‘Ghost in the Shell’ has nothing to say about technology or humanity
For a movie that centers around a remarkable scientific achievement – the kind that seems both radical and inevitable in real-world terms – Ghost in the Shell has disappointingly little to say about technology, humanity, or how they intersect.
For the uninitiated, Ghost in the Shell is set in a future Tokyo, where cybernetic enhancements have become commonplace. Scarlett Johansson plays Major Mira Killian, who represents the next step in that evolution: following an accident that destroyed her original, human body, her brain has been implanted into an entirely synthetic body, in the first successful procedure of its kind. Or so she’s been told, anyway.
The premise raises any number of intriguing questions. What does it mean to be a person at a time when the mind can be separated from the body it came with? Are we our bodies? Are we our memories? How would such an advancement change our relationships with our bodies? With each other?
Ghost in the Shell pays lip service to all of that, but explores none of it. Oh, it seems to think it’s thinking about it. A character warns another about “reducing a complex human to a machine.” Someone else worries about the “risk to individuality” that cybernetic enhancements might pose. A bad guy describes his motivation is “self-defense – the defense of self.” That line is delivered in a cadence that suggests he is saying something extremely profound.
He is not. The lines above are as deep as the dialogue gets in Ghost in the Shell, and nothing else about the story or characters or world-building supports any of the heavy themes that the movie pretends to consider. Instead, it’s just a generic story about a badass antihero searching for the truth about her past, gussied up with pretty new window dressing.
Granted, it is really pretty window dressing. Director Rupert Sanders has a background in music videos, and it shows – a lot of this imagery would look incredible in four-minute bursts, soundtracked by moody electro-pop music. Neon lights pop against crisp, clean surfaces. Giant holograms loom over the skyline and smaller ones . Costumes mix traditional shapes and unusual materials to striking effect.
But none of it means anything. Nothing about the world of Ghost in the Shell is different from ours in any meaningful sense. Which could be fine – the same could be said about Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, and we’re not complaining about that – if the movie had other thoughts on its brain, or at least a fun personality to keep things light. Once again, Ghost in the Shell strikes out.
The characters in this movie just repeat themes and explain plot points to each other, all in the same flat, droning monotone. The delivery might be true to the original Ghost in the Shell movie, but that film gave Major a bone-dry wit to work with. In the new film, the one and only instance of someone purposely being playful feels jarringly out of place, because up until then there’s been no indication that anyone in this world has a sense of humor.
This hollowness only compounds Ghost in the Shell‘s race problem. The film has been heavily criticized for whitewashing – casting a white woman to play a character who was originally Japanese. A more responsible filmmaker might have avoided that whole controversy by casting an Asian actress in the first place. A more interesting storyteller might have used this racebending as an avenue to explore what role race and racism still play in a world where people can ditch their bodies entirely.
Sanders and his team don’t care about any of this stuff. Ghost in the Shell has plenty of people of color in the margins – as extras, as supporting players – but nearly all of the key characters are white. As if that weren’t bad enough, they throw in some reveals that make the film’s racial dynamics seem even more obnoxiously tone-deaf than the marketing had suggested. (Which is really saying something.)
Were Ghost in the Shell the first film ever to dream up these cutting-edge concepts or raise these philosophical questions, its total vapidity might seem more forgivable. But the new Ghost in the Shell comes into a world where the old Ghost in the Shell already exists – along with The Matrix, Ex Machina, Blade Runner, and countless other sci-fi flicks that actually have something to say.
Heck, Johansson herself has done a better job of exploring similar themes in the past. The gorgeously unsettling Under the Skin has Johansson as an alien learning what it means to be human, while Her cast Johansson as an AI who comes into her own.
Ghost in the Shell is a totally pointless movie, the kind of reboot that explains why so many moviegoers roll their eyes at the word “reboot” even though plenty of reboots have been good or great. If this project ever had any goals beyond making money for the studio, none of it shows on the screen. If the “ghost” is the soul and the “shell” the body, the new reboot of Ghost in the Shell is a shell in search of a ghost.