Note: This article contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell.
The Ghost in the Shell franchise is known for its poetic commentary on technology, social constructions, privacy and self-identification. The world takes our own modern information fetish and extrapolates to a far future where it's rare to not have a cybernetic enhancement jammed into your body. The line between human and machine is blurred by sprawling cities full of individuals who gladly welcome pacts with mechanical gods and devils in exchange for information and power.
Within this world, the franchise follows the Major (most recently Scarlett Johansson), a human brain in the body of an incredibly lifelike, military-grade robot. As she is almost entirely a construct except for her "ghost," Major gives us an insight into the blurriest areas of this universe via her exploits as a member of the special-ops Section 9 intelligence team. This setting installs the most cybernetic human into the crossfire of extreme cyberwarfare and violent cyberterrorism.
It's a difficult, complex property to do justice — and so far the internet and the box office seem to agree that there was a lot of room for mistakes in this new Western adaptation of the Japanese classic. But it's not all doom and gloom, as internet commenters might have you believe. Yes, there are serious flaws here, and we'll explore those, but there are also some seriously redeeming qualities that deserve a nod.
Winner: The Ensemble Cast
When people say nice things about Ghost in the Shell, you'll probably hear a lot about the role of CGI and the impressive visuals. But the shining star is the ensemble cast, by far.
Section 9 feels like a cohesive and diverse unit. You never question their efficacy and their banter is a joy when they're given the screen time. While the two-hour runtime sadly doesn't give the ensemble as much attention as deserved, the scenes that do exist are the strongest moments of the entire film; the moments that say something meaningful about the core themes are all motivated by members of the Section 9 ensemble.
We have fun quips about one member getting a synthetic liver purely to be able to drink as much booze as he wants, which swiftly demonstrates how they are often cavalier toward enhancements. We have other moments where Batou's (Pilou Asbæk) jagged warmth and charisma contribute a humanizing foil that allows Johansson's Major to show her personality. Later in the film, Chief Aramaki's (Takeshi Kitano) decision to wield an old six-shooter pistol feels like a smart and authentic choice to show off how some people might buck their cybernetic world.
Plus, the Chief's writing and performance around the topic of consent is probably the most important conversation about bodily autonomy and female agency I've seen in a tentpole movie. The ensemble cast alone has me genuinely excited for a sequel.
More Ghost in the Shell:
- 'Ghost In The Shell' Raises An Interesting Question About The Connection Between Our Race & The Soul
- 'Ghost In The Shell' Doesn't Need A Sequel, It Needs A Prequel
- Let's Hack You Into The Grid: 5 Movies Like 'Ghost In The Shell'
Speaking of, let's talk about consent for a minute. Due to Major's degree of cybernetics, she requires fairly regular invasive aid from her creator Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). To engage these repairs, Major must say the phrase: "I am Major and I give my consent." It's a line that is repeated throughout the film for every repair, invasive or not.
Later on, when Dr. Ouelet is ordered to give Major a lethal injection, tears stream down Johansson's face as she desperately says, "I am Major and I do not give my consent." She says this broken and defeated. Her villainous captor Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) says sharply, "We never needed your consent." It's a brutal confrontation of rape culture before Major is eventually rescued by a rebellious Ouelet.
Where some of Ghost in the Shell's larger questions go unanswered, this is one that gets a satisfactory resolution. When Cutter is finally defeated, Chief Aramaki levels his pistol at Cutter and asks, "Major, do I have your consent?" She responds confidently with her repeated line that she does consent, and the Chief shoots Cutter dead. It's an unprompted line from Aramaki that speaks volumes about the relationship between the Major and Aramaki.
Now, the basics of consent being represented in mainstream film shouldn't be remarkable, but it's refreshing to see Ghost in the Shell effectively model the topic.
Not only does the movie address consent, but it also does so with the tools it has. Instead of an over-the-top rape scenario, Ghost in the Shell addresses the topic via its core thematic struggle between personal identity and corporate technology. Here, consent isn't about sex per se, but about identity and autonomy. While digital accounts are trivial compared to rape, everyone can relate to the fear of an outsider accessing their personal virtual identity. It's an efficient way to code and contextualize violation that makes consent more easily relatable to people who perhaps struggle to grasp the atrocity of rape; Ghost in the Shell smartly reimagines consent as a way to password protect your own body.
Winner: World Building
Alright, we'll get this out of the way: The world is impressive and not just because the CGI looks pretty. This is a genuinely fun world to explore.
The world of Ghost in the Shell feels like it lives and breathes, and the massive holo-billboards deliver an engaging message about the direction of this interoperation of a commercial society. There's little exposition of the world's political and social climate, but the advertisements and the general depiction of a large city give us great clues to parse on our own. We're left to piece together what's normal or not as we flash through crowded, sensory-overloaded streets packed with augmentations, robotic arms, moving billboards, and a cornucopia of neon.
Further, the texture of this world comes from the sharp juxtaposition between the bright gloss in the city above and the grungy cyberpunk undergrounds, where the desperate get back-alley augmentations with dirty needles and shaven techno-cultists hook themselves up to digital collective consciousness. These grim realities of an advanced future are unexplained, serving as fantastic visual context for more pointed narratives about identity and techno necessity. Ghost in the Shell might struggle to pursue those pointed narratives effectively, but it does succeed in steeping its audience in a rich world.
Winner: The Original Ghost In The Shell Anime
Because the world is so wonderfully overwhelming, and the ensemble work is so strong, viewers will only find more to love if they give the original film or anime series a go. This new Ghost in the Shell is a fantastic entry point to a much bigger universe. The earlier series more fully explores all of the questions that the new interpretation raises, and then some.
I will say, however, the 1995 anime will continue to stand the test of time — and this one probably will not. Mired by a forgettable corporate villain, a clumsy third act, and a miscast Johansson, it seems clear that the original outshines this interpretation of Ghost in the Shell. While this outing shows the promise of what a live-action GitS could be, the animated original already showed us more than a promise 20 years ago.
Ghost in the Shell is a movie uncertain of how smart its audience is. In some scenes, especially the first act, we're given laborious exposition full of characters directly explaining the concepts of "ghost" and "shell" to each other — needlessly. In other scenes, our stunted villain Cutter all but says, "Look at me, I'm evil," as he unabashedly motivates with cookie-cutter (maybe that's the joke?) corporate greed and warmongering.
Moments like these are always gratuitous, uncomfortable, and make you really feel the two-hour runtime. But these moments mostly come off as more inconsistent rather than condescending, especially considering the rest of the world building is far more subtle.
In contrast, other moments give the audience's intelligence a lot of credit, and the best instances, again, come from the few moments where the ensemble gets a chance to shine. At one point, when Batou is in certain peril, the film simply cuts away and skips the ensuing fight in its entirety. Instead of feeling robbed of a presumably badass combat sequence, this was one of the moments that I couldn't but smile at. "You know Batou is not in trouble," the cut says, "so why bother pretending?" The film makes a clever pacing decision and trusts the audience know why the scene was unnecessary and why skipping it is so charming.
Not only do we skip that fight, it's also never mentioned or referenced after the cut. It's one of the most delightful non-scenes I've ever seen because it inherently abandons the exposition that bogs down other sequences.
Loser: ScarJo's Major
Despite your feelings about the whitewashing controversy — and don't worry, we'll get to that — Johansson was a Major miscast. This new interpretation of the Major doesn't feel like she's allowed to emote, and feels far more stiff and awkward and small compared to the source material's version of the heavy and confident Major.
When the anime Major runs across a rooftop, the roof tiles cave and warp from her mechanical weight; when she rips off part of tank, every muscle of her powerful build bulges. But when Johansson does the same things, there is no dent in the roof and her cybernetics bulge more than her muscles. God forbid a woman be muscley.
She just doesn't have the heft. And the stiff swagger #ScarlettJohansson adopts to compensate just comes off as an awkward and obvious stage direction.
And no, I'm not just griping here because I don't like this interpretation as a fan of the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell. The fact that the Major's body is so different than everyone else's feels like an important part of her own struggle with her humanity. She's more powerful in some ways and more vulnerable in other ways, because we need to be reminded that the Major is even more distinctly inhuman than the world of cyborgs surrounding her.
This otherness is touched upon in the film's dialogue, but ultimately feels under-explored due to ScarJo's limited opportunity to reveal the Major's otherness with her physicality. Where the anime's Major relies on propulsion floaters to keep her heavy body afloat and alive in water, ScarJo's Major can just swim.
Given her limited dialogue, the Major really needed an apparent physicality and body language to compensate, but we just don't get that.
Loser: Asian Representation
Hollywood whitewashing is a problem and Ghost in the Shell somehow managed to do worse than just miscast the protagonist due to systemic biases. The issue isn't as simple as "The Major was Asian in the original so she should be Asian here."
Don't misread, that is still a perfectly apt argument. This is a beloved and already successful Japanese franchise and the fact that one of the best opportunities to break the mold and promote an Asian actress was ignored is fucking ridiculous.
That is, sadly, only the beginning. In the film, we eventually learn that Major Mira's brain originally belonged to a young Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi, but that brain is now in Johansson's caucasian body. We also learn that the red herring antagonist Kuze (Michael Pitt) was also once a Japanese man but was put into a white body. Please note that Pitt was not billed as a major A-lister lead, as Johansson is often justified, and could have easily been an Asian actor.
In the third act, Major visits and meets her Japanese mother, and they later rejoin at Motoko's grave. What is meant to be a satisfying scene of closure instead further highlights that the Major was Asian and is now white, for no justifiable reason.
It's a bad look.
Ghost in the Shell is a franchise that has always had very sharp things to say about identity, bodily ownership, and the consequences of its hyper-evolved but very fraught international landscape. And this Ghost in the Shell almost has something important to say about these things, but somehow misses the mark.
We almost see a woman confronting the fact that her Asian identity has been erased by a culture that, even after seeming to break down every other barrier, still considers white to be the default. Almost. We're so close. But instead we get the Major staring at Motoko's grave without addressing the issue at hand. It's painful to watch a golden opportunity slip by. An Asian woman is erased, and the new white version survives. Even if you would argue that Johansson needed to be cast for the movie to exist, it's difficult to deny the film couldn't at least say something about whitewashing when presented an obvious in-world chance to do so.
I was at first pleasantly surprised that the movie addressed the issue of race at all, and Johansson's Major meeting her Japanese mother is a moment on the cusp of making a significant statement. But it just doesn't happen. And it's frustrating.
I Want To See A Sequel To Ghost In The Shell That Does More Of The Good Stuff
I mentioned this earlier, and it's genuine. I really would like to see another go at a live-action Ghost in the Shell that further explores the world and allows Section 9 to take on a role just as important as the Major's. As we've seen in this outing and the original anime, the joy of Ghost in the Shell is the Major's role at the static-blurred lines of techno futurism, backed by a fantastic team in a fantastical world. And maybe that's what ultimately feels out of place — this is more of an origin story and less of a journey through the world.
Ghost in the Shell isn't meant to be an origin story about the Major or about how civilization gets to be a wondrous, technological clusterfuck — that's always taken for granted. The franchise is more often about how we navigate humanity with the help of, and in spite of, our technology. The same applies to the Major here. The fact that this Ghost in the Shell is an origin story means we skip out on a huge part of what makes the series so fun, and bizarrely enough the live-action franchise will only improve once it commits to taking its universe and core characters for granted. The technology is cold and exotic and the ensemble is warm and familiar, and the Major is most interesting when she's navigating the two.
Ghost in the Shell is out now.