Film

A Deep Dive Into The Disappointment Of ‘Ghost In The Shell’

There's more than one reason this movie is flopping.

Scarlett Johansson

I’m going to dive into this like the Major (Scarlett Johansson) dropping from a tall building. If you care about any kind of authenticity, Ghost in the Shell may well disappoint you.

ghost in the shell

Sorry.

If racial identity politics matter to you, you may feel Rupert Sanders’ film is trying to evade the film industry’s notorious problems with on-screen diversity by treating embodiment as something plastic and hybrid. And if you cherish Masamune Shirow’s manga, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime adaptation, or the subsequent films and TV series, you may feel this film lacks their melancholy existential philosophy.

The screenplay fretfully repeats the phrase “your ghost” so many times that it’s clearly afraid viewers won’t understand what this signifies within the story. It’s your soul, your spirit, the fugitive spark of combined empathy and self-knowledge that makes you human. Whether the irony is deliberate or inadvertent, this film itself lacks that spark.

But while Ghost in the Shell isn’t original, or even very complex, its gorgeously crafted production design and its balletic slow-motion action sequences are still very enjoyable. And in refusing authenticity, it reveals the framework — the shell, if you like — of today’s unadventurously cosmopolitan, self-referential blockbusters.

Hybrid Cities and Hybrid Bodies

In a hologram-spangled future city that looks a lot like Hong Kong — where some sequences were filmed — government counterterrorism squad Section 9 fights cybercrime, led by Daisuke Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, speaking Japanese throughout).

They’re on the track of Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), a hooded terrorist whose goons are systematically slaying the leading scientists at Hanka Robotics. Terrorism’s battlefield has become largely technological because so have people: cybernetic body implants and enhancements are common, and squad member Togusa (Chin Han) is teased for remaining fully ‘natural’.

However, the racial, gender and cultural diversity within the film’s wider cast emphasises that they are cyborgs in the emancipatory sense described by feminist scholar Donna Haraway: they reject the rigid dualisms in Western culture that have enabled the “domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals — in short, domination of all constituted as others.”

The Major, Section 9’s star operative, has an organic brain in a completely robotic body. We see her being assembled (‘shelled’) in the film’s carefully choreographed opening sequence — a valentine to the opening credits of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell.

Here named Mira Killian, the Major is the intellectual property of government contractor Hanka Robotics. The company’s creative director, Dr Ouélet (Juliette Binoche), takes an almost maternal interest in her, while its CEO, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), sees her as an experimental weapon.

There are some real-life parallels to consider here. Stories like Ghost in the Shell have intense emotional, intellectual and political resonance for audiences, yet they’re also studio properties: commodities to be developed, digitally enhanced, tested, refashioned and discarded. Even the term ‘reboot’ is a technological metaphor.

Identity politics are now firmly incorporated into film marketing, whether with ill-advised promo T-shirts or the heavily hyped but dubiously relevant sexuality of minor characters. There’s also a lot of cynical but strategic publicity to be gained when white directors and stars ‘break their silence on’ or ‘defend’ their involvement in probbo projects.

Johansson’s deeply embodied persona is the reason she’s so frequently cast in stories about transhumanism (including The Island, Under the Skin, Her and Lucy). Her physical appearance represents everything Western culture teaches men to desire and women to aspire to, inviting us to consider other, more confronting ideas of personhood.

In films like Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Other Boleyn Girl and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Johansson is frequently cast as a milkily opaque object of the male gaze, whose inner self remains inscrutable. When Ghost in the Shell dwells on the Major’s sensuous curves, it ironises the (creepy otaku) gaze because this is a working body, not a sexual body — and one from which the human brain inside it feels increasingly alienated.

Likewise, Johansson’s spectacular incongruity within this Asian city forces us to contemplate that identity is constructed, not essentialist. Hong Kong frequently appears on-screen — as does Macau, its dissolute double — as a symbol of technologised hybridity. Other globalised Asian cities have also featured in Johansson’s films, from Taipei in Lucy to Shanghai in Her. Behind the scenes, these hybrid settings represent the fusion of Western production and Asian investment, and unashamedly court Asian audiences for Hollywood films.

Films still use ‘Asia’ to signify a space of cultural exchange because, from their earliest days as mercantile trading posts, Asian port cities have enabled people of different races, cultures and religions to mingle, sharing ideas and technologies. Cloud Atlas — an ambitious film with racial depictions that were widely roasted — used a visually uncomfortable representation of race to mirror the discomforting histories that entwine race and technology with capitalist greed.

The Nostalgia Problem

Songdo, South Korea, is a techno-utopian attempt to create a futurist cosmopolitan city from scratch. Still eerily underpopulated, it feels fake, like a film set. It’s where Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ video was filmed. When The Atlantic visited in 2014, its journalists wondered, “Were we merely visiting yesterday’s tomorrow?” Ghost in the Shell provokes the same question.

What gives nostalgia its appeal is the impossibility of returning to an idealised authentic past; and Ghost in the Shell is obsessed with memory. Not just within the story — the Major experiences Matrix-like memory ‘glitches’ — and not just memories of the anime, from which many shots and sequences are reproduced wholesale. But visually and thematically, this film is almost slavishly crammed with references to the cyberpunk cultural moment, which now seems quaintly retro. A key influence is Blade Runner: both in its visual style and its interest in the relationship between identity, memory and technology.

Cyberpunk science fiction reflected anxieties over the slowing of European and American economic development in the wake of an Asian boom. It expressed a post-industrial cynicism about the ways in which governments and corporations join forces to exploit human bodies. But cyberpunk was hopeful that human consciousness could someday transcend the oppressive limitations of embodied identity.

Hollywood storytelling, by contrast, is obsessed with teleology: it needs to explain how characters became who they are now, and how their pasts shape their future goals. Many Hollywood films emphasise cyborgs’ vestigial organic components, from RoboCop’s trigger finger in the 2014 remake to Marcus Wright’s heart in Terminator Salvation.

Rather than the radical beauty of a floating world where human relationships are freed from racial and gender solidarity, Sanders opts for a storyline we’ve seen 1,000 times before, from Wolverine to the Bourne movies: supersoldiers avenging the theft of their human autonomy.

Despite its striking imagery of cultural hybridity, Ghost in the Shell opens a troubling conceptual gulf between’s cyberpunk’s utopian futurism and the nostalgic pragmatism of today’s contemporary blockbusters. The future Ghost in the Shell once promised has now become a retro fantasy. It strands us in a moment in which the hard work of fixing today’s inequalities has both already happened and never happened. This leaves Sanders in the awkward position of reiterating that a post-racial future looks as white as a shell.

ghost in the shell

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.