This glossy Hollywood adaptation of a popular Japanese manga and media franchise has certainly created a conversation. But it’s not one the studio would have wanted. When it was announced Scarlett Johansson would be playing Ghost in the Shell‘s iconic heroine, the Major, Paramount was accused of “whitewashing” a role that should have gone to an actress of Asian origin. Director Rupert Sanders has defended Johansson’s casting, insisting this big-budget film needed a “figurehead movie star”, but it wasn’t enough to cool the controversy.
Consequently, it’s hard not to approach Ghost in the Shell without a seed of suspicion planted in your mind. When the film begins, we see Johansson’s Major being treated on a high-tech operating table by the brilliant French surgeon Dr Ouélet (Juliette Binoche). They’re living in a noirish future where robot technology is being used to augment ordinary people, and the Major is society’s most ambitious hybrid yet. Ouélet tells the Major she very nearly died in an horrific accident. To give her another chance of life, her brain has been placed into a super-advanced android body: she is now a human ghost in a machine-made shell.
Sanders’ film progresses tentatively as the Major grapples with who and what she is while completing anti-terrorist missions assigned by a creepy corporate overlord (Michael Wincott) and a kinder Prime Minister’s aide (Takeshi Kitano). Still, there’s no denying the director creates an immersive world from the start. His vision of a highly evolved but somewhat dank future-Japan is visually stunning and genuinely menacing. It’s also clearly indebted to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner, but this hardly dims its stark cyberpunk beauty.
As the Major questions the version of events she’s been told, Ghost in the Shell becomes more compelling and Johansson’s charisma shines through. The screenwriters also present a possible explanation for the Major’s Caucasian appearance, but then shy away from exploring it properly. But whatever your take on the whitewashing controversy, Ghost in the Shell is no masterpiece. It’s another entertaining but slightly frustrating origin story with one eye on creating a franchise. There’s substance here, but it doesn’t match the film’s glorious style.