Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a frustrating film. For every interesting question about identity in a digitized world and moody, abstract sequence juxtaposing technology with human flesh, there’s a hammered-home thematic message or lopped-off scene. It’s a detective story that’s afraid to be mysterious, a biotech fable afraid to be unsettling, an identity narrative without personality. It’s worth your time and it isn’t all at once.
Perhaps these deficiencies were unavoidable. This movie is a prequel/remake of a very adult-aimed 1995 anime by the same name. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell is “adult” both in its images—it does not shy away from violence or sexuality—and in its questions – considering the ways technology complicates the various things that make us both individuals and human is a bit above kids’ levels of understanding. Ghost in the Shell (2017) obscures or simplifies all of that and feels abbreviated as a result. For example, the film begins but doesn’t end a scene where Major picks up a female prostitute, initiating but not finishing a consideration of sexual identity in a post-body world. This thread just floats away as the movie blasts toward its next gun fight.
Oh. I should say something about the story. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is an android cop with a lab-built body and a human brain, combining the best of both lifeforms – the prologue tells us – the first of her kind. There will soon be more like her, as her near-future society is obsessed with digitally and mechanically enhancing human bodies. A mysterious entity is killing the scientists who built her, and she and her squad are on the case to figure out who and why. Along the way, Major reflects on what she is and tries to discern her true identity. Is she woman or machine? There is frequent gunfire interspersed with scenes of Major trying to get away from it all and contemplate her existence. I sympathized. The detective scenes are good. The action scenes are not. An android with a human mind capable of free, creative thought on the digital plane would be especially good at gathering information and processing it, right? She wouldn’t necessarily be good at fighting. Inexplicably, this movie tilts toward hand-to-hand combat instead of intellectual dexterity.
The highlight of the movie is Takeshi Kitano’s weathered task force leader “Aramaki.” He’s weary of the bureaucracy, the secrets, the casualties, the questions. He clearly cares about his team members. He’s always the smartest guy in the room, and no one listens to him. He believes in the work even if the weight of the job itself threatens to meld him with his desk chair. His countenance fits the mood of the narrative better than Major’s. She sulks. He sighs. This movie is a prequel to the 1995 anime film, so it’s no spoiler to say he survives this, though there was one moment when I feared he wouldn’t. It was the worst thing I could imagine happening in the one hundred and seven minute period of my life I spent watching this movie.
Questions of the kind Ghost in the Shell prompts are worth asking. As we disseminate more and more of our identities online, and as that dissemination allows us to assume other identities at will, how to do we determine who we really are? A controversy has developed around the fact that Scarlett Johansson, a caucasian actor, was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a character who originated in Japanese culture. (You can read about the intricacies of the controversy here, and you should. Emily Yoshida’s article is excellent.) The questions Johansson’s casting (and the ways the filmmakers considered making her appear more “Asian”) raises about racial identity in a digital world are exactly the kinds of questions Ghost in the Shell wants to ask. It’s just a shame this addition to the story doesn’t ask them eloquently.
But hey, we still have the original film and now Yoshida’s excellent article as well. At least there’s that.