Rupert Sanders’ rendition of Masamune Shirow’s seminal manga, Ghost in the Shell, is a beautiful Hollywood blockbuster, that only manages to capture the aesthetics of the franchise, rather than the intellectual introspection of identity and self that the sci-fi series is known for. While Shirow’s manga touched on this, it is in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation that truly focused on this aspect and explored it deeply, while managing to stay as action-packed and entertaining as the original manga. In this updated adaptation, we follow Scarlett Johansson as the Major, who is the first complete cyber-enhanced human, with a complete cyborg body and a human mind. This is a result of Hanka Robotics, a company that is dedicated to enhancing the human race, by augmenting body parts with cybernetics. The Major is part of Section 9, a covert team that is formed to combat cyber terrorism and funded by both Hanka and state department. When various Hanka scientists are being attacked, Section 9 launches an investigation into the matter, tracing things back to a terrorist named Kuze (Michael Pitt). The more they find out about Kuze, the more that the Major finds out that her entire world and existence, is, in fact, a lie.
If there’s anything nice to say about Ghost in the Shell, is that every single dollar spent on this production shows on the big screen. The production design by Jan Roelfs is absolutely breathtaking, as well as the costumes by Bart Mueller and Kurt Swanson that bring an abundance of life to the film. For all its visual splendor by these teams, as well as Cinematographer Jess Hall and the Special FX and Visual FX teams, things get really bogged down by the script. Written by Ehren Kruger, Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, the dialog and plotting of the film maintain a sense of being unwieldy for the entire film. Not once does the film seem to remotely try to grow out of clichés, even with its cast trying to do the best it can with the material.
In terms of the cast, I’ll get to the major issues in a second, but first, we’ll just cover the actual performances of the film. As the Major, Scarlett Johansson does fine, she embodies Major’s sense of physicality and her intuition. The only other two characters that we get to remotely know in Section 9 are Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk and Aramaki, played by “Beat” Takashi Kitano. Both Asbæk and Kitano give it their all, making it a point to bring their characters to life, as well their relationships to the Major. Juliette Binoche as Doctor Ouelet presents an interesting dynamic never seen in the series before. She presents herself as a mother figure, even though a majority of her dialog is reduced to meaningless exposition. Binoche still exudes a maternal instinct as the Doctor who gave the Major life and was one of the few original touches that Sanders’ adaptation offers. Michael Pitt’s Kuze as the antagonist for the film maintains a strong sense of character, as well as enough motivation to flesh him out. As a folly of a previous attempt of Hanka Robotics experiments, Pitt’s portrayal of an angered young man, whose transformation into a cyber terrorist is presented well and gives us the chance to humanize the villain, to showcase that he’s more misunderstood and given reason to his extreme actions. While there are moments of the others in Section 9 that get a bit of spotlight, it’s a real shame that the rest of the crew doesn’t get any time to shine in the film. Granted, the TV series is the best iteration in fleshing the entire team out, given that it has the ample time to do this, it’s still a bummer to see the likes of Chin Han, Danusia Samal and all of the others reduced to mere glimpses.
With the cast in mind, I want to cut to a major point in controversy and dive into some spoiler territory for Ghost in the Shell. Now, this film has been part of some major controversy for whitewashing, which also includes the internet taking over a publicity stunt that had me laughing and entertained for days. In the film, the characters of both the Major and Kuze were formerly Japanese kids, named Motoko and Hideo. They are effectively kidnapped by Hanka Robotics and transformed into both Kuze and the Major. The film literally transforms two Asian characters into Anglo-American ones and it both upset me and made me feel very sad. The fact that the film was to clear up all of these issues, as stated by Sanders and company, only to literally integrate it within its plot is bizarre and disturbing.
As I left the theater expressing my feelings about this, my wife managed to point out an interesting angle for this dilemma. While she acknowledged that this could be the issue, what if it was a story related. Peter Ferdinando plays Cutter, the President of Hanka Robotics, who wishes to usher in a new age of robotics, with his company in the lead. If he envisions the future and himself at the forefront, maybe it’s his personality and narcissism that is the driving force of wiping out minorities within the world of Ghost in the Shell. His own “Whiteness”, coinciding with his wealth and corporate desires are the culprits of minority whitewashing. While Rupert Sanders’ adaptation never fully uncovers these murky questions, it’s certainly one aspect of identity to “deep-dive” into.