In a dystopian, futuristic Tokyo, the line between humanity and technology has blurred. Virtually everyone is “enhanced” in some way, possessing cybernetic limbs, eyes, or, in the case of the film’s protagonist, an entire body. She is the first of her kind; a human consciousness, or “ghost,” inside an entirely robotic body, or “shell.” As such, she is stronger, faster, and more intelligent than regular people, and has absolutely no fear of death or injury, since she can just be rebuilt after being destroyed. This makes her the ideal police officer, and that’s precisely what she is, a member of the elite Crime Fighting Unit, Section 9, which takes down terrorists that threaten this new world. But when several high-ranking scientists of a prominent robotics firm wind up dead, and she and her teammates start investigating, she learns that there is more to her origin, and the man perpetrating these murders, than meets the eye.
Ghost In The Shell is not a movie I was looking forward to seeing. For starters, it’s a cartoon adaptation, and if films like Dragonball Evolution, The Last Airbender, and Speed Racer have taught us anything, its that cartoon adaptations tend to suck. Secondly, the film is directed by Rupert Sanders, the man behind Snow White and the Huntsman, a movie which I, and most other people, really didn’t like. And, finally, its starring Scarlet Johansen, an actress I’ve never been a fan of, and who is White, and yet, somehow, playing a Japanese character named Motoko Kusunagi. None of what I saw left me with much hope. And yet, I still went to go see it, partly because I’m an optimist who likes to believe things can turn out great, and partly because I don’t like to trash movies I’ve not actually seen. If I’m going to talk shit about a film, I’m going to do so based on my own viewing experience, and not what was said online. Well, I’ve seen Ghost In The Shell, and I can safely say, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. It’s worse.
Now, before I launch into my many, many criticisms of this movie, I want to mention some positives, some things it did right. First of all, it’s beautiful to look at. The futuristic landscape, technology and costumes are all superb. There are some very impressive action sequences in this movie, and I have to give praise to the effects team, set designers and stuntmen for making this film as visually appealing as it is. Secondly, the score is appropriately eerie, and otherworldly sounding. It compliments the futuristic setting well, and helps provide certain moments with proper amounts of pathos. And, finally, the core concept of this film–people merging with technology, and questioning what makes them human as a result–is fascinating. So, from an audio, visual and conceptual standpoint, this film is great.
Such a shame, therefore, that the rest of the movie isn’t. Now, if any of you think I’m just harping on this movie because I’m Chinese-American, and they didn’t cast an Asian actress to play the lead role, you’re wrong. I don’t like the fact that they did that, and I’ll address that later on in this review, but, the truth is, most of my issues with the film are structural; acting, dialogue, pacing, etc. I’ll address those first, and then get on my soap box.
So, where to begin? The dialogue in this movie is terrible. There are so many corny, inhuman lines–“your boat, your refugee boat, was sunk by terrorists,” “you are reducing a complex human being to a mere machine,” “I will find him. I will kill him. It is what I was made to do”–that people in my theater were actually laughing. And while you might make the argument that those lines were written to be unnatural sounding, since most characters in this film are cybernetic ally enhanced, most of the film’s cheesy dialogue is given to entirely human characters. So it’s not the people in the film who don’t know how human beings talk. It’s the people who wrote the film. The acting is also extremely bad. Everyone delivers their lines in this stiff, stilted manner that just sounds weird. And, again, before you make the argument that this is a world where people are more machine than human, it’s worth noting that most of the actors–Pilou Asbeck, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han–speak English as a second language. There were several points in the film where they said awkward sounding sentences, and I could just tell that it was them struggling with the dialogue. The pacing is also all over the place. It goes from very fast, to very slow, and never manages to make the transition between the two seem natural. People in my theater were yawning, checking their phones, and even leaving after the forty minute mark, precisely because of how boring the movie got. That’s not good. All films, regardless of whatever political or artistic agenda might have spawned them, are meant to be entertaining. If a movie can’t get you invested, it’s not worth seeing. So, already, you should have a laundry list of reasons why not to see this movie. It’s boring, poorly acted, and the dialogue is atrocious. And that’s not even getting into the controversy surrounding this film.
In case you haven’t heard, a lot of people, myself included, were upset when they learned that a beloved Japanese anime, set in the Far East, with Asian characters, and distinctly Asian themes, was getting the Hollywood whitewash treatment. It all started when a photograph of Scarlet Johansen, her hair straightened, dyed black, and with CGI effects on her eyes to make her look more Asian, was posted on the internet. A lot of people got angry, and demanded that the filmmakers change their leading lady. But, rather than admit that they’d made a mistake, the director, the actors, and many angry trolls on the internet pushed back. They said we were overreacting. They said we were thin-skinned cry babies. They said that it wasn’t whitewashing, because the character is a robot, and robot’s don’t have racial identities. They said that it was necessary, because you can’t possibly make a big budget Hollywood movie without a White star headlining it. They said that it was totally fine for them to do it, because Japanese people, like the director of the original film, Mamoru Oshii, weren’t offended by Scarlet Johansen’s casting. And so on. And so on.
First of all, yes it is whitewashing. A Japanese character, with a Japanese name, whose entire storyline takes place in a futuristic Tokyo, is being played by a white woman. That’s the textbook definition of whitewashing; when a white person plays a character who isn’t white. Her being a robot doesn’t change that fact. Think of it this way; Superman is an alien. But if you were to ask anyone who looked at him what his race was, they’d say “white.” Because that’s what he is; a white alien. Same with Motoko Kusunagi. She’s a Japanese robot. Second of all, the notion that you can only make big budget blockbusters with white stars just isn’t true. Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes–they’ve all headlined major action and sci-fi franchises, and none of them are white. Thirdly, just because someone doesn’t find something offensive doesn’t mean it’s not bad. Many women, like Kellyanne Conway and Scottie Nell Hughes, weren’t offended by Donald Trump’s “pussy grabbing” comment. That doesn’t not make it vulgar and horrifying. And regarding the Japanese not being offended, it’s important to remember that Japan is an extremely homogenous nation. 98.5% of the population are the same race. Losing roles to White actors isn’t something Japanese actors need to worry about, because there are no White actors in the Japanese film industry. In America, however, where this film was made, and where its being marketed, that is a very real thing. Very, very few roles in American movies are written for Asian actors, and, very often, leading Asian characters will end up being played by White people. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Linda Hunt in The Year Of Living Dangerously, Jim Sturgess in 21, Emma Stone in Aloha–the list goes on.
And yet, the truth is, you don’t need any of the facts I just listed to prove why the casting of Scarlet Johansen is wrong. The movie does that for you. See, for the first half of the film, she believes that her name is Mira Killian, and that she came to Japan as a refugee. But then, halfway through, she learns that none of that backstory was true. She wasn’t a refugee. She was born in Japan. Her name wasn’t Mira Killian. It was Motoko Kusunagi. And she wasn’t White. She was Asian, and then got turned White when they made her a robot. The filmmakers literally turned the whitewashing of Motoko’s character into a major plot point. That has got to be one of the dumbest, most insulting decisions they could possibly have made. Why, filmmakers who are taking heat for not casting an Asian woman, would you make it so that the character was Asian, but then got turned White? You’re literally proving all your critics right by doing so.
Guys, don’t watch Ghost In The Shell. I’m ashamed of myself for having given money to this thing. Don’t waste your time, or your dollars, on this insulting pile of garbage. Hopefully, if this film bombs hard enough, Hollywood will think twice about casting White people in major, POC roles.