Ghost In The Shell, Scarlett Johansson’s most recent action movie, can barely be discussed without mentioning the newish cinematic pejorative “whitewashing” as an integral part of any criticism. I’m not going to put any kind of sociopolitical slant on this review, but if you haven’t heard the term, it refers to white actors being cast in roles that certain groups believe should go to ethnic actors. It’s not an entirely unfounded criticism (Matt Damon’s recent monster movie The Great Wall was called out for it), and certain movies kinda invite it openly. Case in point, is Ghost In The Shell, based on the famous manga franchise. It’s a particularly egregious example – not only does Scarlett Johannson play a character that pretty much should have been played by an Asian actress, but almost all of the main roles are played by white actors. And they didn’t even bother to switch the action to the west either!
I’ll open this review by saying I’ve only been partially exposed to the series, from reading the original manga series back in the late 80s – and I’ll be perfectly honest, I am not a manga fan whatsoever. I’ve found very little entertainment from the land that invented Rapeman, bukkake porn, tentacle rape, and many other forms of degrading women, but even their comics leave me cold. So, if this movie version of Ghost In The Shell – whitewashing aside – is at least faithful to the source material, it’s not something I would know. In a way, that’s a good thing, because I can review the movie without that kind of baggage, and I have to say, it’s pretty awful.
The movie story has more than a little of the original RoboCop in its DNA. A human brain is placed into a high tech robot body (the “ghost” of the title. A little clumsy, considering the physical brain is what’s driving the robotic body, not a spirit of any kind), created to be a weapon by a shadowy Big Corporation . The cyborg – named “The Major” – experiences fragments of what seem to be memories, and soon her actual past is revealed to her, and if you’ve seen the original RoboCop, nothing here will surprise you. The movie even has a sneaky Corporate Suit who, of course, is the real bad guy. I found these plot similarities way too huge to get past, but they’re not the movie’s biggest problems. There’s actually very little about the movie that’s any good.
For a start, the amount of money spent on this movie to essentially make it end up looking and feeling like a cheesy 80s sci fi action movie is astounding. At no point did I ever feel like I was watching a contemporary movie – it feels dated, a relic of a bygone era, born and raised in the shadow of Blade Runner without ever having any of that movie’s depth or pathos. It’s like watching an old movie directed by Luc Besson, produced by James Cameron – something you’d see while flipping through channels on TV. The big visual conceit is that the gargantuan, complex city in which the action takes place is a neverending stream of holograms, ads, all giant and invasive, and it’s the main visual language of the movie – Blade Runner and The 5th Element on steroids Trouble is, after you’ve seen it once, all the others times you see it, it makes zero impact on the brain – which is a real problem for the movie, because everything else is just flat out terrible.
Scarlett Johansson can be good, but for the last few years she’s taken one soulless action role after another. Black Widow in the Avengers franchise, Lucy, now this. Under The Skin is a more interesting movie than the others, but she’s only playing a colder version of her current movie persona. In Ghost In The Shell, she checks her acting ability and personality at the door and performs the role in the most basic of ways. No technique, no personality, no emotion – at no point does the story, or Johannson’s approach to the part, engage me to be on her side, to wonder what she was all about, to care. There’s almost nothing of interest generated by this dog of a script that took three – count ‘em, three – people to write it. Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren (The Ring) Kruger all share the blame, but the directing job by Rupert Sanders, whose only prior movie was Snow White and The Huntsman, is a real hack job. Action scenes are delivered in a lazy, perfunctory manner, and in a movie that is heavy on action and light on everything else, it’s a good example of the “only had one job” saying. This is strictly the work of someone who would struggle to hold down a second-unit directing job. Connections are everything in the biz, that’s for sure.
Johannson must shoulder a fair bit of blame here for her performance, but I feel bad for Michael Pitt in this movie. This is a guy who can act (Funny Games, I Origins), but either doesn’t care about not getting the breaks, or nobody wants to give him any – the woefully underwritten role of Kuze is something that could be played in their sleep by any TV actor, and Pitt is horribly underused here. I can only hope that he got a decent paycheque for it, because he’ll not be using this on his resume for future roles.
There’s pretty much nothing I liked about this movie. It doesn’t attempt to say anything about the nature of humanity, the increasing reliance we have on technology in our lives, or even transhumanism, a reality we’re swiftly moving towards. It even puts ScarJo in a flesh coloured CGI bodysuit that’s ugly and offputting. I don’t know if it’s meant to look sexy (the manga has plenty of sex), or emphasize how dehumanized the character is (here’s an article on the character’s look, if you’re interested), but it did nothing for me on either front. In terms of sex appeal, I preferred The Major in the full black tactical gear she wears in certain scenes, but that’s just me.
Mercifully, the movie is only an hour and a half long, and it mostly doesn’t drag on its way from A to B. The best thing that could be said about the movie is that it’s so poor there’s unlikely to be any interest in generating a sequel.
© Andrew Hope 2017