The year 2017 keeps on rolling and the remakes keep popping up as soon as the plot of the last one has left our memories. One of the more controversial examples, at least if we’re talking casting, is Rupert Sanders‘ live-action remake of the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell; a movie I have not seen from beginning to end, but am still acquainted with enough to know that it’s poorly told and vague for the sake of seeming deep and impenetrable, humorously lazy in its sound design, and also perverted in that “horny 10 -year-old” sort of way that animes are known for. One might argue that nothing of value was lost with this remake.
The main protagonist of the anime and the manga that inspired it is Mira Killian, a victim of cyberterrorism resurrected as a military android, played for this re-imagining by Scarlett Johansson; that famous Japanese actress. She lives in a futuristic metropolis with both Eastern and Western influences, somewhat similar to that of Pacific Rim but with less monsters and more operational streets and ad holograms. Everyone around her is either a robot or a human with cybernetic implants, but she is often re-assured by her partner in crime-fighting Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and her creator Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche) that she’s not like the other robots.
A year after her creation, “Major” Killian works for counter-terrorist group Section 9, led by the scowling Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), and is investigating the murders of people tied to Hanka Robotics, the company that built her body, all of which are performed by robots and cyborgs hijacked by an elusive being known as Kuze (Michael Pitt). As the mission progresses, Killian is plagued by memories she’s not sure she’s meant to have and makes revelations about her being that aren’t entirely surprising if you’ve ever seen a movie before.
However, this is not really an issue with the film as much as it’s an effect similar to that of John Carter and the upcoming Valérian and Laureline adaptation. Yes, the movie in question indeed resembles many other works of sci-fi but it is important to realize that it is based on something that came long before and likely inspired the films you’re thinking of; in this case The Matrix and The Fifth Element.
Although its predictable plot can be excused, Ghost in the Shell still has problems. Many of the side-characters (including a “pure” human played by Chin Han and a Hanka Robotics chairman played Peter Ferdinando) are short on the dimensions, the editing of certain scenes needs work (the pacing leaves little room for the emotions to breathe and characters to develop), and its philosophy with regards to humanity and technology struck me as muddled and murky. The best part about the movie, in any event, is the visuals, sets, and locations.
As low as my expectations were, it was pleasantly surprising to see how beautiful it looked. It is a visual marvel; as if someone took the Neo Seoul storyline from Cloud Atlas and further explored all the unimaginable inventions, trinkets, and corners of its world. A large part of what we see is thanks to practical effects, by the way, which is welcome even when the digital effects are merged with them near-flawlessly.
I’ve been on a roll giving poor reviews to needless remakes, sequels and everything else lately and I am surprised that Ghost in the Shell would be the one to contain enough good things that I would ultimately recommend it. We all love excreting all over remakes but we should also be honest when credit is due and when the new version may be somewhat of an improvement.
And of course I realize that the white-washing can be partly excused by the fact that Killian is a synthetic human and that if most people had the power to create a person from their own design, they’d probably not hesitate to use Scarlett Johansson as a template. That said, I wouldn’t exactly have complained if they had cast someone like Rinko Kikuchi (even if this may have resulted in outrage from the other side of Western politics and yielded petulant cries of “white genocide”) or if they had scrapped certain aspects of the twist ending that make it, I dunno, a little obvious.
Another argument worth considering when it comes to white-washing is the fact that, when asked about their opinion of the casting in the American Ghost in the Shell remake, most Japanese viewers were found to not really give a shit, which could serve as a reminder that Asian movies with Asian actors is already a thing that exists and that the creators of said films don’t feel the same pressure to represent Western viewers in their cinema. That’s slightly more convincing than this other argument I’ve heard that Scarlett Johansson looks the part because her eyes are big and blue enough to do the anime justice, ergo everyone who has any objection should officially shut up. Well, I think we can all agree that this pretty much closes the case. A Japanese character who lives in a Japanese city and originally speaks Japanese should not be played by a Japanese actor; their eyes are too small.