Released 30th March (Australia)
Seen 21st December
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger
Produced by Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Shanghai Film Group, Huahua Media, Arad Productions, Steven Paul Production, Amblin Partners, Grosvenor Park Productions, Seaside Entertainment, Weying Galaxy Entertainment
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek & Juliette Binoche
In 1989 the manga Ghost In The Shell began it’s run and went on to become a landmark piece. Adapted multiple times into Anime, it’s style and aesthetic is something that has been copied dozens if not hundreds of times… and I’ve never seen any of it before. This is another case of me going into a movie without seeing the anime or reading a page of the manga and it’s important that I state that because even with a lack of knowledge regarding the history of the series, there are fundamental problems with this movie that go beyond the problems of a poor adaptation.
Story-wise this film feels garbled as can be. In simplest terms, the bulk of the story is about the main character Major (Scarlet Johansson) trying to discover the truth about her mysterious past… for maybe the last third, for the rest it’s a story about a cyborg named Kuze (Played by Michael Pitt) who is trying to get vengeance on the people who made him into a cyborg. These two plots are kind of linked, in that Major trying to find Kuze leads her to question her own past but they feel like they belong in different movies. That’s the feeling I got throughout this film, that this was a case of several previous stories being thrown together to create this one. That’s kind of a hazard when adapting long-running series into films, Deathnote showed us exactly how bad that can look, but Ghost In The Shell does a pretty awful job too. Entire characters feel out of place and not just because of the obvious issue regarding the casting that we’re going to get too, I promise.
Visually I will give absolute credit where it’s due that this film has some pretty nice shots, some feel like they’re mirroring imagery that’s so famous that anyone who has even heard of Ghost In The Shell will make a connection to it. It’s got some lovely framing and very often the effects work… but then there are shots where Major is running like she belongs in a pantomime and I proceed to giggle at how awful the shot looks because of it. There’s a shot right near the end where Major runs up a collapsing piece of building and the CGI they used to recreate Johansson is laughable, as is the giant Spider Tank (I don’t care if it’s in the Anime, Wild Wild West should’ve taught everyone that mechanical spiders in live action looks stupid). There are a lot of design choices that’re clearly done because they are a lift from the anime, forgetting that just because something works in animation form doesn’t mean it’ll look good when you make it live action.
Going back to the story, there are some problems with the structure that get to me. There’s an entire sequence where garbage men are hacked by Kuze so they can take out a target and it’s implied that they’re hacked while they’re on the job because they’re the closest people Kuze could find… the problem? Before being hacked one of them talks about a daughter, later on, it’s “Revealed” that he never had one and the memory was implanted… before he was hacked. I’m genuinely unsure if I misunderstood the film in this moment or if they just screwed up by not giving some key information, but I have a hunch that it’s explained in the anime and if that’s the case, film failure. Also, this same guy kills himself in a moment that should be dramatic but isn’t because the writers couldn’t be bothered to take their time with anything. This happens several other places too, there are moments that should give us a bit of characterisation or maybe inform the backstory and it’s just swept aside haphazardly.
Now we can make it to the obvious part… let’s talk about whitewashing. Now I did have a bit of a problem with the idea of an Asian character played by a white woman and yes there’s a ton of reasons behind it from them wanting the film to earn more money (How’d that go?) to the character’s ethnicity being unimportant (Thanks to my friend Emran for linking me to a video that kinda spelled out why a portion of my issue might not be valid). But here’s my biggest problem related to the whitewashing… this film has an Asian characters brain put into the body of a white woman. It’s explicit about this, they explicitly placed the brain of a young Asian woman into this robot who couldn’t look more white if they tried and they reveal it in the worst way. I’m sorry but you do not get much more whitewashing than literally dumping the brain of a person of colour into the body of someone who isn’t. If they had just set this adaptation in America, problem (mostly) solved. Location doesn’t really factor into the story in any meaningful way, this entire movie could’ve taken place in Pittsburgh and nothing would be lost. Sure it’d still be a white person playing the part of a character from an asian story but at very least the “It’s an asian brain in a white body” thing wouldn’t be happening and making things so much worse! I know they were trying to claim that they were doing it because Scarlett was going to bring in more money (She didn’t) but how hard would it have been to have found an Asian actress to play the lead? Doing that would’ve removed most of the awkwardness around the role and let people go in and enjoy the movie. It’s the most uncomfortable element and they had to know this was not going to work for them.
The film’s visuals are where everything works at it’s best, but it’s lack of focus on the writing, it’s indifference to narrative structure and it’s unavoidable casting issues make this something that’s harder to watch than it should be. It’s no shock to me that this film bombed financially and critically, it’s an absolute shock to me that they could screw it up this much.