The trend of creating Americanized remakes of foreign films is one ingrained in the very backbone of Hollywood. There is a great fear of being forced to watch films in a different language with subtitles that seems to fuel our need for remakes of superior foreign films. Add to that the Disney custom of turning its animated library into live action cash grabs and you’ll see that an American live action remake of Ghost in the Shell was going to be a tragic inevitability.
Visually, the film has so much to offer and is easily the most enjoyable result of this remake. Ghost in the Shell recreates the anime’s world into a Blade Runner fetish fantasy complete with android and cyborgs galore. The color palette of the entire film is a Harajuku wonderland that draws us in with its brilliance while simultaneously providing a pretty cover for a hollow film. The robotics aspect comes to life in all of its tech punk glamor, even if many of the designs are regurgitations from films of sci-fis past. Ghost in the Shell is all about the blending of organic and inorganic elements together, but aside from the pretty packaging, nothing else melds with it cohesively.
Fans of the anime are familiar with Major and her cybernetic journey into autonomy and against mind controlled humans with cybernetic enhancements. It’s a story all too familiar in sci-fi, but the power in the original Ghost wasn’t just the amazing visuals and fluid animation, but the fact that we were given a powerful female character in a time where they were in very short supply. This Japanese-made anime focuses on the story of Major AKA Motoko Kusanagi, who is part of a cybercrime team but is also the most technologically enhanced person on it. She deals with ideas of humanity existing in a cybernetic shell, self-identity and free will, and even accepting and embracing female sexuality. For decades she has been a badass role model to Japanese women and it’s unfortunate to see that change in this remake.
The writing team consisting of Ehren Kruger (the past 3 Transformers films), Jamie Moss and William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe, The LEGO NINJAGO Movie) try to reappropriate the original story into something that will fill the longer runtime and fit with their new vision of Major and the story. That means giving more of an origin story of some of the characters, which works especially well when we see how Batou (Pilou Asbæk) got his iconic eyes. It fails as the story becomes more and more convoluted, bending to fit the new themes and ideas forced into the narrative. The most disturbing change in the film comes when we are told the origins of Major and why her name isn’t Motoko. It isn’t so much the way it works in the story since they build up to that obvious reveal just fine. The problem presents itself when it is used as a way for the filmmakers to justify their whitewashing since they developed it into the story. The remake would be much less problematic if they would have just kept the core story ideas but make it truly America by setting in a New York or Los Angeles-type setting. Instead, the film not only takes the identity of the main character but still finds it acceptable to keep its Tokyo-based setting and the gorgeous visual and cultural elements that stem from Japanese culture and ancestry.
Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) knows how to make battles look beautiful, but that doesn’t help the film’s pacing or plotholes. Sanders reuses the same slow-motion action style that he used in his previous film. Outwardly he appears to be championing strong female characters, but his camerawork shows that he is more interested in long takes focusing on only their beauty. That makes sense for a film like Snow White, where the main drama in the story is based on superficial beauty but seems more out of place in Ghost. If he was trying to champion female empowerment and embracing female sexuality, the film would have accurately recreated the scenes when Major turns on her camouflage. Instead, get a muted, watered down and whitewashed version of the acclaimed anime that is both afraid of female sexuality and of showing the juxtaposition of the beautiful world and the gruesome violence in it.
Despite Scarlett Johansson’s casting, she performed perfectly. Her performance is as close to the real Major as we could ever hope to get. Every mannerism was nuanced, from the hulking, broad-shouldered way she walked to the stone-faced expressions. Even though many of the casting choices were questionable, it was nice to see the diversity in the casting, even if it skewed more toward the white side than any other. There are those of you reading this and wondering why the race of the person matters and the simplest explanation I can give you is that nobody likes their stories taken, changed and told by people who don’t represent the story. Representation and intention both matter, especially to those of us who still go underrepresented on screen. Not caring about that gets us projects like The Great Wall, Iron Fist, and Gods of Egypt.