First, let’s address that controversy. You probably heard the much-publicized cries of “whitewashing” that greeted the announcement that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action film based on Shirow Masamune’s 1989 manga Ghost in the Shell and Mamoru Oshii’s landmark 1995 anime film adaptation. The leader of Public Security Section 9, the Major and her task force of former military officers and police detectives engage in political intrigue and counterterrorism operations while dealing with corrupt officials, companies and cyber-criminals in the near-future Japanese metropolis known as New Port City. How dare Hollywood cast an Anglo actress in the role of the Major!
But see, here’s where things get tricky. The Major, like many manga and anime characters, has been drawn with large eyes in her various incarnations, making her appear more Western in appearance. Not to mention, those eyes have occasionally been presented as blue. Even trickier, the only thing that’s truly human in the Major’s body (which has been overtly sexualized throughout each iteration) is her brain and consciousness, or the “ghost” that resides in her cybernetic “shell.” In this future in which most people’s bodies have at least some form of cyber-enhancement, the Major is the first person to have undergone a full body replacement, so she could quite literally reside in a humanoid frame modeled to look like anyone or anything its manufacturers dare to imagine.
Plus, if you’re looking for a lithe, athletic female to run, shoot and kick all sorts of ass, Johansson is an obvious choice, having run, shot and kicked her way through an Iron Man film, two Captain America pictures and a pair of Avengers adventures (with more on the way). She can also play someone who’s slightly off and not quite comfortable in their body, as she did when she portrayed the alien succubus inhabiting human form in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a nightmarish bit of body horror that just happened to be 2013’s best film.
No such accolades will befall this live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, however. Colorblind casting is only one of the film’s problems. Made by an American studio (Paramount), funded by Chinese money, produced by an Israeli (Avi Arad) and shot in New Zealand and China by a British director (Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders), this international production does little more than appropriate some of the most visually arresting sequences and moments from Oshii’s 1995 film and his 2004 sequel, plus concepts and designs from Kenji Kamiyama’s animated television spinoffs. The results—photographed by Jess Hall, with visual effects supervised by the legendary John Dykstra of Star Wars fame—can indeed look stunning to newcomers (especially in 3-D). But fans of the anime may find that the initial thrill of seeing hand-drawn images recreated in live action and CG quickly gives way to the tedium of watching a hodgepodge of greatest hits, stitched onto the framework of the most generic of origin-story plots.
This Major, you see, doesn’t have much memory of her past, so rather than portraying the very capable leader fans have come to know and love, Johansson wanders through much of this film with a puzzled look on her face, haunted by visions of a burning dojo that are written off as glitches by the brilliant doctor who built her body, Ouelet. Actress Juliette Binoche, a French national treasure, slums in the role of this Dr. Frankenstein, which requires her to do little but pout as she spouts exposition. Dane Pilou Asbæk (Johansson’s costar in another sci-fi actioner, 2014’s Lucy) and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (a formidable Japanese actor/writer/director) both fare better, embracing the anime roots of the material and giving physical performances that perfectly embody the Major’s hulking, mechanical-eyed partner Batou and the Bozo-haired Section 9 Chief Aramaki, respectively.
Sadly missing, though, is the philosophical underpinning that grounded the action in Oshii’s originals. Questions of what it means to be human are relegated to a couple of lines of heavy-handed dialogue delivered by Dr. Ouelet. What’s left, then, is a rather soulless collection of action beats, taking place in an advertisement-laden urban metropolis that owes a bit less to the animated versions of Ghost in the Shell than it does to Ridley Scott’s seminal science-fiction picture that wrote the book on dystopian, futuristic cityscapes: 1982’s Blade Runner.
Worse, when the script finally reveals the Major’s secret past, the claims of whitewashing that I’d disregarded before watching the film become a central part of the narrative—only the filmmakers seem oblivious to the Pandora’s box of rightful criticism they’ve opened for themselves.
But hey, it sure looks cool!
Ghost in the Shell **
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Anamaria Marinca, Peter Ferdinando, Kaori Momoi, Kaori Yamamoto, Adwoa Aboah, Andrew Morris and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Directed by Rupert Sanders. Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the manga by Shirow Masamune. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.