This past week, Hollywood’s live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii’s hugely influential science fiction anime from 1995, opened in cinemas around the world, arriving under a cloud of controversy.
Not only do protective fans of Oshii’s film, and Masamune Shirow’s source manga, seem averse to any anglicized incarnation of their beloved property, but the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of cyborg law enforcer Major Mokoto Kusanagi has been met with sustained accusations of whitewashing.
These criticisms are not without merit. Directed by Rupert Sanders, whose only previous credit was 2012’s misguided Snow White and the Huntsman, the new film plays fast and loose with its source material, cherry picking set-pieces and visual motifs, while shifting the focus away from the hunt for cyber-terrorist The Puppet Master and on to the Major’s own origin story.
A human brain transplanted into a cybernetic body, Johansson’s Major is the property of Hanka Robotics, and part of a special-ops tactical police unit known as Section 9.
According to her creators, Major’s mind, or “ghost,” was all that survived a terrorist attack that also claimed her parents. But strange hallucinations and dreams appear to be showing her flashbacks of a very different past.
Nominally set in a futuristic Japan, Ghost in the Shell plays out against a backdrop that is unmistakably Hong Kong – a flashing facade of holographic billboards and shimmering skyscrapers obscuring dank, dilapidated tenements and industrial wastelands.
The city was also the primary inspiration for both Shirow and Oshii, and Sanders’ film is at its best when taking in this augmented cyberpunk cityscape.
Boasting three credited writers, with many more rumored to have contributed over the years, what was once a hugely innovative and visionary piece of work now feels derivative to the point of redundancy.
Falling somewhere between Blade Runner and RoboCop, while never coming close to the iconic status of either, Ghost in the Shell offers few dramatic surprises or philosophical revelations. Even more disappointing, the action also falls flat.
For all of Johansson’s ethnic inappropriateness, there is no escaping the fact she is now the most bankable actress in Hollywood, and thanks to her involvement in the Marvel Universe, a more-than-capable action heroine. But she has also shown a keen interest in roles that challenge the limitations of the human body, and our relationship with technology.
In Jonathan Glazer’s unsettling sci-fi drama Under the Skin (2013), Johansson plays a predatory alien that prowls around Scotland in a transit van, seducing unwitting men and digesting them in a giant pool of black goo. The same year she also applied her sultry vocal talents to the disembodied voice of Samantha – Joaquin Phoenix’s new computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her.
In both films, Johansson subverts the stereotype of “attractive female,” weaponizing her womanly wiles to exploit the inherent weakness of sad, lonely males, before ascending to a higher plain of existence.
The following year, in Luc Besson’s surprise hit Lucy, Johansson – triggered by a leaky bag of experimental drugs – pushed her body and mind beyond their traditional limitations.
Her eponymous heroine first develops physical and mental abilities to rival any of her Avengers teammates, before evolving into an organic, technological hybrid – a living computer – that again proves too powerful for her human form to contain.
Lucy was a massive success, taking over US$460 million worldwide from a paltry US$40 million budget.
Not only did this cement Johansson’s position as one of the only Hollywood actresses who can “open a movie” on the strength of her name alone, but surely made her the perfect candidate to portray a superhuman combat robot policing a dystopian future. Especially one in which the lines between human and computer have become irrevocably blurred.
In an attempt to defend the casting of a Caucasian Danish-American in a role always hitherto depicted as Japanese, the lead character in Sanders’ film is renamed Major Mira Killian, only later revealing her original human name to be Mokoto Kusanagi. It reassures the naysayers that its heroine really is still Japanese, or her “ghost” is at least, and merely housed in a Johansson-shaped (and colored) “shell.”
The script even goes so far as to give Major the mantra – “It’s not who we are, but what we do that defines us” – but if only it had fulfilled this promise.
Had Ghost in the Shell capitalized on casting Johansson, engaged her dramatic capabilities more effectively and choreographed a couple of standout fight scenes, audiences may have complained less about her involvement.
As is, the film is only interested in its aesthetics, thereby accentuating its bogus casting choice, and exposing itself as being all shell, very little ghost.