If you’re in any way interested in sci-fi film, you’ll have heard by now about the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, based on the seminal Japanese manga and anime of the 1990s, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major, a character that has traditionally been of East Asian descent. “Whitewashing”, the act of hiring Caucasian actors for roles that should or could go to ethnic minorities, is one of the most pressing issues in Hollywood right now, and Ghost in the Shell has been in hot water ever since it was announced last year. To add insult to injury, the movie tries to retain a Japanese flair by depicting the Major’s world as overcome by Pan-Asian globalism, a move that narratively makes sense but seems slightly exploitative in the long run.
Set in the near future, scientists are able to upload the consciousnesses of the recently deceased – their “ghosts” – into a cybernetic body with an arsenal of bells and whistles made to enhance their overall physical performance. The Major is the first of these creations, engineered by Dr. Ouélet (Juliette Binoche) and contracted by the government to take down terrorist hackers. But turns out, shoving a human brain inside a robot and telling it to kill people has its complications, and the Major is plagued by glitchy visions that draw her closer to a hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt), and the life she lead before her reincarnation as a military android.
At the very least, fans of the franchise will be relieved to see a few of the deftly executed visual elements that made the original film so groundbreaking at the time, although it comes off as more of a show of good faith to the source material than cutting-edge innovation. The Major’s body floats in vats of fluid as it’s being created (a Camersequence that has been put to good use in HBO’s Westworld), her sidekick Batou (a stoic Pilou Asbæk) is fitted with augmented camera lenses instead of eyes. In the film’s climactic battle scene, the Major is gruesomely wounded in a scene that mirrors the original almost shot-for-shot.
When it comes to the controversial casting, Johansson’s performance itself isn’t the issue – in fact, she’s characteristically solid, and anyone who saw her play a mysterious alien in Jonathan Glazer’s sensational Under the Skin knows she can pull off an emotionless killer questioning their humanity. The way she’s able to constantly float right under a brutally cold exterior gives the movie a much-needed emotional boost. There’s a too-short scene where the Major hires a futuristic sex worker, just to touch her face and ask her questions about being human, and it’s one of the most genuine moments of the whole movie.
The obvious ethical problems that arise from whitewashing notwithstanding, in this case not only could a more inclusive and interesting story have been ultimately told, but the ensuing hoops the film jumps through in order to justify its casting choices are such a distraction, the entire venture suffers as a result. The writers basically fiddle with the Ghost in the Shell mythology, essentially providing a case where the Major’s ghost could end up in a white woman’s body – but why? At the end of the day, Ghost in the Shell had the potential to be a powerful retelling of a cult classic. As is, it remains a prime example of why it’s so important to consider who exactly is in charge of telling our stories.
Ghost in the Shell | Directed by Rupert Sanders (USA, 2017), with Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche. Starts March 30
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