Ghost in the Shell movie review: more like ghost in the meh-chine

Ghost in the Shell red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Trite characters, very well-worn clichés of SF cinema, and a mystery that is completely transparent. All about production design, and even that is familiar.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big science fiction fan
I’m “biast” (con): not much of an anime fan
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

No, I have not read the manga by Masamune Shirow. I have not seen the 1995 animated film. (I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.) I have not seen the 2002 animated TV series. I have not seen the 2013 animated web series. I have not seen the 2015 animated film. (All of these originated in Japan, and fit solidly into the genre of anime, a particular subcategory of storytelling of which I am not much of a fan.)

And that’s fine. Generally, it’s a neutral matter, whether or not a critic (or a civilian moviegoer) has consumed whatever source material gave birth to a movie; either is a valid experience of a film, and anyway, most people who see a film adaptation will not be familiar with the source material, particularly when it comes to books or comics, which have much smaller audiences than movies do.

“It’s the corpse of thoughtful science fiction cinema. Multiple causes of death.”
“It’s the corpse of thoughtful science fiction cinema. Multiple causes of death.”tweet

In this case, though, it might be an actively good thing that my first Ghost in the Shell experience is this Hollywood mounting, the first English-language telling of the story. Because my brain was not able to fill in everything that is missing from the plot and the characters, which is just about everything, and I could see clearly the precise sort of disappointing failuretweet it is. As I have said many times before, a movie needs to stand on its own, and this one does not. It would seem to require that the viewer be intimately steeped in, at the very least, either the original manga or the 1995 film (and maybe even then it won’t work; I’ll be curious to hear what GitS devotees make of this new movie). Me? With no such background info, I was bored by its trite and shallow characters, insulted by its retreat into very well-worn clichés of SF cinema, and bewildered by what is supposed to be its mystery yet which surely is completely transparent to everyone watching. (Except when it makes no damn sense at all. “The virus has spread,” someone says with alarm. Wait. Virus? What virus? Where has it spread to? Why is this bad, again?)

There was much consternation — and rightly so — about the casting of a white Western actress, Scarlett Johansson, in the central role here, of a character who is Japanese. Turns out, this is the least offensive thing about Ghost in the Shell.

A movie needs to stand on its own, apart from its source material, and this one does not.

It is sometime in the nearish future, in a sprawling and neon-drenched Japanese city, and Johansson (Sing, Captain America: Civil War) is Major, a human mind in a machine body — we can tell because Johansson walks stiffly except when she has to do some sexy cyborg ass-kicking, when suddenly she moves with smooth sleekness. She works for a rather nebulously defined law-enforcement agency called Section 9, which hunts terrorists or something; whatever they do is cool, though, the movie swears, and involves a lot of Major in a long black trench crouching on rooftops glaring out over the city, and also running around and bashing bad guys in what is meant to be either a skintight bodysuit or the actual shell of her cyborg body; Major might be naked, and ScarJo might as well be, heh heh.

(Um, so, yeah: Her name is Major. That was her rank in all the source material, wasn’t it? Just go with it, or whatever. There’s a bit where she’s surveilling bad guys and she says over her radio, “This is Major.” I thought she was saying, “This is major,” like, “There’s serious criminal shit happening here.” But it turned out not to rise to even that minimal level of intrigue.)

“Who’s the wiseass who thought a high-tech Rubik’s Cube was a good use of our resources?”
“Who’s the wiseass who thought a high-tech Rubik’s Cube was a good use of our resources?”tweet

Director Rupert Sanders, in his second feature after Snow White and the Huntsman, is obviously much more interested in signifiers of cyberpunk cool than in what any of it actually means. He was a director of commercials before he turned to movies, and he is doing nothing but selling here, or trying to: robot geishas, 50-foot-tall advertising holograms in the street, robots smoking cigarettes (no lung cancer for them!), and downloading your brain into a mechanical body, which seems awesome because you don’t feel pain even after beating the crap out of bad guys and getting shot in the process, and you’re repaired superquick. I think there is supposed to be some deep and troubled brooding about What That Means: something something identity, blah blah blah individuality,tweet oh noes cerebral hacking! But all we get are a few ostensible signifiers of “deep and troubling” — lots of furrowed brows, for one — which makes no sense in what tiny context there is here. Are we meant to be geeked by the idea of downloading our minds into robots, or freaked out? The movie cannot even take a stand on this. It somehow wants it all, and it doesn’t even know why. The best that might be said about Ghost in the Shell is that it accidentally highlights the problem of geeks embracing ideas that are potentially problematic. But the script — by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler — isn’t anywhere near self-aware enough to realize that that is what it might be doing.

Director Rupert Sanders is much more interested in signifiers of cyberpunk cool than in what any of it actually means.

Instead we get a “mystery” about scientists at Hanka, the company that made Major, turning up murdered, and how maybe Major wasn’t told the truth about how her brain ended up in a robot (I’m shocked; shocked!). Someone Who Knows tells Major not to take the medication the scientists told her to take. Oh, really? Is the medication they told her was doing a Thing instead doing a different and entirely nefarious Thing? “I don’t know who to trust anymore,” says Major, like a thousand other characters have said in a thousand other movies in which There Is Something Going On. And we never know why we should care. Supposedly it’s encapsulated in the fortune-cookie wisdom of “We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do defines us,” as if what we do doesn’t become memories that define us. I guess that means that it isn’t, in fact, a problem if a diabolical corporation steals your memories, and everything is fine after all?

If only as much attention had been paid to plot and character as was paid to production design.tweet And even that seems to have been developed thusly: “Give me Blade Runner, Sanders surely said, “but, like, times a million.” Which does at least have the awesome effect of reminding me how great Blade Runner is, and that I really should watch it again soon.

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