30 Mar 2017

Can Ghost in the Shell overcome its race problem?

12:27 pm on 30 March 2017

It’s the sci-fi epic that launched a thousand think pieces - but was the criticism justified?


Scarlett Johansson in The Ghost in the Shell.

Scarlett Johansson in The Ghost in the Shell. Photo: Supplied

It seems strange to think it has been just three years since Ghost in the Shell was announced, since it feels as though we’ve been hearing about it for a zillion millenia. The talking points: The graphics are done by NZ’s very own Weta Workshop! Parts of it were filmed in our very own Wellywood!! The central cast are all white people!!!

Based on the Japanese manga of the same name, this last point has been less well received and (in international media anyway) become a significant blight on a film that many believe should have stayed true to its Japanese origins.

In the wake of a recent spate of films accused (and let’s be real - very guilty) of whitewashing, Ghost in the Shell has become something of a focal point of the problem. With a petition, ill-advised viral marketing campaign and a million think pieces preceding its release, protest has not abated since the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role become official in 2014.

It’s only just arrived and you might be sick of it already. You are certainly likely to have come to your own conclusions. Yet it is only in viewing Ghost in the Shell that one can appreciate how deep the problem goes.

Set in “the future”, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a world where humans and robots have begun to merge, an intersection that seems to have finally been achieved in the creation of Scarlett Johansson's The Major.

Rescued from the disaster that apparently destroyed her body, her brain has been placed in a cyborg body by a government funded robotics company. With her human mind and sexy sexy robot body, Major is deemed to be the ideal weapon, and put to work in a counterrorism defence force.

The "ghost in the shell" then is Major’s soul: the essence of her humanity contained with a synthetic body, and it is her struggle to reconcile the two that forms both the narrative arc and the philosophical quandary at the heart of the film.

Unfortunately, while this could be the film’s strength - what defines humanity as the singularity draws ever closer? - it never really goes more than script deep; a corny little lesson for Major to learn.

Without a satisfying existential mystery or the development of any particularly interesting relationships, Ghost in the Shell thus becomes pretty standard sci-fi action fare, a scantily clad young woman fighting brutish men in slow motion in pursuit of *sigh* self-realisation.

Directed by Rupert “Kristen Stewart” Sanders, visually there is a lot going on, and for the most part it works.

Like a lot of films intent on demonstrating modernity, Ghost in the Shell’s (~Weta Workshopped~) CGI landscape is busy with activity. Every shot of the city foregrounds giant looming holograms, every digital image seems prone to showy flickering, every person enhanced in some wacky way. Which, for a sci-fi fantasy, is fine.

But it does beg the question: Why in the future are we all watching glitchy holograms when I can watch a crystal clear image on my HD computer screen now??

Deep it is not, and with a fairly uninspiring and expositional script, there is not nearly as much mystery as one might hope. But as a fast-paced, flatly entertaining action ~romp~ it is fine.

Yet the problems predicted by those zillions of think pieces come true in ways even the wokest among us could not have foreseen.

In the absence of compelling thematic substance, the plot - in which Major attempts to uncover the truth about her cybernetic origins - becomes oddly and even literally reminiscent of the problems inherent in the choice to replace Asian faces with white ones.

In fact, as the film reaches its crescendo, and reveals the truth about Major’s past, the irony is so acute it is astonishing. One wonders whether the bizarre outcome is actually intended to be a solution to, rather than a massive symptom of, the film’s problem with race.

With as much time spent lingering on Johansson's lovely face as the admittedly magnificent cityscapes however, it is beautiful to look at. Yet something is off. As secrets are revealed and Major's amnesia lifts, the film demonstrates with surprising and unintended intensity the disruption that cultural inauthenticity poses in modern mainstream cinema.

Those who caw that detractors should “see the film” before casting aspersions may have once had a point. But as concern over the insidious white supremacy embedded in our most powerful industries grows, and with critical discourse increasingly democratised, it is not realistic or particularly helpful to ask that we refrain from these discussions.

In light of this, the conclusions drawn both visually and thematically in the Ghost and the Shell feel less like ignorance as they do lazy unwillingness. The film is instantly dated as a result.

Perhaps with more of the eerie melancholy and existential dread that captivated fans of its source material, Ghost in the Shell may have lulled audiences in a state of forgiveness. Unfortunately, as is, it instead represents the approach of a breaking point for an industry realising too slowly that representation matters.