With a 46% on RottenTomatoes and a 52 on MetaCritic, the new live action Ghost in the Shell movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, is bombing at the box office. The film is being almost universally panned by professional critics and fans of the 1995 animated film of the same name. Forbes, The Verge, Hollywood Reporter, Wired, and more all give reviews of a “shell without a ghost,” criticizing the film for its lack of compelling storytelling, poor casting, visual noise, and the studios “not understanding the source material.” But after reading these reviews and seeing the film, I’m left wondering if we watched the same movie or not. Even positive reviews reduce the main selling point of the movie down to it’s visual effects, casting the philosophical wrestling and character development in the story as weights pulling the film down.
So let’s address the most common criticisms. REAL TALK, this is going to contain a lot of spoilers and might seem a little holier than thou at times, but this is the opinion of a genuine fan of the Ghost in the Shell series in its entirety. I have read the manga; watched the movies; watched, rewatched, and dissected the anime; and had long, late night conversations about all of it with friends and colleagues equally interested and engrossed by the material. None of this means I’m any more qualified as a fan of the franchise than anyone else, but it’s important to define my familiarity with the material. Still, this is my opinion and you do not have to agree with me.
The biggest complaint I’ve seen from fans of the 1995 animated movie when addressing the new film is that they’re not one and the same. Friends who I saw the movie with for the first time when it was released in March were upset that the story strayed too far from the original animated film. And while I can appreciate that frustration, it ultimately, to me, smacks of a misunderstanding of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Not once in its history has the franchise told the same story twice. Every iteration, every incarnation is a reimagining of the characters, their origins, their struggles, and the challenges they face. So to say that the new movie isn’t any good because it’s not enough like the original animated film really rings hollow to me. That’s just not how GitS works, it never has been and it never will be. Sure, you might expect some bending of that tradition here because there are so many scenes borrowed from the original film and first anime series (the geishas, the water fight, etc), but those were treats for the fans being repurposed to tell a new story. If your biggest hang up about the new film is that it was too unlike the original, then I submit to you that you are not a fan of the franchise but a fan only of the original film. And that’s perfectly alright, just don’t confuse the two.
The biggest complaint I’ve seen from critics is a whitewashed cast. I’ll admit that this one is a difficult criticism to unpack and it took me a while to consider because at the end of the day, no matter which way you slice this film and its cast, we are ultimately talking about Japanese nationals living, working, and fighting in Japan for the Japanese state. So why are the major characters all white? This is more of an in world problem to me than it is a casting problem—though it certainly informed the casting decisions. But let’s examine it: We discover in the movie that Motoko’s identity has been stolen from her, stripped away and hidden. She’s been placed in a new prosthetic body and given a new, anglo name by Hanka. In its simplest form, that she’s white is just one more tool used by the corporation to separate her from her real, Japanese identity. Later in the film, we meet Motoko’s biological mother and they begin to rebuild a connection between them. But let’s not forget that Motoko is presented with very anglo features in the manga and anime, as well. Her light skin tone and rounded eyes often set her apart from her colleagues, targets, superiors, and fellow citizens. It’s also a comment on racism on the global stage, as well. In this future world where cosmetic perfection is attainable through literal body manufacturing, the perfect soldier comes out as a white female. What does that say about us? What does that say about popular culture in Japan? As for Batou, well, Batou is always white. Just look in the manga and anime, he’s a white dude. Ultimately, I don’t agree that the casting is whitewashed, I think it was intentionally cast to serve the story. The only white character that doesn’t make sense in the story is Cutter, the director of Hanka Corporation, who, as the CEO of a major Japanese corporation, sticks out like a sore thumb.
Other criticism of the film is that it lacks a compelling story, that Ghost in the Shell is a “shell without a ghost.” But to this I must ask, what film did you watch? I saw a film about woman isolated and stripped of her memories, struggling to regain a grasp on her very humanity. I saw a film about a team of posthuman cyborgs struggling with what it means to be alive. I saw a film that asked what it means to be human. So when I hear that this film didn’t have a compelling story, that it’s missing it’s ghost, I’m left scratching my head. Not only do we see an intricate narrative about deceit and greed in the Major’s interactions with Hanka, but we see the familiar psychological and philosophical wrestling for which the original film and anime series were famous through Batou and the Major’s interactions. Now, I will admit that this is one place where I have a problem with the film: I personally think that we spend a little too much time on Major Kusanagi experimenting with what it means to feel and be where we could have spent a little more time developing other facets of the characters—basically it made the Major too vulnerable where she’s always been such a head strong detective before. I wanted to see more developed, multifaceted villains where we really had single motive characters. But while that is a detractor for me, it doesn’t ruin the film.
Visually, Ghost in the Shell is genuinely stunning. There are moments when it really does feel like the Tokyo of the future has been brought to life with unparalleled faithfulness to the 1995 original. The special effects from WETA are second to none and give the real, physical presence that is so important to presenting a tactile environment to every scene. And the visual effects tie a perfect bow around the entire world, with cues drawn from the animated productions and other futuristic worlds that influenced the original source material like Blade Runner (giant holographic advertising, anyone?). But this too is being lamented as a weakness of the film. Critics have decried the “visual noise” of future Japan as distracting from the narrative and the philosophical meat behind the story. But how exactly are you supposed to tell the story of a future society saturated in media content and consumption without portraying said media saturation? If this digital world weren’t so digitally active, how would it be able to tell the story?
Largely seen by critics as a letdown or a disappointment to fans of the franchise, I have to reiterate that I really think Ghost in the Shell is being panned because it is too faithful to the franchise rather than not faithful enough to the 1995 animated film. We have an original story that pulls from the manga, the anime, and the films—including those as recent as Arise—and yet reintroduces the characters with a new backstory. Critics and fans wanted to see the original film in live action, and that’s not what they got. But wanting that is asking the franchise to do something its never done in its 28 year history: tell the same story twice. Not understanding that is fine and dandy, and there’s no harm in wanting something familiar, but panning the movie because it’s challenging and unfamiliar is lazy. And the film is challenging despite what the critics might try to tell you. There’s enough symbolism and intricate detail in the plot to make your head spin.
Go see Ghost in the Shell before it’s out of theaters! And then go see it a second time, it really is that good.