Another day, another film with a fanbase and cult following I am completely and utterly unaware of. Rupert Sanders’ controversial adaptation of historic manga Ghost in the Shell has been cause for boycott in many communities worldwide, because of its whitewashed appropriation of a popular Japanese text. Whilst amongst the critics there have been those who gave reasoning behind why characters (specifically Scarlett Johanssen, in the lead role) were made white, it’s hard to imagine a real justification, given the fact that nine tenths of the cast are white in a story set in Japan, in a universe originated by Japanese creators, with originally (and this is pure speculation, on my part, something I should probably research, but won’t) Japanese characters. However the movie got made, and it did nothing to make the world a better place, in terms of either racial discrimination or artistry.
Ghost in the Shell is the story of Major, the perfect weapon, a being with a human brain and human thoughts, but a cyborg body, cast into fighting positions for a government secret service to help achieve their ends, without ever really questioning why. In a turn of events that nobody (everybody) sees coming, Major begins to question the nature of her existence, her past as a human, and her relationship with the people she works with. Taking nothing away from the whitewashing controversy, Scarlett Johanssen does do a very good job in conveying Major’s gradual revelation throughout the movie. Her precisely controlled physicality and facial constructs play in perfect harmony with her powerful and violent inner life, which is all the more admirable given the lack of room in the script for such subtlety and life. There is also a strong performance from Pilou Asbæk (who is also Danish, and white) as Batou, Major’s world weary sidekick. The visual elements of this film are impressive, although no doubt lifted from its source material. If you went into this wanting to read a nice review with compliments and things I liked, you can stop here. It’s just downhill now.
Sanders and the other storytellers working on this film consistently struggle with the question that most films need to answer to leave the pitch room- what is this film about? One on hand it could be a coming of age story, a moment of self realisation for a complicated and battle weary soldier. It would need a titanic performance, but one that Johanssen (or, god forbid, an actor who isn’t white!) is more than capable of, or it could be a government parable, but instead the film chooses to be neither of these things. Or, rather, completely fails to choose, and tries to make it through a hundred minutes with a threadbare predictable plot, interesting visuals, and the most trite and unearned emotional scenes you could imagine. It’s a trend I’m noticing a lot in recent movies, where in order to make us feel a certain way filmmakers are compelled to jam in an emotional scene or two with closeups and actors being sad and realising things. This is all well and good, only in most cases the stories surrounding these moments are not humanising, profound, or interesting enough that these emotional scenes have any impactful bearing on our experience of the film, and will not leave the cinema with us. The inner life of Ghost in the Shell exists entirely in Johanssen’s focused performance, and is absent from the world of the story.
My main complaint with Ghost in the Shell is really this simple: nothing happens. The plot moves from place to place, we meet the villain, we come to learn the truth about corruption in the organisation, but nothing really happens. The film stays at a standstill emotionally and as watchers we only ever feel like bystanders looking at other people doing things, which may seem intuitively to be the point of cinema, but there is certainly a brand of filmmaking that engages us as active in the art, films where they are defined not only by what happens on the screen, but our own personal experiences we bring into the cinema with us. Ghost in the Shell couldn’t care less about these, and just wants you to look at the pretty CGI animations and think “wow, isn’t this good”. Which is totally fine, if that’s what you’re after.