Reviewer: Hannah Woodhead
Director: Rupert Sanders
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Juliette Binoche
Released: March 30th, 2017
Months before it came anywhere near the big screen, Rupert Sauder’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell had a problem. The decision to cast white actors in the majority of main roles in a live-action version of a cult Japanese manga/anime did not go unnoticed by fans around the world, and many took to social media to voice their disappointment in Hollywood’s decision. “I think when people see the film they’ll understand the casting choices,” said Sanders smugly.
Well, Rupert – I saw the film. I understand the casting choices. You made the wrong ones.
It seems he meant that he decided to cast Scarlett as the character of Major to differentiate her from the world in which she exists, but the logic is flawed, and as the film drags on, it’s increasingly obvious that Johansson’s casting wasn’t anything to do with a conscious decision about storytelling. It was an attempt to make the film appeal to a wider audience, and indeed for large portions of the film Johansson cavorts around in a strange almost-nude ensemble that seems to fetishise the character. In fact, the film isn’t short on creepiness: there’s a transphobic joke, and an uncomfortable scene which implies a sexual assault is about to happen. The Major’s beauty is mentioned almost constantly, and you get the sense that the characters aren’t referring to the miracle of cybernetic enhancement. Whilst these could have been opportunities for the film to make a statement, that never happens, and it all feels gratituitous.
Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress – that’s a fact. She was spellbinding in Under the Skin and brought a character to life with nothing but the power of her voice in Her. Yet in Ghost in the Shell she doesn’t have the chance to really do much acting – so much of the film is concentrated on action sequences. The small parts of character development we do see are interesting and Johansson is more than capable of providing the delicate balance of vulnerability and grit that The Major requires, but it’s lost amidst the scramble to make the film big, bold and action-packed. It’s one fight scene after another, the only respite coming in the touching scene where The Major reunites with her mother, played by the wonderful Kaori Momoi. Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk and Juliette Binoche are a fine supporting cast too, but there’s too many characters given too little to do for any of it to really matter. If you come out of the film remembering any character’s name but The Major, pat yourself on the back for paying very close attention.
There are some positives to note beside the acting – Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe have produced an excellent score, and the visuals are stunning in IMAX, but too much of Ghost in the Shell is soured by an attempt to westernise a story that should have been treated with more respect.
There’s a serious lack of pacing at play too – at 106 minutes, this isn’t a long movie, but it definitely feels it. The first half drags and the second half glosses over much of the material that made the anime so unique and compelling. In fact the whole plot is largely changed and additions made, and the ending a definite departure from the original. Like Spike Lee’s Old Boy remake, it just feels unnecessary, like the story has been watered down for an audience who the producers assume have a limited attention span.
It’s lazy casting that ignores the fact that Asian audiences are criminally underrepresented in Hollywood, and Asian actors continually denied parts as studios have a ridiculous fear of alienating potential audiences. “You need a figurehead movie star,” said Sanders – so what about Rinko Kikuchi, the breakout star of Pacific Rim, or Kiko Mizuhara, the Asian-American actress who starred in Norwegian Wood and Attack on Titan? What about Rila Fukushima, who starred in The Wolverine, Arrow and – here’s the kicker – plays a robot Geisha in Ghost in the Shell?! Hollywood has a responsibility to audiences to introduce them to new talent and to represent the world for the brilliant, colourful diverse place it really is. Actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were catapulted to superstardom by their roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – big budget films can afford to take risks. Suggesting they are at the mercy of “what the fans want” is a complete cop-out.
Even if you try to ignore the obvious racism and creepy overtones in the film, this adaptation lacks the passion and emotion of its source material. The best films evoke some sort of emotional reaction from viewers – laughter, sadness, fear, anger. Ghost in the Shell evokes very little than a sense of wasted time. It’s definitely not the worst blockbuster ever made, but it’s far from the best, and the manga deserved better. Viewers deserve better. If you’re interested in the story, watch the fantastic original anime series first, and then if you feel the need, perhaps give this film an outing – but you might prefer to spend your time watching other films that deal with similar themes: Dredd, Under the Skin and Ex Machina are all far superior films and more worthy of your time.