GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)
By Nathan Evans
Usually when I write reviews I try to keep the focus on the movie at hand rather than any controversy that might surround it. In the cases of both Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and the Casey Affleck starring ‘Manchester by the Sea’, I set aside the issues surrounding the films’ leads in order to take an objective view of the material. I will try to do the same here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the accusations of whitewashing leveled at director Rupert Sanders’ live action adaptation of the Japanese manga/anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’; known as ‘Mobile Armored Riot Police’ in Japan.
The film’s focus is Major Mira Killian, a cybernetic operative for a counter-terrorism task force called Section 9. In the original manga and anime the Major was named Motoko Kusanagi: a Japanese woman. For the film her ethnicity was changed to caucasian and Scarlett Johansson was cast. The filmmakers attempted to defend the decision behind the scenes by stating that they simply went with the actor they felt was the best fit for the role. A suspect statement, as it was later revealed that the filmmakers at one time considered altering Johansson’s appearance to make her appear Asian.
Personally, while I feel that Johansson is perfect for the part, it’s quite apparent that this is yet another instance of a major Hollywood production casting a white performer in a role that should’ve gone to a minority one. If this were the only instance of something like this happening I’d probably dismiss it as artistic license, but it falls on the heels of semi-recent releases like ‘Gods of Egypt’ and ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’: films that inexplicably featured a primary cast of white actors. Like those films, it’s clear that the studio behind ‘Ghost in the Shell’ was averse to casting the role as it should’ve been cast due to racist motivations. This is made quite apparent within the film itself when the narrative goes out of its way to explain Johansson’s appearance.
The excuse we usually get behind decisions like this is that there aren’t any minority performers out there that can serve as box office draws for big budget productions. While there’s a grain of truth to the claim, it’s only true because studios rarely ever give minority performers a chance to headline blockbuster films. A racist practice as audiences have proven time and time again that they’ll show up for a movie if the content is good (a lot of times even if it isn’t), regardless of the ethnicity, persuasions, or viewpoints of the characters.
By changing the race of the Major, I believe the filmmakers behind ‘Ghost in the Shell’ have defied their own reasoning. The film is bombing at the box office due to the controversy surrounding it. Casting Johansson alienated the film’s built-in fanbase; a fanbase that is desperately needed to support a film as risky and unique as this one. It’s a shame too, because, despite the controversy, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a fantastic, visually stunning sci-fi action film.
Taking place in an undefined future metropolis where cybernetic innovations have blurred the line between man and machine, Major Mira Killian is the first of her kind: a lifelike cybernetic shell integrated with a human brain developed by enigmatic tech company, Hanka, and it’s CEO: a man known only as Cutter. Mira is told that she was the victim of a terrorist attack and that her brain was transferred to the shell in order to save her life. Seeking vengeance for what was done to her, she goes to work for Section 9.
Upon foiling an assassination attempt on a member of Hanka’s board, Mira begins to encounter glitches with her interface; experiencing disturbing sounds and images that aren’t actually there. These visions only intensify after she interfaces with a terrifying geisha robot that had been hacked and used by a terrorist known only as Kuze during the assault. The Major and her partner Batou, a platinum blonde behemoth of a man with an affection for basset hounds (portrayed by Danish actor Pilou Asbaek), begin an investigation into Kuze under the watchful eye of their elderly commander, Aramaki. The pair track Kuze down, but the Major is captured by the terrorist. In Kuze’s thrall, the Major learns that there’s more to the glitches than she thought, and she soon finds herself in a struggle for her own life as well as the truth.
The individual elements that make up ‘Ghost in the Shell’ are nothing new, but the way the film mashes those elements together serves to create something truly distinctive. The film has a cyber punk aesthetic, basically looking like Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ on crack; with a skyline constantly aglow with bright, three dimensional digital billboards and grungy streets filled to the brim with futuristic cars that look like they were designed in the 1980’s. Despite the futuristic setting, there are gothic undertones and elements of body horror at play as well; there are many instances of the Major getting damaged and repaired while her human mind struggles to process the traumas her cybernetic body is experiencing. All the while the narrative thrust of the film is reminiscent of a noir detective story as the Major and Batou investigate Kuze. As with all great noir, the themes are larger than they appear; here having to do with issues of identity and what really makes us human.
As I touched on before, Johansson really is fantastic in the role. Her take on the Major is intense, and she’s legitimately intimidating when placed up against the film’s cast of rogues. Even though she’s as formidable an action star as her male contemporaries, she also does an excellent job of getting the Major’s doubt and paranoia across. It’s a soulful performance, the likes of which I haven’t seen in an action film since Matt Damon’s initial turn as Jason Bourne in 2002’s ‘The Bourne Identity’.
Her co-stars are no slouches either. I’d never seen Pilou Asbaek in anything before this film, but now I can’t wait to see what he does next. His Batou is a charming and open character: the perfect foil for Johansson’s reserved Major.
Takeshi Kitano portrays commander Aramaki, and he threatens to steal the show on more than one occasion. Though he’s still and silent for much of the film, he always makes his presence known. When he finally does take action, he supplies the rather dour proceedings with a couple of much needed crowd pleasing moments.
Helping to supply said dour tone is composer Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s haunting techno influenced score. I’m only marginally familiar with the anime that served as the basis for the film, but from what I could glean it sounds like the composers utilized bits of the original film’s score to realize their own. The result is rather stunning, and does a lot of heavy lifting to place the audience within the film’s setting and mood. Not that the film needs the score to do that.
Director Rupert Sanders and his team of costume and set designers deliver Oscar worthy work in bringing ‘Ghost in the Shell’s’ world to life. The filmmakers reliance on practical effects serves the film well, providing an authenticity we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. The costumes and makeup effects are breathtaking and all serve to make the world feel like a living and breathing place.
On top of its masterful visual flair and use of tone, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ also manages to deliver some truly thrilling action sequences. While the bouts of mayhem may seem a little too few and far between for action junkies, what we do get is as visually interesting as the rest of the film. A climactic battle between the Major and what’s known in the film as a “Spider Tank” is particularly memorable.
Though the controversy surrounding the film is unfortunate, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, when viewed objectively, is a great film. It’s higher minded than most action movies, and visually it’s nothing less than a masterpiece. As I stated before, I’m not very familiar with the source material, and as someone who usually has a hard time with anime (an understatement really), purists and fans of the original should take my opinion with a grain of salt. With that said, from my plebeian point of view, the film stands as a visionary work of art. My only hope is that the film will do well enough overseas to encourage more live action adaptations of anime properties. It’s the only way I’ll ever be able to engage with the material.
RATING: 4.5 OUT OF 5