This analysis contains spoilers for the new Ghost in the shell movie. Proceed with caution!
Over the weekend, I dragged my best friend – a biracial Japanese dude I’ve known for over ten years – to the new Ghost in the shell movie. Like Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech, we were unimpressed. However, to my surprise, I didn’t really dislike Scarlett Johansson’s role in the film.
Her casting as the major was controversial, in part because of concerns about “money laundering” (using white actors to play non-white characters). Still Mamoru Oshii, director of the original 1995 anime, unexpectedly supported the decision. Maybe that’s because Johansson doesn’t pretend to be Motoko Kusanagi, the dashing main character from the original. Johansson’s new character, Mira Killian, comes across as a pure automaton, a blank slate without emotional ties.
But this emptiness, which pervades the film, is a symptom of Ghost in the shell‘s broader inability to comprehend the source material, and here lies the film’s deeper problems.
A missing philosophy
The director of the new film, Rupert Sanders, said in an interview with… Motherboard that he loved the original anime and wanted to “be part of the legacy of” Ghost in the shell… The world really amazed me … It was this beautiful futuristic world that I had never really seen anywhere: crazy characters, sexualized, philosophized.”
Sanders repeatedly describes his film as an “international” movie, one that he updated with a more familiar plot, because “you can’t lead” with themes of dualism, reflections on technology and “all those things that Ghost in the shell.” So what does he think are the franchise’s most memorable moments? He calls them: “The water fight, Geisha heads exploding, Major on the tank, Major jumping off the roof. Those things are iconic, and if they weren’t there, people would be upset, myself included.”
But I’m not sure Sanders understands how or why these moments became so iconic. His interpretation of the original film – which was slower, almost freezing in places – focuses on explosive energy and plumes of broken glass; it’s Daft Punk who went the way of the Boondock Saints. Consequently, the rebooted version of Sanders of Ghost in the shell is a peculiar mix of original scenes and lines, without much rhythm attached to each other. We get the hacked garbage man without the poignancy of his subsequent revelations, while the water fight Sanders mentions is almost caricatured. And Mira Killian has none of Motoko Kusanagi’s reluctance as she mercilessly defeats her prey.
As the action gets more frenetic, the thoughtful theme of humans merging with machines gets duller. Kuze – another abductee crammed into a Caucasian form – begs Major to fuse with him. Why? We only learn that he was Motoko’s boyfriend in life. However, that romantic connection is never really explored. It’s like the love story was recorded because that’s exactly what you do in Hollywood. What could be more compelling than star-crossed love?
the 1995 Ghost in the shell has a more complex understanding of why two entities would want to merge. In the climactic scene, the Puppet Master Kusanagi presents a compelling proposition. All life strives to multiply, Kusanagi says, and diversification is essential to ensure the survival of any lineage. So it tries to fuse with it – the flawed human and the flawed program – to create something greater than both of them. “To be human,” the puppeteer tells Kusanagi, “is to constantly change.”
There is irony in this line in the context of the new movie. The new Ghost in the shell film embodies that idea of constant change, but the cross-fertilization of western sensibilities with the source material doesn’t quite work. It clings to the styles of the original franchise, eliminating certain wholesale vignettes. But while the original anime was intrinsically Japanese, Sanders’ portrayal is fundamentally American in ways beyond mere casting.
Both Motoko Kusanagi and Mira Killian repeatedly ask the world, “Who am I?” But where the former looks for meaning in the context of the bigger picture, the latter looks inward, obsessed with the individual. The entire arc of Killian in the film is classic Hollywood. She is indistinguishable from most other American action heroes beyond a metaphor for a larger concept. The film’s political landscape is strictly incidental, a backdrop to Killian’s personal struggles. Even the tragic twist introduced in the third act is just fuel to propel her personal story.