Lost in the Hell
“Why?” That’s the one question that permeated my mind over and over again when it came to this live action remake of the 1995 classic anime. Why remake the movie when you’re were barely using any of the plot elements or characters from the original work? Why set your reboot in Tokyo and have Scarlett Johansson star in order to draw ire for accusations of whitewashing? And why in God’s name did they get Steve Aoki to remix the original’s theme into some unrecognizable banging of fax machines together? Sadly, I wasn’t given any answers to these questions…but hot damn did I get reasons not to like this film.
So ScarJo plays Mira Killian, a woman who was the sole survivor of a terrorist attack that left her family dead and body completely obliterated. This forced Hanka Robotics to place Mira’s brain in a shell, a humanoid robot, to keep her alive and give her multiple abilities beyond what a normal human is capable of. Abilities that come in handy for Section 9, a Tokyo based organization dedicated to stomping out terrorist threats utilizing robotics. At least…that’s what Hanka Robotics told her. Mira is promoted to Major and ends up uncovering a conspiracy that leads her to believe the dark, oppressive, and well armed robotics company that may be up to nefarious plots.
Tiny spoiler: of course they fucking are. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not notice the CEO regard Major with as much contempt as possible and regarding her little more as a weapon to be passed around. Of course he leads to the first problem I had with this movie: everything I just described could just as easily be the plot synopsis for the 2014 remake of RoboCop. You know, the shit one. It’s perplexing to me that the studio who made this new Ghost in the Shell didn’t want to remake the original’s story of a rogue artificial intelligence that can control robotic bodies and instead opted for a bland-as-hell amnesiac superhero origin story instead. Especially when said origin story is rarely ever seen as a good one. Regardless, does the story at least have any unique, interesting turns? None that are good…but we’ll get to that later…
Not doing the plot any favors is that the themes of the piece are so lazily presented that you simply don’t give a damn. The film wants to make a big deal on the idea of transhumanism and our sense of self to technology, but I’ve read New Age magazine articles with more depth and more sense than this movie has about the subject. What you have instead is a script that tosses a throwaway line of “Don’t you think this wrong” before another character responds, “Kind of, but I really don’t care.” It’s the textbook definition of absolutely pointless banter that serves no purpose. Not to debate ethics, not to further the story, not to the color the world around, and certainly not to develop characters.
Speaking of which, the filmmakers are to be commended for taking the well written characters of the original anime and sandblasting any personality from them off. Most damning of all what was done with the Major. In the original show, there’s a lot of subtleties she’s dealing with as someone who’s basically a brain walking around in a fake body while also taking command of an elite counter-terrorism unit. She was calculating, quick-witted, and could spot deception from miles away. All the while showing a great relationship with the several men in her unit. So how does this movie handle her? A boring, generic 90’s cop who’s obsessed with case with little to no reason.
Yeah, there’s not much to go on Major beyond that in this remake. At least the hard edged cops of the 1990s had a dead wife or child to avenge on the culprit they were pursuing in each of their films. For this movie, we have nebulous “terrorists” as her motivation and not even a specific group at that. Hell, the case that leads Major to all sorts of major revelations didn’t even initially involve anyone in her life, so her obsessed demeanor comes completely out of a left field. Even the “look” of Major just feels off in this film. She’s in this weird mechanical outfit that just looks so…sexless. The original manga had something that was a bit more titillating, and I can understand why the filmmakers opted to give their female protagonist something less nude for its own sake. But why they went for a skin-tight that would draw poor titillation comparisons is beyond me.
And Scarlett Johansson is really not helping here. I think the filmmakers told her to go for the most monotone, emotionless voice imaginable because that’s what they thought Major was supposed to sound like in the original anime (she is nothing of the sort). It’s completely strange that Johansson’s vocal performance in Her had so much more emotion, passion, pathos and depth when she was portraying a newly minted artificial intelligence. Honestly, even her facial expressions just seemed off, as if she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be looking at or doing. She goes for a cross between scared and pained in one scene but her body is simultaneously looking struggling and fierce. It’s as if she wasn’t aware what she was supposed to be feeling.
Coming across as a bit more memorable is just Pilou Asbaek as Batou, Major’s right-hand man, and that’s because he injected much needed levity to the proceedings. It wasn’t stellar work, but at least he emoted correctly despite having strange-looking cybernetic eyes. Despite having the most inhuman appearance, he actually had way more humanity than anyone else. Oh and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano portrays Major’s superior, Chief Aramaki, who speaks entirely in Japanese despite everyone addressing him in English. There wasn’t much to his character, but he had at least was given one bad ass scene that made me instantly like him and wished we saw more of him.
Actually, that scene lead to another observation: this isn’t a team movie. In most versions of Ghost in the Shell, be it the manga, film or show, it’s primarily a police procedural with several operatives working in conjunction with each other. Major would take a focus on one or two of them at a time per episode, but it was clear that this was a team effort not unlike Mission: Impossible. And this film sets up multiple action scenes to show off how well this unit operates together…and then doesn’t. It’s almost as if they remembered that they forgot to give any of the other teammates besides Batou and Aramaki any personality so they just dropped their scenes entirely.
Which makes the action scenes even more of a chore to get through. Many of these shootouts and fight sequences are shot in dimly-lit areas with flat angles for all the better for you to fall asleep to. Seriously, not one action set piece stood out to me. It’s not that the film was ripping off better scenes from other films, it’s that it didn’t even bother to create anything new either.
The only thing that was holding my interest at all in this film are just the production values when it comes to the sets and outfits. Because in all sincerity, this team nailed the look of the original anime perfectly. Everything from the cars to the populated streets to the dystopian abandoned zones looked as if it were ripped straight from the comic or show. I’m sure it cost a pretty penny for the various production companies involved, which may explain why they got an uninteresting director and a hack screenwriter to handle the most important functions of a film.
And honestly, this film was skirting at a low Matinee or a high Rental for some visuals alone. It’s not a miserable experience, it’s just a very dull one. Perhaps people could get something more with an at-home viewing experience. Hell, I even completely forgot about the whole casting controversy of Scarlett Johansson taking on a role that should have gone to a Japanese woman…were it not for the biggest WTF ending I’ve ever seen since Remember Me.
I’ll give my rating now, because by God this ending needs to be discussed. For anyone who wants to be in the know or if you already saw it, jump to after the picture. Everyone else, stop reading but you should know this ending made me drop my rating to a very, very low….
Okay, so it’s revealed that the people who rebuilt Scarlett Johannson are obviously bad guys and you find out that they stole her brain from a teenage runaway. But you find out in the final act of the film that Johannson’s mother is a Japanese woman who’s daughter was named Motoko Kusanagi.
So this film didn’t just whitewash, they freaking put a Japanese girl’s brain inside a white woman’s body.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
People were ready to let the whitewashing controversy go. Hell most people have already forgotten about the Ancient One controversy in Doctor Strange. But this film’s ending not only draws attention to the casting issues several Asians face in Hollywood, but this movie went out of it’s way to say “Fuck You” to any Asian thespian who even dared to have the thought of trying out for this role. Dr. Spectra has more clear thoughts on this topic and the cultural implications of the decision than I do; but suffice it to say, I completely understand why this remake is an absolute insult to Asian people.
Ironically, as boring and as bland as this film was, it’ll be this absolutely wretch of an ending that will stay with me for a long time.