Allegations of whitewashing have dogged Ghost in the Shell – a remake of, until now, a thoroughly Japanese franchise – since news circulated that Scarlett Johansson had been cast in the lead role. But nobody said anything about full body whitewashing. As an arse-kicking cyborg protagonist known as Major, Johansson runs around in a tight, skin-coloured bodysuit, doing things bionic people in cyberpunk dystopian universes do – such as running through glass and jumping backwards off skyscrapers.
This quasi birthday suit raises the curious idea that robots have to get dressed to get naked. Smoothing out the actor’s bumpy bits (no homage to George Clooney’s Batman nipple suit) and sticking to her flesh lecherously, like a Venom costume or an unclothed, vacuum-sealed, cream-coloured Barbie doll, Johansson somehow looks both naked – sort of – and fastidiously covered.
I waited for the moment Major would realise she’d been screwed out of a decent wardrobe for her slam-bang action scenes, remembering that the kids in The Matrix got kick arse leather and swanky eyewear. Ghost in the Shell is after all about an agent with no memories who discovers she might be working for a corrupt entity – the domain of Jason Bourne, or Robocop. But it appears the protagonist’s self-realisation doesn’t extend to fashion sense.
The film exists in the shadow of director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanimation (based on a comic book of the same name) that mines fertile Dickian territory spanning simulated experiences, implanted memories, the nature of sentient beings and elevating consciousness to a higher plain. In one of those future megacities that looks best when it is dark and raining, cybernetically “augmented” humans are everywhere: a vaguely Gattaca-esque world where upgrades are the norm, rather than genetic engineering.
Major (Scarlett Johansson) has been told her brain was taken from an immigrant killed by terrorists.
Major has been created as a weapon for an elite, anti-terrorist squad. It is led by the great Japanese actor Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano, who again demonstrates a remarkable ability to chew thin air is if it were acrid tasting bubblegum. Major works with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), who at one point goes under the knife for a spot of surgery and comes out with a couple of binocular eyepieces jammed into his face. Somehow he can see better.
Major has been told her brain was taken from an immigrant killed by terrorists, but all is not what it seems etcetera etcerera. The screenwriters (Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, adapting Masamune Shirow’s manga comics) reinstate a familiar caution: that technology is Something To Be Wary Of, unless it is used for the purposes of dazzling us with special effects. They virtually ignore medical precedents that might exist in his world, or how plug-and-play cybernetic progression has influenced consumer culture.
Director Rupert Sanders is certain to receive recognition for his cyberpunk-chic visual flavour.
Perhaps enhanced body parts can be bought next to lollies and chips at the supermarket; the cure for cancer in aisle nine, next to Panadeine. Major’s existential pondering also comes across half-baked, drowned out by robo-posturing (in the style of ‘why was I programmed to feel pain?’) borrowed from any number of playbooks.
Director Rupert Sanders is certain to receive recognition for his cyberpunk-chic visual flavour, the city’s steamy stimuli-crammed streets a dream setting for production designer Jan Roelfs (who gave the locations of Gattaca rather more sterile treatment). These streets are strikingly populated with huge titan-sized holographic advertisements, visions of real people rendered as God-like projections in order to sell things – like the commercials that came alive and attacked Springfield in an old Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons.
The holographs exist in daylight though this is clearly a place, like Vegas, that comes alive at night. While The Great Wall, which also airlifted Hollywood actors into a quintessentially Asian storyline, presented a paean to nationalism, Ghost in the Shell’s neo-liberalist world clearly gave up borders and redefined citizens as consumers long ago: a society that views competition as the defining feature of human relations.
In this future, people don’t die easily and don’t die gracefully. I suppose you could parallel the tangled economies of this universe with the tangled body parts of its people, each person their own compromised society of nature and artifice. And a world-without-borders could perhaps justify the casting of Johansson, a decision Mamoru Oshii himself recently defended. She plays a cyborg with no fixed race or gender, he says, so how could it possibly be whitewashing? Still, Johansson’s presence is distracting. And so is that silly mannequin-like bodysuit, which makes the star of the show look like a sexy Crash Test Dummy.