Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy

I’ve never been one for manga and anime personally. Not out of spite for the medium, or nativism, or unearned self-superiority about “cartoons”; there’s just too much damn fiction out there to ingest, and Eastern animation never managed to rise to the top of my to-do list. Which is to say that, while I’m aware of its influence on The Matrix and its ilk, I’ve not particularly familiar with the Ghost in the Shell source material. But even if I was completely ignorant of the source material, Ghost in the Shell betrays its manga origins in the same way Zack Snyder’s Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk betray their comic-book source. Ghost in the Shell tirelessly recreates scenes that feel like splash pages of a graphic novel, which works in small doses but feels engineered to be distant, kind of like an entire movie with the style of the dream sequences of The Big Lebowski. Rather than find a way to bring the story and characters to a style more suited to film, director Rupert Sanders has tried very hard to jam something that looks like a manga sensibility into every frame, exposing the weakness of film for these sorts of tricks (things that look slightly fake and dumb suddenly look *really* fake and dumb). The wanton attempts to create memorable visuals are rendered nearly completely moot by forgetting to first build an environment that we can imagine ourselves in, by forgetting to give us a reason to care in the first place.

The plot of Ghost in the Shell isn’t complex, and can in some ways be summarized as Shitty Blade Runner. After an accident, robotics developer Hanka has Mira Killian’s brain transplanted into an android shell, successfully fusing the human soul (“ghost”) with android strength and providing her with a decidedly fake-looking body suit. Because there is a need for action sequences, Mira is of course renamed Major and used as a supercop. In case this didn’t make it obvious that Hanka aren’t the good guys here, bad-guy CEO Cutter is introduced saying, out loud, in a line of scripted dialogue, “I don’t care about her, I want to use her as a weapon,” as if we couldn’t understand that through the next scene where she shoots about twelve goons after crashing through a window. Firstly, Cutter is the absolute worst, a completely forgettable, mustache-twirlingly evil villain played by an actor who is trying to chew scenery but completely unable to exert any kind of presence. Secondly, the entire first half of the movie is full of lines like this. One of the advantages of basing a movie off of an influential piece of work is that, even if the audience is unfamiliar with the specific material, you can trust them to be able to follow the general flow. Ghost in the Shell has absolutely no faith in its audience to be able to understand a single thing, and despite its emphasis on crafting capital-b Big visuals, very little confidence in using those visuals to convey anything other than cool desktop backgrounds.

There’s precisely one moment where the movie threatens to legitimately become something a bit more than a Hollywood actioner, where Major peels off fashionable artifice from a human plucked off the street to intimately examine the difference. It’s a short scene, cut off and never really revisited, but feels yanked in from a better movie (really, it feels like something out of Under the Skin, a much better Scarlett Johansson sci-fi film about what it means to be human). On the other side, at one point near the end, the great Takeshi Kitano’s Section 9 Chief character finally gets something to do and the movie threatens to become pulpy and fun, a kind of neo-Tokyo A-Team. But its attention span isn’t long enough to even pull this off, instead ending quickly in an cold showdown with a stylistically neutered final boss. The action sequences overall seem maybe better suited to a video game, interesting in concept and nicely loud but completely unengaging to observe. While I’m willing to live with a Hollywood sci-fi that doesn’t deliver on its thematic potential, but Ghost in the Shell does so in such a horribly uninteresting manner. It’s hard to get mad about something so completely dull.

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D+

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, and Juliette Binoche
Rotten Tomatoes

Stray Observations

  • While I can’t say for sure, I’m willing to bet the movie does a decent job of capturing the city design from the source material, only because it looks more like something people in the early 90s thought the future might look like rather than anything resembling a modern interpretation. The blocky holograms all feel supremely tacky, and worse than that, often feel decidedly less futuristic than what the world looks like right now. Sure, the billboards in NYC might not be 3D flying things, but at least they don’t look as poorly rendered as Brain Age guy.
  • I don’t want to get in the weeds about the casting controversy, and plenty of digital ink has been spilled about that. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about adapting foreign fiction to Hollywood (e.g. The Departed, which transplanted the basic plot of Infernal Affairs but made its new Boston setting an important part of its style), but Ghost in the Shell tries to have its cake and eat it too, retaining strong Japanese elements while casting all of its lead characters (Takeshi Kitano aside) as white folks, and putting it in the hands of a white Hollywood director whose only previous credit is Snow White and the Huntsman. There’s probably an interesting American adaptation out there, exploring the separation of ghosts and shells in terms of how our body, be it our race or gender or whatever, determines our self, but this certainly isn’t that. Instead, this version strongly co-opts its Japanese stylistic origin, which does make the whitewashed casting fairly icky.
  • That being said about the casting, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really work here (her understated style conflicts with the movie’s need to vocalize everything), but just in case that sounds like I’m dismissing Johansson getting these kinds of roles, I cannot recommended Under the Skin enough, where Johansson plays an alien who slowly grows empathy and curiosity about the men she abducts and her own human form, and I have an unabashed love for Luc Besson’s Lucy, that dumb movie where Johansson can utilize 100% of her brain and uses it to kick all kinds of ass. She can clearly fit both sides of the bill to play Major; the production here just does her no favours.
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Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy