estimated to have cost upwards of $110 million. It also takes a lot of bad choices to make a movie this unrelentingly boring and, ultimately, astonishingly offensive.
Based on the manga written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow, “Ghost In The Shell” follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a groundbreaking cyborg that combines a robot body (that looks like Scarlett Johansson) with a human mind. The mind is her ghost, her soul, her humanity. The shell is robot vessel, which holds her brain and pushes Major to understand her identity in a world where humans race to upgrade themselves with cyber tech like x-ray eyes and drink-all-you-want livers, but robots are treated as slaves. When hunting down a terrorist hacker called Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), Major is forced to confront how she doesn’t really belong in either world. This sends her down a path to uncover her human past.
The great irony of the film is that while its plot is all about the search for soul, “Ghost In The Shell” is all style, no soul — or, rather, all shell, no ghost.
Director Rupert Sanders made his name helming commercials, most famously one for the video game “Halo 3: ODST.” But when it comes to his filmography, all he’s got to offer is “Snow White and the Huntsman,” a battle-studded fairy tale re-imagining, which crammed its princess in jeans and pitched her into chilly CGI landscape to create a stylish but stilted adventure. That film was critically panned and considered only a modest box office success. Yet somehow Sanders was gifted a second chance. And what he gave us was the same superficial showmanship.
Set in a futuristic Tokyo, “Ghost In The Shell” drapes the city in giant holograms of robot geishas, smiling bodybuilders, and a drooling corgi. A skeezy bar boasts holograms of strippers (glitchy enough to appease its PG-13 rating), and boxers battling (presumably the future’s pay-per-view fight night system). While some of the production design is gorgeous–the robo-geisha teased in trailers is a highlight–most of the designs seem to have no function beyond looking cool. They tell us little about this world.
With all the holograms and cyber punk flare of “Ghost In The Shell,” I thought of the aesthetic of The Wachowski sisters, who’ve created rich sci-fi worlds with “The Matrix” trilogy, “Cloud Atlas,” and “Jupiter Ascending.” But there’s a huge difference between their designs and Sanders’, in that the Wachowskis’ designs give their world context, life, and depth. Every detail seems to fit and function, and gives audiences some little insight into this fictional universe. Sanders’ stuff just looks like CGI stickers thrown around his dazzling Hollywood star, lacking any purpose beyond wow factor. It makes for a hollow viewing experience, especially when paired with performance styles that feel lost in translation.
From the Marvel movies to the trippy action-adventure “Lucy,” Johansson has brought dizzying charisma to heroines who use their incredible abilities–be it sharpshooting or telekinesis–to topple tyrants and take down armies of armed baddies. In “Ghost in the Shell” she wears a barely-there body suit and scales walls while firing a gun right into the brainstem of any who’d oppose her. She punches out terrorists and single-handedly downs a tank, even when it risks tearing her shell asunder. And yet I felt nothing. Johansson’s charm seems in sleep mode as she struts vacantly through this tedious journey that boasts more tech talk than interesting action. Sanders has somehow drained away the very star power Johansson was supposedly cast to deliver. And that brings us to the scandal that’s followed the film since its earliest casting rumors: Yes. This is an example of whitewashing.
This issue has raging online for years, before the film even went into production. One side insisted that because the Manga — and its resulting 1995 anime — were Japanese, so too should be the heroine of its live-action, American-made adaptation. Others claimed that because the character is just a brain in a robot body, anyone could play the role, so why not Johansson who has a big fan base and a storied history in the action genre? Before seeing the movie, I understood both sides. But after?
This is hands down Asian erasure.
It’s not just that Major was renamed the white-coded “Mira Killian” instead of the original Japanese name Motoko Kusanagi, “Ghost In the Shell” is set in Tokyo. The film is dripping in elements of Japanese culture, from the anime iconography to geishas, and koi fish to traditional sushi restaurants with low tables and visitors in elaborate robes and obis. And yet most of the main characters are white; not just Major, but also her best friend Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her mother-figure Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), her antagonizing boss (Peter Ferdinando), and the aforementioned terrorist she’s charged to track down (Pitt).
So even if anybody could have theoretically been cast to play the fully robo-figured Major, Paramount chose to cast a movie set in Japan, telling a Japanese story, and steeped in Japanese culture using primarily white actors. That sends a message about who is valued and not, and it’s a pretty insulting one that only gets more clear and offensive as the movie goes on. There are people of color in the film, filling out Major’s team. But aside from her handler (Takeshi Kitano), they barely get five lines to share between the three of them. I couldn’t tell you any of their names, because the movie only cares about them in the rare instances where Major and Batou need back-up. They’re not characters as much as conveniences.
Another shocking scene involves Major hiring a sex worker so she might touch human flesh. Instead of the short-circuiting lesbian scene from the comic, Major — who absolutely reads as a White woman — hires a Black woman so she can poke her and experiment. The optics are bad, especially in the wake of such a successful and woke film as “Get Out.”
And then things get worse!
Spoilers for the third act of “Ghost In The Shell.”
I rarely get into third act reveals. But as was the case with “Passengers,” it’s necessary to discuss the vile story lurking beneath the slick ad campaign. When Major discovers her past, she finds out she’s actually Japanese. Her name was Motoko Kusanagi. She has a living mother who speaks English with a heavy Japanese accent. Her childhood bedroom is decked out with Japanese knickknacks, as if it’s a souvenir shop for tourists. Major is secretly Asian! And still, the filmmakers felt totally comfortable casting her as white. This reveal hits in waves of “no they didn’t” that don’t peak when Kuze discovers he’s also actually Japanese (“Your name is Hideko!”), but when Major visits her own grave, then embraces her mother as if to say, “It’s cool. I’m your rebooted white daughter! I test better globally.”
End of spoilers.
If the social politics of this property bore you, so will the movie itself. Sanders seems to have urged all of the cast to speak in the same deadpan delivery, making every line feel like an afterthought. And with dialogue like, “I don’t think of her as a machine. She’s a weapon,” the script could have desperately used some energy. Instead, the actors, Japanese culture, and story are all put in service to build to action set pieces that are sometimes visually stunning, yet never hit hard because Sanders hasn’t bothered to build the world or develop compelling characters.
I rarely check my watch during movies, but this movie is so gruelingly slow-moving that I had to, if only to assure myself it was almost over. It wasn’t. When I checked, I assumed we were nearly a two-hour mark. It had been 72 minutes. I still had 35 to go, and every one — whether made of quick-cut action, bland banter, or leering shots of Johansson in that high-tech leotard — felt like a unique bit of torture; vapid, yet self-aggrandizing.
In only keeping mildly true to the source material’s aesthetic, Sanders created a film that has spectacle and action, but no excitement. How he was allowed a second chance at a big-budget remake after the mediocrity of “Snow White and The Huntsman” is beyond me. How Paramount poured this much money into a script that reads like a sloppy translation, and action scenes that are so CGI-enhanced they look like video games, I can’t even begin. I’m genuinely astonished a studio movie in the age of incredible offerings like “Logan,” “John Wick,” and the upcoming “Atomic Blonde” can be this totally, absolutely and utterly garbage.
“A Ghost In The Shell” opens Friday, March 31.