This review is largely vague about the plot of the movie outside a description of one scene’s location and a general description available in the trailers.
Hollywood tries to bank on attractive women in action movies. The most profitable franchise is the worst, as movie-making goes: Sony’s “Resident Evil,” starring Milla Jovovich. That franchise now has a worldwide audience such that this year’s installment made more than $300 million on a $40 million budget.
Other attempts in the same price range have been critical and box office failures. Studios and actresses keep trying and failing, but they’re not giving up. Indeed, the most bankable name in the genre, Scarlett Johansson, just got Paramount to risk $110 million on her new movie, “Ghost in the Shell.”
After the opening weekend, “Ghost in the Shell” is a significant failure for everyone involved: actress, studio, and the Japanese anime genre. It would need more than $200 million to break even in America and, after an opening weekend under $20 million, that’s not going to happen.
Its only hope to make money and a sequel is a shocking success in East Asia after flopping in North America, ending up somewhere under $60 million domestic. That strategy has never been tried with Johansson, but it’s fairly common for movies that do not involve stars.
A Little About ‘Ghost in the Shell’
“Ghost in the Shell” is a Japanese story from the 1990s about a woman who lives in a robotic body and does police work. She does not believe her ghost, her soul, suffices to make her human, and struggles with the existential question concerning her humanity and whether life is worth living in a near-future where everything is being taken over by technology.
In this world, technology continually creates new powers in bodies that feel more and more alien to their inhabitants. The sense of shame is obliterated and fantasy-chasing becomes desperate. A kind of nostalgia sets in that’s fitting for an age where memories are often fake. After all, life in massively agglomerated metropolises just doesn’t afford people the luxury of making memories that might safeguard their humanity.
Mankind’s humanity is somehow at stake in this woman, because she is both a harbinger of the future—a technological product whose productivity involves the regime’s self-defense—and a test case: she’s personally testing the limits of humanity, but not at all sure it’s worth living in such a regime.
A case of industrial terrorism the authorities cannot seem to solve turns out to be her way to begin learning about her own secretive origins. She is looking for a way to assert her humanity even though she’s caught between corporations and government agencies that are determined to keep everything of importance to audience and protagonist a secret.
Another Entry In the Super-Soldier-Girl Genre
So this is a promising story and very much of the times. It’s the second wide-release movie headed by Johansson after the 2014 action movie “Lucy,” in which she played a pretty girl who inexplicably develops superhuman powers and badly beats or kills every man on-screen while trying to find out the secret of her humanity-surpassing powers. That movie was a shocking success, earning $455 million worldwide on a $40 million budget and women were half the movie’s American audience, suggesting women doing martial arts choreography in alluring apparel is a big draw.
Johansson, whose career seems dependent on the Disney-Marvel studio, made a smart choice in betting on French director Luc Besson, who is world-famous for spellbinding action. That was a way to sell her new brand while getting some independence. “Ghost in the Shell” was supposed to be another very smart choice, adding credibility by telling a really good story in the super-soldier-girl genre.
The studio worked with Chinese studios to ensure its Asian success and must have bet on its country of origin, Japan, for its profitability as well. Well, whatever its worldwide audience turns out to be, in America it has failed to get women to see it, or much of anyone else.
That’s just as well, because it has very little to say to women, and little more to anyone else. It is not only inferior to the Japanese original, but it’s inferior in useless ways. It has wasted all its opportunities—to update the story, reflect on its original success, or Americanize it—without gaining popularity, money, or anything else. It seems the writers and director failed to even try to tell an interesting story.
This Plot Is Nothing New
You walk into the theater, and after the first scene you know the plot. The scriptwriters had no interest in concealing who the bad guy is or making this person human or interesting. But it still takes two hours to wrap it all up! This is not an original story, so you have to ask yourself, what would Hollywood add to a foreign story to Americanize it? The answer, if you’ve been watching movies aimed at so-called young adults over the last decade, is: The military-industrial complex—the adult-world—is sucking the life out of idealistic, rebellious young people.
So we again have to take up arms against the political paranoia that sells with young people in our times. It sells because it confirms that their loneliness is someone else’s fault and turns their anger into a fictional madness.
What are they really angry about? They were brought up into a society with no confidence in itself or its—their!—future. What does the anger do to story-telling? It ensures that future societies cannot be any better than this society even in our stories. Our popular stories have stopped saying anything confident about the future. Much of the public imagination is now dead. It seems the ideology of progress has suffered another collapse, and the technological progress of the future shows up only as the cause of monstrous mutilations of our being.
This is not to say that fears about the future cannot make for worthwhile stories. But this time, the paranoia is done so badly that it only made $19 million its opening weekend. Of course, that’s a fortune, but for a movie that cost more than $100 million to make, let alone market, a fortune will not suffice to break even. Only some shocking success outside America could make the movie profitable.
The Real Story Inside ‘Ghost in the Shell’
But the real story is elsewhere. All the questions, whether added in America or from the Japanese original, have to do with inhabiting the body, whether we can really be human in the scientific future ahead of us.
Let’s start with the body of the protagonist. First, as always, comes race. There has been some controversy because the protagonist of this Japanese story is a white American girl. Well, so is the lead in the original anime. For reasons we don’t need to enter into now, lots of anime is dedicated to the proposition that protagonists should look as white as rice, so to speak.
That fact, though visible to the naked eye, is probably not ideologically admissible evidence, so it cannot quiet the kind of people who want to market their outrage. But it’s a fact nevertheless—just go see the original anime. What’s weirder than the fake outrage is that the new American version of the story reverses the process and ends up telling you the white-as-rice protagonist Scarlett Johansson is Japanese. This makes no sense in the plot, so maybe it should encourage the kind of hysteria about appropriation I just dismissed.
The other all-American suggestion, of course, concerns feminism, in this case of the corporate-branding variety. Johansson’s naked body has become a kind of popular fantasy. Since she signed up to display her apparently very popular charms for Disney-Marvel’s blockbusters, she has come to embody nerd fantasies, committing extremely violent acts in skintight clothing that makes her even more alluring. Up to now, no one has lost money on this bet.
As with feminism, we see trouble here: On the one hand, she’s supposed to play strong women who act decisively by their own counsel. On the other, the only reason she’s on screen is because people like to stare at her body. It’s a career, I guess, but the lady doesn’t seem happy with it. She did show up naked in “Under the Skin,” a far darker movie where she killed people erotically attracted to her body, to which she was alien.
“Ghost in the Shell” is all about how fake her naked body is and how she cannot feel it. She goes through the movie with an almost-unbroken frown. The body is super-scientific, destroyed and recreated without sentiment, something to be used. This cancels its eroticism, just as its sexual characteristics are both censored by public opinion and effaced by science. There is no childbearing among robots.
To Explore the Chaos Technocrats Unleash, Try Elsewhere
Aside from these cultural issues of latter-day liberalism, the movie is a combination of “Blade Runner” and “Westworld.” The body is the place individuality fights the scientific production of new, improved human beings by corporations that work beyond the laws. The stake is our very humanity. As the bodies become incredibly powerful machines, memories become fake, mortality is manipulated, people end up existentially lonely, and the city looks miserable. This is a grim view of the future.
The city of the future is even worse. Fake images of fantasies advertised everywhere in the air, dirt, and ugliness on the ground; underground, there is exploitation and self-destruction. That’s an image of the collapse of liberal metropolises a generation back, and it has not been updated by the writers in the light of this generation’s experience, which was a mistake. Nor did the writers think much about the changes the new powers of surveillance have introduced, another mistake in such a tech-centered story.
With such a protagonist and such a society, no happy end is possible, but in America corporations mandate happy ends, so the writers tacked on an obviously fake happy end. This nevertheless failed to enthuse the American audience. You’re much better off watching “Blade Runner”—whose upcoming sequel hopefully will be worthwhile—and “Westworld,” a worthwhile adaptation of an old story. Both deal with the creation of machine-men, the revolt of the creature against the creator, and corporations that run our apolitical future, unleashing on and in our bodies scientifically empowered chaotic desires.
For all its failures, “Ghost in the Shell” aims to be humanistic. It may not go anywhere near as far as Walt Whitman to sing the body electric, but it is trying to say it’s good to be human, even a machine-human, at least if democracy can keep some control over technological oligarchy. It says so explicitly. But it cannot show any of that. It can only give you tech-generated action, conspiracy theories, and a moralistic speech from a feminist-plausible heroine.
The Update Eliminates the Core Existential Questions
The core of the original was the protagonist, who has to prove to herself that she can live in her body, that she is still human. Here’s one example. In the original, the nameless, titanium-bodied protagonist goes swimming alone with a small floating device that allows her to get back to the surface, and whose failure would end her life. She courts death because it is important to her to remember her mortality, the power chance plays in life, and that life is nevertheless a choice, if it is to be really human. Because her body is a technological product, she is neither fully in control nor does she even own it.
In the American version, the girl just swims with fins, no danger and no fuss, and instead says it’s cold, dark, and scary. Either the existential importance of the choice is lost on the writers or they wanted to evacuate seriousness from the story. There’s reason to believe it’s the latter, because the story has been modified throughout to show that the body is a replaceable thing, endlessly remade with no one paying attention to the automated process, and that, anyway, it can be preserved. Every edge has been blunted, lest the audience notice anything but the thrills and spectacle of the fight scenes.
So also with the music: The original soundtrack evokes the awe with which we should encounter this specific, fearful future. The main theme of that soundtrack is played over the closing credits now, and the noise in the movie is as forgettable as the stuff made for Marvel movies. It’s remarkable how sound and image have been rendered useless in the effort to make a blockbuster, making the bodily experience of movie-watching almost useless.