Adapting Ghost in the Shell into a live action franchise was always going to be a difficult prospect. Despite the anime film’s futuristic setting and various action setpieces, it isn’t a property known for fights and explosions as much as it is for transhumanist philosophizing and meditations on the role of technology in human evolution. So it’s not all that surprising that the American live action remake not only misses the point of what made the source material so beloved and enduring, but it also muddies its own plot so as to become a very dumb version of a very smart film.
The film can effectively be split into two halves. The first is a loyal recreation of some basic beats from the original anime film, wherein the cyber-enhanced government agency Section Nine investigates a mysterious hacker by the name of Kuze, who is highjacking the minds of other cyber-enhanced humans in order to carry out a string of murders. If you’re looking for live action recreations of key scenes from the anime, all the boxes are checked: there’s the fight in the pool, a version of the garbage truck chase, the spider tank, and pretty much any other piece of frenetic action that can be lovingly rendered in three dimensions. And while the film does look great—in an art style equally reminiscent of Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and The Matrix that makes an otherwise dark and gray cyberpunk future pop with color—there just isn’t much reason to see this version of events unfold when they are merely replications of the source material.
What really makes this film an inferior model, at least from a basic plotting perspective, is that the transhumanism falls to the wayside in favor of reducing the narrative into a series of action beats that place protagonist The Major (more on her in a minute) in a standard heroism arc, which never quite comes together as compelling as an exploration of either her psyche or the greater philosophical questions at play. This version of Ghost in the Shell isn’t prepared to cope with issues of identity and perspective in the way that its inspiration was, which brings us to the other half of Ghost in the Shell’s troubled narrative.
Much fuss has been made over Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, having been cast as The Major, a traditionally Japanese character by the name of Motoko Kusanagi, and it’s easy to understand why. There is a long and troubling history of whitewashing in American cinema, and as people of color rise in political and social prominence it’s becoming harder for their cries for representation to be ignored. But Ghost in the Shell not only makes The Major a white character through a casting choice, it effectively expends The Major’s entire character arc on explaining why she is now a white character. Without getting into too many spoilery details, it is eventually revealed that The Major, who cannot remember her life before becoming a brain in a synthetic body, was actually a young Japanese woman whose identity was effectively erased. So not only is the whitewashing an uncomfortable subtextual decision to exclude Asian voices and perspectives from the adaptation of a Japanese property, but it’s also a textual erasure that the film bends over backwards in order to justify by making it the central focus of The Major’s character arc, as if the filmmakers decided to cast Johansson first and then reverse-engineered the script in some misguided attempt to justify their prejudice.
Extremely problematic as that all is, there isn’t even enough of an original movie here to make that sort of narrative gymnastics understandable. For as gorgeous and inventive as the film looks at times, there’s not a lot of intelligence under the hood, mimicking what it thinks was cool about the anime while entirely missing the point. What once was a question-raising hypothesis on the future of humanity is now an action-packed origin story that clearly hopes to spawn a new franchise by the most cynical means possible. If you need a Ghost in the Shell fix, just watch the original again. You won’t be offended or disappointed as you would if you paid for a theater ticket.