I went out and saw Ghost in the Shell this month, against my better judgement. This movie’s release was tainted in a way many movies don’t have to deal with; it was the eye of the storm in a controversy about Hollywood’s ongoing struggle with race. Ghost in the Shell is thoroughly Japanese in origin and in many ways, theme. As soon as modern femme fatale (sort of) Scarlet Johansson was cast as The Major, known in the original series as Major Motoko Kusanagi, it was over. The box office numbers show it. Its reception is a mixture of “not as good as the source material,” with a dash of “bad script” and a heaping pile of “white people often do stupid things with non-white art” on the side. All of these things are true to some degree, but despite it all, I think Ghost in the Shell was a fine movie. It’s a movie that struggles now, but like other contemporary cult classics, might find its home in the home video aftermarket.
I’m no stranger to talking about Judge Dredd around these parts. It’s not really a planned thing, nor am I a huge fan. But it keeps happening, largely because Dredd 3D hits a lot of really important notes as a piece of media in our current pop culture realm. It was a second look at something loved after a colossal failure, one that damaged the value of an exciting brand, irreparably. It came out anyway, despite bemused confusion being the general reaction, and then it tanked. For a while. Dredd 3D made a killing on home video and streaming services, as people who maybe are into weird, off-kilter art who don’t have resources or interest in the struggling theater experience finally had easy access. There it made much more money, and its reputation shot skyward. Now, clamoring for a sequel is a yearly tradition.
I think Ghost in the Shell is headed towards a similar destiny. It’s a movie that has been rejected almost outright by critics, fans, and onlookers, and the whitewashing controversy has only made the hill that much steeper. In time, when the long-form people, the film nerds, and the freaks who love to deep-dive into media, it may be saved. It will be a tough road, and it will take effort on the part of anyone who cares, but it could happen. I hope it does.
Ghost in the Shell isn’t just a lazy remake of an old anime movie. It’s an homage to the greater world of Ghost in the Shell, a world that includes several projects all floating around a similar theme of the intersections of technology, corporate evil, and identity. The new movie takes little pieces of everything – the original manga, the classic movie, the more recent multi-season anime – and smashes them together. It also does what is necessary in Hollywood and dumbs it down to make it more presentable to the fabled “mass market,” wrapping it in a neat little bow and adding some cornball banality to the story.
But where Ghost in the Shell doesn’t compromise is in craft. Forget the script, it’s not important. Film isn’t about telling a complicated story in its pages of dialogue and exposition inevitably vomited from actors’ mouths. Nothing about that kind of lore-heavy, spoon-fed storytelling we all seem to have collectively grown to love these days is in service to film as a medium or a unique vehicle for telling a good story. Film is about telling a story with visual craft, taking images to a spool of film (yes, I know movies are digital now), and transporting the viewer to a place they couldn’t go before. Ghost in the Shell does that in brilliant fashion.
The first act of the movie blew me away. It took me to a new version of a world I was familiar with, but never expected to experience the way I did. It was almost violent, tossing me in a blender of otherworldly colors and sounds and giving me a vision of a future that isn’t implausible, but still so alien. The performances, most of which are intensely serious, sell the material and make it feel real, regardless of how wacky the script was. When the script is good, when it explores the themes of the source material, it works.
Ghost in the Shell is not a brilliant, all-time classic. It’s a deeply-flawed homage of a multimedia IP that is lovingly crafted by people who understand the material, but are not equipped to resist the Hollywood-ness of it. This is what Ghost in the Shell looks like in 2017 with a big budget. I dare not comment on the whitewashing issue to the degree it should be discussed; I’m not about to tell people who are upset by legitimate issues to feel. But I do suggest taking a deeper look at the context and the source material and perhaps try to find a link between the two. It’s there, and it’s an interpretation. Clumsy? Maybe. Deliberate? I’d say so. Just give the film a chance, especially if you go in knowing what Ghost in the Shell is all about.