Big Smoke

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Ghost in the Shell

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Setting aside for a moment the obvious charges of whitewashing, the controversy of which I can only hope hurts Paramount Pictures in the box office as much as that recent execrable Matt Damon flop of a movie, there are essentially two criteria by which to assess Scarlett Johansson’s lead in Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell: Its quality in comparison to Shirow Masamune’s seminal manga series and Mamoru Oshii’s classic anime feature film, and its worth as a stand-alone science fiction film. It fails miserably on both counts. There will be spoilers in this review, but nothing can spoil it more than what they did to themselves.

The cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction contains artistic works that have common themes – subversion of representational government power by corporate power, technological and cybernetic advancements that outpace and exceed regulatory authority or societal understanding, dense and sprawling urbanization – and are generally musings as to the nature of individualism and humanity in a world with fewer political and economic rights, a restructuring or revisionism of cultural touchstones, and constant contact with otherness. The story it wants to tell goes back to the heart of speculative fiction as a reaction to a world that is changing, and can reach topics such as corporate ethics and asymmetric warfare in Alien and Aliens, labor and civil rights in Blade Runner, and identity and trans-humanism in 1995’s Ghost in the Shell.

“Theme,” however, may be the wrong term, as a “theme” can be a backdrop without reasoning or justification behind it. Star Wars, at heart, doesn’t require its setting to tell its story and doesn’t particularly gain from it except such as to present lovely visual backdrops for what is essentially a very common story. That is why it is dubbed a “space opera,” and animes such as Cowboy Bebop are called “space westerns.” Just as noir had common themes of neorealism, expressionism and morality in an uncaring and often-times hostile world, making it prime for police procedurals, detective thrillers and gangster films, it’s used more nowadays as an allusion to certain stylistic options – dark and smokey interiors, stark backlighting, et cetera – than the ideas underneath.

1989’s manga and 1995’s movie contained thoughts on consciousness and individual identity if all of one’s body is mass manufactured – protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi at one point spies a salarywoman with the exact same face, body and hair as her, and muses on reinventing herself – in a Japanese society for which dolls retain strong cultural importance, and which also has concerns about cultural identity under internationalist corporate hegemons supported by technology, a concern even today when “helper robots” are being developed partly because they are more amenable to a very insular people than immigrant labor. In the manga and anime, the Major works in a counter-cyberterrorism paramilitary police force where almost everybody has significant mechanical prosthetics either in part or in full, and whose aim is largely that of social stability, often in the face of foreign incursion or influence – many of the antagonists are seen as either Russian agents, American moguls, armed refugees of foreign wars, terrorists and the like – but the overarching ‘villain,’ so to speak, in the original manga series and the 1995 movie is a virus devoted to industrial and political espionage and manipulation crafted by an internal (and rival) military division for the purposes of influencing international relations that has gone rogue, achieved self-identity, and requested asylum, leading questions as to the nature of life and sentience.

The 1995 movie, its sequel, 2004’s Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, also directed by Mamoru Oshii, and the television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex were incredibly dense with the characters’ philosophizing about such issues while also dealing with problems unique to the setting: mental disorders in an age of always-online consciousnesses, the ability to copy and implant memories and entire identities into surrogates both human and entirely synthetic, and scenarios there-in.

2017’s Ghost in the Shell eschews all that, and thereby solves the problem of perhaps being overly dense by being unconscionably dull. It reduces ideas to mere style, confuses reference with inference, and in doing so it says to me that the art that it portrays is intellectually, culturally and morally bankrupt. To add insult to injury, and there is great injury here, the movie itself is rife with one-dimensional protagonists and supporting characters, run through with massive plot holes, advances its plot by forcing its leads to make wanton and brazenly stupid decisions, and rejects any hallmark of the genre for a paint-by-numbers revenge plot that is as hypocritical as it is predictable. It, like Spike Lee’s 2013 remake of Korean thriller Oldboy, is the aping of a superior film by a so-called fan of the work while somehow missing everything that made the film worthwhile.

Mamoru Oshii’s Major Motoko Kusanagi was a contemplative, intelligent, supremely competent and capable female protagonist who had proper working relationships with her team, was raised almost all her life in a full-body prosthesis thanks to Japan’s legendary healthcare and thus inducted into what are essentially Special Forces due to her familiarity and skill with the body she possesses, and also possessed understandable concerns, interests and goals. Rupert Sanders’ Major, who for two thirds of the film went by some white name in deference to Scarlett Johansson’s white face, was a headstrong, reckless ball of anger who gave cursory lip-service to her status but otherwise treated herself as a Marvel Comics superheroine – perhaps because Johansson is already experienced at playing Black Widow for the current crop of schlock blockbuster action flicks – foregoing her team and getting herself captured at every turn, and murdering security guards, random thugs and basically anybody who looks askance at her with abandon. Once finding out that she is actually the brainwashed result of Evilcorp’s kidnapping and experimentation with a waifish Japanese street urchin named Motoko Kusanagi, Scarlett Johansson’s character can’t actually come around to call herself by that name, because perhaps even the actress is somewhat embarrassed by the stark contrast. She all but destroyed a strong female role, and in the most narratively simplistic copout.

The scenery is a pastiche of cyberpunkish stylistic touchstones of an urbanity devoid of any understanding of urban planning – indeed one area is simply called the “lawless zone” – or how anybody would feasibly live in such a city, which is something that the manga, television series and anime movies went out of their way to portray. The 2017 live-action movie attempts to shoehorn no less than four set-pieces from the 1995 movie, but without the context or competence displayed in the original, and to make matters worse, Mamoru Oshii’s trademark basset hound was also copied wholesale, in a stunning theft of artistic watermarking that makes me openly wonder whether the current producers actually understood what they were doing.

For the aped scenes, on every level is the point missed: In the 1995 movie, the Major finds herself hopelessly outgunned by a walking tank, but her motivation for being there – it’s guarding her target – and her actions in combating it – taking advantage of positioning to attack the vehicle it’s guarding, targeting weak points and forcing it to waste its ammunition, attempting to open its hatch to unhook its human pilot – denote a motivation as well as a strategy to actually overcome the problem. In the 2017 movie, the tank remains, as is the Major’s target, but the Major is already in possession of the target and thus has no reason not to retreat, and has no strategy to disable it except for firing wildly with a small-calibre weapon and pointlessly fiddle with the hatch as the tank is remotely controlled. The action remains, the thought behind it having been wholly excised and replaced with blind rage.

Similarly, her boss Aramaki in the manga and anime is a shrewd, responsible political strategist who does not put himself or his team in danger without a full plan in effect. His goals and the Major’s occasionally conflict, but they are understandable from his point of view and the means in which he works towards them are intelligent. In the live-action movie he passively allows all comers to dictate the parameters of his department, such to the point where he has no control over his subordinates and even allows a direct assassination attempt on his own person for no gain, just so a scene can be shown where he heroically saves himself. It is, I suppose, a testament to an American producer’s translation of this Japanese work that, like our current political climate, all characters are fundamentally incapable of acting competently and are thus forced for the vast majority of the film merely to react.

But far from the base flaws in filmmaking for which the producers attempted to hide behind a gloss of technical tinsel, and far from the complete misunderstanding of the setting, the format, and the characterization, the greatest sin that this movie has managed is that, as a science fiction film, it asks no questions and offers no ideas. Its characters aren’t just dumb by comparison, they are dumb, and seem content to remain that way forever. I watched this movie in IMAX 3D in a nearly empty theatre in Kip’s Bay, and had my eyes closed for a third of the film, for I could no longer bear to witness what was before me. It hurt me to watch this film, and I feel ashamed that I chose to do so, for I knew better, and now I have nobody but myself to blame for how I feel right now.

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One Response to “Ghost in the Shell”


  1. Jambe
    on Apr 13th, 2017
    @ 4:34 pm

    “Never attribute to malice,” sure, but it seems like they were deliberately trying to corrupt and mock the source material rather than genuinely reinterpret or translate it. I guess that’s just what it looks when you let the invisible (cack)hand of design-by-committee splice together contemporary pop film tropes with *insert aging, optionable property here*.

    At least it hasn’t made double its production budget to eek out profitability… yet…

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