Ghost in the Shell is a staggering mediocrity. It’s a waste of everyone’s money and time, and is hardly worth writing criticism of. In the wake of tens of millions of dollars blown on special effects, the seeming ignorance of what the source material was even talking about, and the inexplicable cultivation of racial controversy by repeatedly doubling down on whitewashing the main roles of the film, the least the film could do would be to be atrocious enough to be satisfyingly savaged. Or to be so damned good that all of that would end up beside the point. Or even just to provide a big dumb action movie to enjoy for a couple of hours. Anything but being boring.
Instead, the only thing it mastered was the old standby of sound and noise, signifying nothing.
Black Widow plays a super soldier robot body with a human brain implanted in it. There are lots of pronouncements about how this is the future of the human race, speculation about souls and bodies, and all sorts of that genre of somber intonations. Bad script writers in full blown Wachowski imitation mode think that if you say bullshit seriously enough it’s philosophy.
Guess what, the sinister guy running the company is actually a bad guy. I know, I know, I’m sorry for ruining the whole movie. Let’s spoil some more, shall we: turns out Black Widow wasn’t actually a refugee whose family was killed by terrorists, she was actually just a poor girl murdered by said company, along with dozens of others because “no one would miss them”.
I just want to make sure that we’ve got this nefarious plot down right:
1. Build ultra badass soldier robot body that needs a human brain to work.
2. Test the technology by using the brains of people you murdered.
3. Implant fake memories of terrorists killing their family.
4. Trust that they will take a medicine to repress the memories of you murdering them for their brains.
I’m not an evil science fiction corporate overlord (that’s Seth), but let me take a stab at some ideas here. So you’ve got an apparently endless supply of soldiers willing to fight, die, and replace every part of their body with cybernetics in the quest to either take home a paycheck or fight the good fight against the terrorists (all of whom, naturally, seem to be Asian, which is the whole separate can of worms of this movie). Just spitballing here, but why not … ask for volunteers? You literally have an army of people who would jump at being your cyborg soldier test subject, so why stick the brain of someone who would want revenge on you and everyone you love into the super soldier prototype killing machine?
Right, okay, but then you wouldn’t be evil and you really really really want to be evil.
Again, just spitballing here, but what about when you go send troops to massacre poor people to harvest their brains, what if you evil overlord boss didn’t actually accompany the troops yourself like Goebbels strutting through the camps, and instead you like had the troops put on the uniforms of the terrorists that you want the brain donors to have a revenge complex against?
To make a movie about brains in machines that is brainless yet mechanically going through the motions is truly a masterful feat of irony.
The special effects and world are so lackadaisically loud they’re practically a beige-themed rave. It grafts the gritty darkness of Blade Runner onto the colorful dystopia of Fifth Element and ends up being a muddled and derivative cartoon with the creativity and vision of neither. It feels like a bunch of cut scenes from the video game you play while waiting for the sequel to the game you really want to play.
They insisted on casting white actors and actresses in Japanese roles arguing that their creative vision could not possibly be compromised by resorting to anyone but the best actors, so it is just infuriating how little creative vision there actually seems to have been. To top it off, Black Widow showed up to all those interviews insisting that she would never play a character of another race because of how offensive that would be, despite literally playing the robot body of a Japanese woman in this movie. We see her in flashbacks. We meet her mother. Her name is Motoko Kusanagi for fuck’s sake.
But let’s tease this out for a moment. Because the movie’s sole philosophical conceit is that the body doesn’t matter, and the mind does. That is, what makes the character who she is, is what her mind is, i.e. that of a Japanese woman. So either Johansson doesn’t understand her own lines or is arguing that the premise of the movie is wrong. I know it’s the former, but the latter is nonetheless hilarious, even more so because the film’s philosophical premise is diametrically opposed to the source material.
I’m not a purist, and my source of criticism is not loyalty to the original Japanese works. I’ve only seen the first film, and that was over two decades ago. I’ve almost completely forgotten it, to be frank, other than brief half-retained impressions. No, my incredulity is based on the fact that the title of the film means the exact opposite of what the film’s writers apparently thought it does. “Ghost in the shell” is not just a poetic way of saying that there’s a soul in the body, it’s a short hand for an entire body (ha!) of philosophy. A body of philosophy that the original works drew explicitly and intentionally upon.
The title derives from the philosophical concept of the ghost in the machine. And the anime film and its sequels and series are deeply dependent on exploring that as a science fictional plot device. The basic idea is that the old Cartesian concept of the duality of mind and body is a lie. It argues that there is no mind without a body, that who and what we are is inseparable from the sack of meat and fluid we find ourselves in. The rational mind likes to think of itself as distinct from this filthy organism, but the irrational mind still lurks beneath, intertwined with blood and sinew. It’s a ghost that haunts us, all of our rage and passion and animal instinct, it lurks beneath the cold and calculating machine that seeks to use the body as a puppet.
But the body is anything but. This flesh thinks for itself, dreams for itself. This flesh has a will.
It’s no coincidence that dualism came out of a Europe clawing its way out of the dark ages, leaning heavily on Christianism that rejected the body and taught of the salvation of the soul. And it’s also no coincidence that the exploration of the rejection of that dualism has been in science fiction that draws so heavily upon Eastern philosophies, whether explicitly or implicitly.
For a movie to call itself “ghost in the shell” and then spend two hours half-assedly pronouncing that the mind is independent of the body is to profoundly miss the point that could have been gained by merely spending five minutes on Wikipedia. It’s almost as egregious as thinking that Tolkien’s works were about bros killing orcs.
The mediocrity of these films is not in that they are adapting famous works, but that they’re doing so without any apparent understanding of why they were great. They’ve mastered tossing the millions at the screen, painting a gorgeous shell, but there’s not a soul to be found in them. Not even the ghost of one.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.