Hot Take: Visually, Ghost in the Shell is pretty damn impressive. Too bad the story isn’t the same as it feels like an overproduced facsimile of the source material.
Call me insensitive. I was never overly affected by whitewashing in films. It could because I’m white and suffer from white privilege as much as the next white guy or girl. After watching Ghost in the Shell, though, you can call me woke. Full disclosure: I love Scarlett Johansson on the big screen. She’s one of my favorite actresses. This probably explains more of why I wasn’t bothered by the choice of Johansson to play the main character of the live action version of the immensely popular 1995 Japanese animation of the same name (not to mention the original manga which actually launched the concept.). However, seeing Johansson in the main role, two thoughts consistently entered my head: (1) Johansson gives an excellent performance and (2) she’s completely wrong for the part.
Ironically, the film resembles its plot. On the outside, it’s beautiful and almost visually flawless. On the inside, it feels synthetic and disconnected. Johansson’s performance isn’t necessarily the problem. However, the fact that Johansson is an American portraying a character that is obviously Asian is constantly present. There are scenes that remind you of this throughout. It’s never addressed. The main character — a highly curious cyborg — seeks out her previous identity but never cares to seek out what she looked like before she was a cyborg. I guess if you were made to look like Scarlett Johansson, you wouldn’t be that upset about losing your identity?
The film goes further than Johansson with its whitewashing as her initial target is Hideo Kuze, a cyborg like her that failed to meet the standards of Hanka Robotics and now seeks revenge on the company Johansson’s Major Mira Killian works for, is a character of obvious Asian origin but played by Michael Pitt. Pitt might actually be whiter than me. It speaks to how tone deaf this film is in its haphazard recreation of a classic.
Its not just the whitewashing that’s a problem. Johansson as the main character draws direct comparisons to her previous roles. Her performance isn’t that far off from the alien she plays in Under the Skin or the titular character in Lucy. Hell, it isn’t that far removed from Black Widow in her various supporting roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Johansson has established herself as a strong enough actress that she doesn’t need to continue to replicate previous roles other than the obvious fact that she collected a hefty payday for her part.
Because of the casting, you begin to question whether the filmmakers trust the audience’s intelligence enough to handle the concepts the original manga and animated film put forth. Like it or not, the 1995 film is much deeper than this glossy Hollywood remake. What ends up happening is that the film offers nothing new. And not just in the realm of the Ghost in the Shell universe. Hollywood has beaten the cyborg idea to death in recent years and topped out with Ex Machina two years ago. On top of that, through its obvious whitewashing (which the film doesn’t even bother to try to explain or address in any way, shape or form), the filmmakers reveal an insensitivity and lack of confidence in the source material that it can live on its own. Johansson was brought in to sell tickets but the lazy, safe casting does more harm than good and, in the end, while Scarlett’s acting resume remains relatively untarnished (her performance is solid), the overall result is a failure.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- They Know How to Make An Entrance
Some of the most stunning visuals come during some fairly impressive entrance sequences. The Major, especially, knows how to make an entrance as one of the most visually stunning scenes is when Major enters a restaurant from the roof of a skyscraper.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- The Film’s Ghost
As mentioned a few times, the film looks great. However, the original animated film sets a bar this film never comes close to clearing. It actually feels like it purposely goes under the bar for fear of never clearing it. It sticks to Hollywood convention and becomes a standard Sci-Fi/action thriller with conventional plot drivers and a predictable conclusion.
- The Whitewashing Effect
The film never escapes this valid criticism and actually contributes further to this by some of its choices throughout. Essentially, this remake proves to be a reminder of how tone deaf Hollywood can be.