Title: Ghost in the Shell
Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:
Ned Flanders: "We do have an emergency plan in case of a prolonged strike right here. Let's see: 'replace teachers with superintelligent cyborgs.'"
Brief Plot Synopsis: Domo arigato, Major Roboto.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant to the Film: Two and a half copies of Black Sea by XTC out of five.
Tagline: "Everything they told her was a lie."
Better Tagline: "Spirits in the material world."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: In the near future (one in which scientific research is fully funded and mankind isn't ruled by morons and zealots, presumably), Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) awakens to discover her brain has been placed into a cyborg body following the murder of her family by terrorists. The price for this medical miracle is working for Section Nine, an elite, multicultural police unit. Major experiences occasional audiovisual glitches, however, and begins to suspect her origin story isn't entirely accurate. Together with fellow Section Niner Batou (Pilou Asbæk), Major investigates the connection between her past and Kuze (Michael Pitt), a shadowy figure bent on destroying Hanka Robotics, the company responsible for her creation.
"Critical" Analysis: Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga and the adaptations that followed (most famously Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film) remain enormously influential. It inspired the Wachowskis to make The Matrix, and Steven Spielberg incorporated elements of it into A.I. (and was also attached to direct this film at one point). In what was still the largely speculative world of cybernetics, Ghost in the Shell was among the first to tackle issues of identity and what defined humanity in an increasingly (and often overwhelmingly) technological world.
You don’t get a lot of that in Rupert Sanders’s live-action remake, sorry to say. There are, however, several shots of ScarJo’s derriere. Something about Japan just causes pants to fall off, it seems.
Sanders is probably "best" known for directing Snow White and the Huntsman. Here he teams up with Jamie Moss, who wrote Street Kings — which almost nobody saw — and Spectral, which, seriously, nobody saw (it debuted on Netflix last December). That this turned out to be a less than rigorous examination of the nature of existence should be about as surprising as Hollywood’s apparent inability to cast anyone other than Scarlett Johansson (and possibly Jennifer Lawrence) in female-led action movies, even those featuring an Asian main character.
The accusations of whitewashing have merit, and might have taken on more significance if they were associated with a better movie. Unfortunately, aside from some genuinely striking visuals (the unnamed metropolis of GITS is like Blade Runner’s Los Angeles in an alternate future fueled by something other than dystopic nihilism) Ghost in the Shell isn’t very good. Further, the lead casting decision is mostly defanged because it often seems like the Japan of the movie has been somehow purged of Japanese people. The only Japanese person in Section Nine is its chief, Aramaki. He’s played by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who is (unsurprisingly, if you’re familiar with his work) more effortlessly badass than the rest of the cast combined.
And we can give Scarlett “They Won’t Give Me a Black Widow Movie So I’ll Just Have to Improvise” Johansson some of the credit as well, because she’s at least somewhat believable as a cyborg murder machine inhabited by a disembodied brain. Still, her near-perpetual look of puzzlement in every sci-fi role is like a coin flip: heads, you get Under the Skin. Tails, and it's Lucy. This "Uncanny Valley of the Dolls" approach works in GITS, but only because of Major’s precarious mental state.
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But many of the deeper issues explored by both the manga and the previous animated efforts are ignored. Major’s gender fluidity gives way instead to various scenes lingering on her flesh-colored combat skin. And instead of examining what it means to be fully cybernetic (in this movie, Major is the first successful “cerebral integration” into a shell) in a world where implants and enhancements are more or less commonplace, Sanders opts for a generic amnesiac origin story.
Worse, Sanders and company fall victim to the technology trap that trips up movies from space horror to 007. If there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), it’s “Any film unable to explain the technology on display will utilize the same technology to hide the fact.” Major hacks into a hijacked geisha bot, and is in turn hacked. Repeatedly. Terms like "hacking" and "interface" and "cyber-[whatever]" are used too often and so arbitrarily they may as well be magic.
Oh, at one point Major’s co-creator, Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche), is retrieving/deleting buggy code from Major, who remarks, “I guess privacy’s just for humans.” That got a good laugh.
Whatever larger questions Ghost in the Shell feebly tries to address are drowned out by action sequences we've already seen and institutional betrayal tropes that have been the norm for decades. Conforming so totally to this template prevents anything but shallow attempts at introspection in between scenes of Major pirouetting across the oversaturated skyline. It's either the smartest dumb movie or the dumbest smart movie you’ve ever seen.