Ghost in the Shell is minor Scarlett Johansson
Roger Ebert, reviewing the 1996 manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell, writes: “The ghost of anime can be seen here trying to dive into the shell of the movie mainstream. But this particular film is too complex and murky to reach a large audience, I suspect.”
The makers of the 2017 Hollywood live-action remake, starring Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi and in theaters today, seem to have taken that quote as gospel. This new Ghost in the Shell, far from being too complex, reduces the main character’s philosophical quest for understanding of what it means to be human to a very familiar trope: the search for a former identity. Essentially, the Major is now Jason Bourne — or, more precisely, Robocop, by way of Frankenstein’s monster.
It’s a shame though hardly unexpected. Since the birth of CGI, studios have been revisiting popular movies and updating them with the latest technological innovations. Audiences, for their part, have rewarded Hollywood’s efforts. Disney just plundered its own animated classic Beauty and the Beast, and the new live-action version took barely two weeks to become the top-grossing movie of the year so far.
Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have that mainstream pedigree, but Mamoru Oshii’s once-groundbreaking cyberpunk visual aesthetic — which inspired The Matrix — gives Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders and his production team a blueprint to achieve some seriously eye-popping work. Not only have they brought to life the anime costume and character designs with photo-realistic quality; the cityscapes teem with details, suggesting a fully lived-in world.
That same richness isn’t present in the script, adapted from Masamune Shirow’s 1989 serialized manga by a committee of screenwriters. (Jamie Ross, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger eventually got screen credit.) The shell of Shell is here, but that’s about it: In a futuristic urban landscape, humans regularly enhance themselves with robotics. The Major, on the other hand, is a 100 percent cybernetic body with a transplanted human consciousness, created to be part of a Section 9 government intelligence agency. She is dispatched to track down a notorious cyberterrorist (Michael Pitt) with a human partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk). Pitt’s role is taken from Ghost lore but is markedly different (and less compelling) than the original movie’s villain. Also new is Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouélet, a character who nudges the story toward the Frankenstein myth.
Sanders replicates the somber mood of the original film, as does Johansson’s subdued delivery, but their choices aren’t borne out by the script. There’s not a lot to ponder here, because the Major doesn’t struggle with the same metaphysical questions of her anime forebear. The Major known to fans is restless in both her body and her job, yearning to make choices that deviate from her programmed thoughts. During a moment of crisis in this movie, though, Johansson’s Major says she wants to remain in Section 9, that her “work here is not complete.” This isn’t merely out of character; it’s a jarring interruption, essentially an actress mouthing a studio’s franchise ambitions.
The casting of Johansson seemed like a perfect opportunity to go deeper. In Her, she is the female-sounding but nonhuman voice of a computer operating system, in Under the Skin she is a creature of unknown origin who inhabits a female body that’s missing its sexual organs. (Even in the much less satisfying Lucy, she plays a character who transcends human and computer states.) This is a similar form, of course, to the shell taken by the Major, but there’s simply no meaningful examination of gender issues or sexuality in Shell. The Major is just a hot chick in a bodysuit. That aspect of anime — the fetishistic sexualization of the female figure — is a longstanding issue, so it’s disappointing that the movie doesn’t engage with it in any way other than adhering to a similar objectification.
(Another issue is a controversy that arose over the casting a white woman in a role that probably should have gone to someone of Asian descent. The movie’s story has a sort of built-in “answer” to that criticism, but that doesn’t change the purpose of the casting: that Johansson is probably the only star who could open a movie of this budget in worldwide markets. Another missed opportunity for a blockbuster-style film to embrace diversity.)
Ghost in the Shell is a perfect example of Hollywood cannibalizing an innovative property, keeping its surface-level kicks while throwing out anything that doesn’t fit an easily marketed formula. If this remake does get a sequel, perhaps the series could evolve beyond its rigid container, echoing the desire of the anime Major. Otherwise, this potential franchise will become another empty shell that exists solely to showcase spiffy new technology every couple of years.