Roger Ebert used to always say it’s never a good sign of a movie that it reminds you of other, better films you’d rather be watching. So it was with me on Sunday night as I sat through the spectacular-looking, spectacularly boring, mercifully brief Ghost in the Shell, thinking ‘I haven’t watched Blade Runner in a while.’
That’s perhaps a little harsh on Ghost in the Shell. It’s not awful; it just isn’t very good – bad news for a film already struggling to punch its way into the zeitgeist. This Hollywoodised, internationally-funded live-action version of the beloved anime classic has been mired in controversy from the start, with the face of distinctly non-Asian looking Scarlett Johannson on the poster launching a thousand think-pieces about whitewashing.
It’s a fair enough criticism: there are several Asian actresses who could fill the role of Major, the cybernetically-enhanced super soldier who works as security for a large technology conglomerate , and whose job description seems to be: wear skin-tight clothing; swan-dive off skyscrapers; shoot bad guys; kick lots of ass. Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bingbing, Rinko Kikuchi and Bae Doona could easily deliver the required roundhouse kicks and gun-fu, and Maggie Q has spent almost her entire career doing little else.
None of those actresses, however, is Scarlett Johansson, the current highest-grossing actress in the world (thanks mainly to her work for a little studio called Marvel), whose pouting lips are famous all over the world, and whose petite, curvy figure graces the walls and laptop monitors of many a teenage boy and man from Minnesota to Mongolia.
Johannson’s not the only Caucasian in the film. Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbaek, Peter Ferdinando and a surprisingly decent Michael Pitt roam around the film’s neon-glow setting, an unnamed futuristic megalopolis that looks like the bastard love-child of Tokyo and Shanghai, a place of giant holograms by the highways and robotic geishas, peopled by types who routinely have cyber surgery and sport odd technology accessories like bionic eyes (all the better to see with) and bionic livers (all the better to drink with).
Ghost in the Shell is a film that tests your ability to distinguish and process visual clutter. The cityscape is a nightmarish dystopia of screaming primary colours and enormous billboards, but the camera doesn’t linger long enough to take it all in, so you never get a sense of place, only background. Was that a giant baby I saw in the background? Oh, look, is that a massive fish swimming in the sky? And for all its incredible production design, the scenery is just that: scenery, a backdrop for the film’s characters that seems disconnected to the action in the foreground or the film’s plot.
And what a dreary plot it is. I haven’t seen the original, but from what I understand, part of its cult appeal is that its premise – human brain inside android body – allows for metaphysical ideas about the mind-body problem amidst all the chaos of action sequences. Blade Runner and The Matrix had similar concerns. Ghost in the Shell, however, initially raises the possibility of these questions only to opt for a generic stop-the-greedy villain story and a what-did-you-do-to-me? revenge tale. There is mention of refugees in Major’s backstory, but that seems like a cynical attempt for a sci-fi film to be somehow topical.
There is one moment in the movie when it offers something interesting: Major picks up a woman and brings her home, and neither is fully convinced the other is fully human. The scene cuts before anything that will disturb the PG-13 rating happens.
There is some cool stuff, however, in the film’s opening scene, which you can watch here:
The film’s third-act twist will only infuriate the critics more. No spoilers, but highlight here for a hint: it’s a case of having your ethnically-fluid cake and eating it too.