'Ghost in the Shell' Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
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To most American audiences, Ghost in the Shell will be their first introduction to a world that has inspired comics, anime shows and movies in Japan since the late 1980s. To the audiences most familiar with that world, they have likely spent months fearing and protesting this Americanized version, especially regarding Scarlett Johansson's casting as a decidedly un-Japanese Major.

This reviewer is in the former category, so this take cannot accurately compare Johansson and director Rupert Sanders' vision to the Japanese tales of old, or speak directly for those most outraged by the 'whitewashing' of the Major. In that regard, readers may feel free to take this mixed-to-positive reaction with a grain of salt, along with the observation of some missed opportunities and of a world seemingly more inspired by Blade Runner and Robocop than the original source material.

The Major herself is the creation of Hanka Robotics, or at least her 'shell' of a robotic body is. The 'ghost' inside is the human brain of a girl saved from the wreckage of a terrorist bombing, who now leads the special 'Section 9' unit in the hunt for cyber terrorists. A series of attacks on Hanka scientists uncovers a particularly dangerous terrorist and hacker named Kuze, who is targeting everyone involved with a project numbered 2571. Yet the closer the Major comes to finding Kuze, the closer she comes to realizing her place at the center of it all, and of who and what she truly is.

There is an early ominous sign in the credits when they display the Ghost in the Shell title at the end of them, even though they already displayed it in smaller print before. While the second example may be closer to the design of the original title, those most upset at Johansson's casting and other more Western touches to the story may easily think it is just another example of a pale imitation, in more ways than one.

As stated earlier, this reviewer can't really speak to their concerns on a more in-depth level, having never seen the original Japanese version. But from this American point of view, this Ghost in the Shell often plays out like the ghost of Blade Runner, only on steroids. Given that actual Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049 is on the way this fall, this is even more ironic.

Sanders creates a futuristic Japan with countless shots of giant animated billboards, ads and holograms all over the city, to the point of overkill that even Blade Runner didn't have. But when the introductory shot of this Japan ends with the Major on top of a tall building ready to strike, it also makes her look a bit like Batman, even before she twice paraphrases Batman's "it's what I do that defines me" phrase from Batman Begins.

Bright colors and wall to wall holograms are just some of the ways Sanders tries to override viewers' skepticism, if not their logic. When it comes to the action, he throws in a robotic geisha that ultimately moves like a spider, the Major literally turning invisible during fight scenes, a ‘deep dive’ into robotic memories and much more. Yet after the initial oddness wears off, Sanders is able to show off some impressive sequences, such as a handcuffed Major taking out her captors in a dive bar and a set piece in a shallow lake.

Johansson’s experience in this full on action mode is one of the many reasons Paramount and Sanders ignored the critics and cast her anyway. She is also no stranger to characters who are in between humanity and something else, as in Under the Skin, Lucy, Her and her early MCU movies. As such, having her convey growing humanity even within limited emotional programming is in her wheelhouse just as much as acting like a super soldier.

It certainly cannot be said that an Asian or Japanese actress couldn’t have done a better job than Johansson, of course. Leaving the cultural and whitewashing issues aside, however, Johansson certainly deserves credit for carrying Ghost in the Shell through, even in the non-action parts. Then again, it certainly won’t be possible for everyone to leave the other factors aside, for reasons that probably can’t be disputed.

Yet there are reasons beside the whitewashing controversy to be disappointed with Johansson’s casting and how it is handled. Since this is about the fourth or fifth time Johansson has played a half-human hybrid of some kind, one can say that if they had to cast a white actress or an A-list non-minority star, they could have found one who hasn’t explored this territory before.

The Major isn’t the only whitewashed element, however, considering that Hanka is run by a white man and that Juliette Binoche is the Major’s doctor/creator. Since the Major was actually a young Japanese woman before her life was stolen and reprogrammed, having a rich white man envisioning a Johansson colored shell for her soul/ghost/brain surely could have inspired some meta-commentary and harsher examination, if only to answer the critics.

Seriously addressing and protesting the cultural appropriation in some deeper fashion might have gone a long way to truly justify Johansson’s casting, and to open up new and more original avenues so the story wouldn’t seem like a mere echo. But as it stands, passing up such an opportunity and a more meaningful examination of a white Major stands as a real missed chance, if not a missed way out of some hot water. Considering how the sleeper horror hit Get Out took a similar angle far more seriously, the contrast of Ghost in the Shell is even more glaring.

While Johansson and the issues around her are much of the show for one reason or another, Ghost in the Shell isn’t always a one woman show. In fact, some of the movie’s most delightful moments are scenes between the Major and Pilou Asbæk as her main Section 9 partner, while Takeshi Kitano makes a late impression as Section 9’s chief. Yet the film gets its most bizarre lift from Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt, or rather Michael Carmen Pitt as he is credited, as the barely functioning so-called terrorist.

Ghost in the Shell is never less than watchable, has to be seen on the big screen with 3D glasses, and gradually finds more humanity as it goes along much like the Major herself. Nonetheless, that might not be enough for every American who has seen stories like this in many classic sci-fi films before, or the anime fans who already may have seen this exact story done even better in Japan.

If this Ghost in the Shell inspires more people to seek out the more complete anime version, perhaps that will be a positive side effect. Whether or not the loud backlash to months of whitewashing charges creates a positive side effect of more cultural sensitivity and progressive casting choices might be a less certain outcome.

In this perhaps limited viewpoint, the ghost of past American sci-fi classics about half-human crime fighting and criminal cyborgs hangs over Ghost in the Shell more than the ghost of its actual source material. It may be interesting to revisit this months from now after Blade Runner 2049 tries to overcome its own Blade Runner ghosts, only without controversial casting and with the red hot Denis Villeneuve in charge instead of the less accomplished Sanders. Nonetheless, Sanders does take some visual steps forward from Snow White and the Huntsman, whether or not the original anime deserves more credit for such sights.

Either way, the sights, fights and everything else Johansson and her team can salvage help edge Ghost in the Shell into a positive outcome, even if there is more than one obvious way that they missed their chance for something much better.