Do androids dream of electric sheep—and if so, what colour? There’s no easy way around it: the loaded issue of whitewashing has been haunting this American remake of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell ever since Scarlett Johansson was cast as the cyborg Major, and it’s going to haunt the film even more now that audiences have had a chance to see it. Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 classic, may have dismissed the whitewashing debate in his support of the new film1, but the knives are still out—and with good reason. Had director Rupert Sanders and his team ignored or come up with a clever solution to their perceived racial switch, the remake might have at least dodged these charges; instead, the new movie doubles down on the problems in an effort to dispel them. And lest you think too much is being made of the issue, just wait ’til you see the film.
Sanders’ film is impressive enough on its “own,” or at least as impressive as a commercially-minded, committee-driven bastardisation of an iconic text might hope to be. No one’s disputing that a movie this expensive needs a star to open it—despite its regular fake outs, Hollywood’s running a profit-driven business, not a social consciousness factory—but Ghost in the Shell’s foolhardy racial politics are simply too hard to ignore. One of the very first shots in the movie is an out-of-focus but recognizably Japanese girl on a gurney being rushed into a hospital emergency ward, en route to donating her brain—or “ghost”—to Johansson’s newly-constructed femmebot Major Mira Killian, a genetically jacked-up super soldier designed to police crime in the film’s generic future-city. We know this because Juliette Binoche and her scientists spell out the cyborg-human synthesis for the cheap seats (this is a screenplay co-written by Ehren Kruger), in a movie that eschews the original’s poignancy and pause in favour of telegraphing its themes.
Sanders and his writers spend the first part of the movie assembling a strange amalgam of Oshii’s film and its sequel, with the Major, her boss Aramaki (a wonderful Takeshi Kitano), and gruff sidekick Batou (Pilou Asbæk) on the trail of a hacker possessing other cyborgs for nefarious means; just as the original’s Puppet Master did. With her hair jet black and cut cyberpunk-jagged to frame her expressive stillness, Johansson is certainly a serviceable choice for the existential robo-girl, but those hoping for the genius of her unpredictable performance in Lucy or the fascinating interiority of Under the Skin will find her ill-served2 by Sanders’ limited touch with his actors, which extends to otherwise committed turns from Binoche, Takeshi and Asbæk—all of whom should be doing weirder things in a world with no baseline for performance realism.
Despite his flat characterisation, Sanders has a great eye, which is to say an eye honed in high-end commercials that knows a good steal when he sees one. Having previously dabbled in anime theft by pilfering shots from Miyazaki in (his underrated) Snow White and the Huntsman, Sanders’ “honouring the source” mandate here appears to have given him free reign to lift sequences wholesale from Oshii, with its impossibly low-angle shots of clustered apartment blocks,retro sports cars and spider tanks mingling with elaborate CG variations. The filmmakers configure a world of high-rise sized holograms and design clutter that hyper-augments Blade Runner, Akira, Oshii and a zillion other cyberpunk sources, and emerges pretty dazzling in the process. An early sequence involving the Major busting in on a ring of bad guys while holographic fish circle a city office tower is frankly stunning to look at, and eye candy abounds in almost every frame. The sources might be a grab bag, but compared to the bland visual character of other blockbusters in recent memory—the Marvels and DCs, say—few Hollywood films of this size have looked this luminous.
But the film can only coast on its audio-visual design to a point. Just as its reverence to the original narrative starts to wear thin, the film twists midway into a kind of Blade Runner quest for life, with bad guy Kuze (played by an Apple-text voiced Michael “Carter” Pitt) cluing Johansson’s cyborg character in to the less-than-noble origins of her creation, and setting off a chain of old-school android payback. At first it feels like a fresh take on the story, but it’s soon overcome by the familiar tropes of Hollywood screenwriting cliché, with their tired deference to character origin and motivation. It’s also where the real trouble begins.
Whether by design or just blundering, fan-servicing naiveté, the backstretch of the film—and there are spoilers here, so be warned—reveals the Major’s “ghost” to be none other than Motoko3, a runaway Japanese girl captured by a sinister robotics firm and used as brain-meat to power Johansson’s superior cyborg. In a move that feels almost too outlandish to believe, Johansson’s Major is effectively rendered “Japanese on the inside,” and even gets to play a tender scene with her “mother” (Kaori Momoi), in a moment as awkward as it is affecting. It’s a bizarre justification for the character’s new and “improved” Caucasian shell, and not isolated: Pitt’s Frankensteined pretty boy cyborg is also revealed to have been one of Motoko’s pals named Hideo—both of them, and others, were rounded up by the robotics company looking for expendable human consciousness to fuel their machines.
Are we supposed to take seriously the implication that a white boss is kidnapping Japanese kids and loading their brains and souls into white bodies? Consider the film’s setting in an unnamed Asian city populated by a mishmash of races but whose superior positions are largely occupied by white people. Is the film a devious commentary on the white elite and colonisation? Might it actually be that smart?
It’s a wild theory for a 2017 blockbuster, all things considered, and as tempting as it is to excuse the movie on such speculative grounds, the filmmakers either seem unaware of such themes or simply unwilling to commit to fully exploring them. It’s hard to reconcile the cake-and-eat-it-too mentality in a film that features an unforgettably loaded image of Scarlett Johansson blasting away at a geisha—as recognisable a symbol of Japanese femininity as could be—until its face smashes apart in grotesque, disturbing close-up. This is also a movie that willfully perverts the technology-ambivalent message of Oshii’s original, replacing it with a sequel-conscious, pro-military finale that suggests the Major’s ghost is a Japanese girl content in a white body with a renewed dedication to its role as a weaponised pawn of the police state. Despite the considerable pleasures of Sanders’ film, that’s a depressing note to end on.