It’s 2017, and most mornings I’m convinced the world’s going to fall apart. If not today, then some point soon: Antarctica will melt and ruin my Jersey Shore vacation; someone in the White House will send an incendiary tweet that incites a world war; every brick on every public school building will crumble due to lack of upkeep. As your resident paranoid alarmist, it’s rare for me to shake hands with 2017. But the visual storytelling of Ghost in the Shell, coming to theaters March 31, made me grateful to be alive in the here and now. A movie with visuals this advanced couldn’t have been made at any other time.
Welcome to a distant future, where humans can transcend their bodies' limitations through cybernetic enhancements. But with these technological perks, like X-Ray vision and instant inner-ear translation, come a major drawback. Instead of iPhones getting hacked, human minds can be broken into. To combat constant threats of terrorism, the government has poured its resources into a unique project. Enter Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first robot with a human mind. From Major's stunning creation in the opening scene, Ghost in the Shell's impressive visuals kept me gasping — and briefly distracted from the movie's larger problems.
Each time Major rounded the corner in the fictional city’s seedy underbelly and exposed some new, imaginative detail of her world, I wished we could scrap the whole story and just hang out awhile. I wanted to get lost in mazes of neon alleyways; study each holographic giant hulking between buildings; smoke a cigarette in the Yakuza-owned nightclub where each character had some uniquely gruesome cybernetic enhancement; and climb the stairs of the massive, decrepit housing complexes that are frightening in their uniformity.
Each subtle detail could’ve spurred its own story.
More than just aesthetic window dressing, these visuals provide unspoken context for the world of Ghost in the Shell. During a combat scene between Major and a terrorist, atmospheric details are as crucial as punches.
The fight takes place in the slums, separated from the city’s high rises by a swath of shallow, grimy water. Clearly, the glittering city's technological advancements only exist for a select portion of the population. Technology has allowed people’s stomachs to process more alcohol, or their eyes to see X-ray, but it hasn’t made conditions better — or more equal. The fight presents a visual statement on societal inequality.
With scenes like these, the movie grounds its high-stakes fight against terrorism in a well-developed world that is, in many ways, more interesting than the plot itself. Ghost in the Shell, then, follows the legacy of films like The Matrix and Blade Runner: science fiction films that don’t sacrifice art for adrenaline.
And that brings me to the unfortunate part of Ghost in the Shell. For a while there, the sweeping visuals blinded me from acknowledging film’s shaky foundation.
For starters, there's the story, which deflates around halfway through; the lack of a convincing adversary; and Major's anticlimactic fight against a spider-robot. And then, there was the perplexing question I asked myself every second of the movie: Why the heck was Scarlett Johansson cast to play a Japanese character?
The film's been mired in controversy ever since Johansson's casting was announced. In an interview with Marie Claire, Johansson addressed the issue, stating, "I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person."
But Johansson's statement felt hollow while watching Ghost in the Shell, especially after it's revealed that Major had been a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi before she became a robot. And Major's not the film's only human-turned-robot. Her counterpart also began as a Japanese teenager. Given these origins, why do their androids take the form of white people?
Ghost in the Shell may be a spectacle for the ages, but its casting broke the magnificent spell of visual storytelling for me. For all of our 21st-century progress in terms of visual technology, we’re stuck in a present with the disappointing problem of whitewashing. I guess it’s back to the drawing board for my grim outlook on 2017.