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Ghost in the Shell is pretty, but not nearly as smart as it thinks

Starring Scarlett Johansson as a human-machine hybrid, the movie raises interesting questions, then ignores them entirely.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major in Ghost in the Shell
Scarlett Johansson plays Major in Ghost in the Shell
Paramount Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s clear there was once a pulsing intelligence beneath Ghost in the Shell’s shiny exterior — some kind of idea it was trying to explore in a complex, engaging story drawing on cyberpunk tradition.

But now, it’s an expensive, flashy Hollywood movie, intended to appeal to fans of the manga and anime originals as well as a global audience that’s never read or watched those originals (and to launch a big-budget studio franchise, naturally).

Cyberpunk is interested in difficult questions about the nature and future of humanity — but if there’s one thing Hollywood doesn’t trust, it’s the audience’s ability to use their brains. So naturally, Ghost in the Shell has gotten dumbed down as much as possible. You can detect a flicker — one might even say a ghost — of an interesting idea beneath its polished shell. But at every turn, Ghost in the Shell sacrifices the opportunity to actually say something interesting. It doesn’t even seem to recognize that the opportunity exists.

Ghost in the Shell tells a cyberpunk story of a hybrid killing machine

Ghost in the Shell is set in a future in which the line between human and machine is becoming blurred — where “what are you?” is a reasonable question to ask someone you just met. Humans are getting “enhancements,” technological upgrades implanted in their body that let them do all kinds of things they couldn’t do before.

Some of those upgrades are relatively stupid, like the ability to drink more alcohol than their normal body could handle. Others are designed to help them not just recover from injuries, but upgrade their capabilities in helpful ways. Were your eyes ruined in an explosion? Get some fancy new ones that can zoom and see with x-ray vision.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
Paramount Pictures

The goal of this future world seems to be concealing dingy reality as much as possible, creating a veneer of “beauty” that’s often determined by corporate interests. The decrepit buildings of what looks like it once was Tokyo are brightened and concealed by holographic advertisements and bright lights that distract from the rusting exteriors. A pulsating nightclub features holographic dancers to titillate the crowd. Brightly colored, enormous three-dimensional images of women and koi fish fill the space between buildings, giving an illusion of beauty with the ultimate goal of making people buy things and distracting them from reality.

This is also a fully networked world, where humans with the proper enhancements can tap into various wavelengths and communicate with one another without having to speak, or pass information, images, and messages along. This, of course, means that humans can also be hacked, their memories replaced with false ones and their thought processes hijacked by others.

In this future, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) has been created by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Mira possesses a human brain and a completely synthetic body (and, yes, a Caucasian one), engineered by Hanka Robotics to be the best sort of weapon — a killing machine that also has the capacity to lead and imagine. She’s the future of Hanka, and also the future of humanity.

Juliette Binoche and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Juliette Binoche and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
Paramount Pictures

Mira — or Major, as she is mostly called — leads an organization called Section 9, which combats terrorist activity. She’s called in by section chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) to investigate a mysterious string of murders, in which Hanka’s own robots seem to be targeting its human leaders. That investigation leads them toward a shadowy hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) — who has some designs on Major of his own.

Ghost in the Shell tries to ask questions about the nature of the soul

Ghost in the Shell’s greatest feature is its visual acuity, which often tells a more interesting story than the actual plot. It’s fascinating to imagine how the world ended up this way, the history that brought humanity to this place. It pays homage to the manga and anime on which it’s based, but it’s still interesting to the newbie eye.

And because much of the movie universe’s visual style relies on images being layered on top of existing structures, watching Ghost in the Shell in 3-D actually does help further the story, rather than just being gimmicky. You can get a better sense of what characters are seeing because you see the same layers.

But the film’s visual style is itself a hollow shell. Ghost in the Shell wants to raise smart, cyberpunky question about where the soul resides, especially when parts of humans begin getting replaced by machines — though it steers away from any of the political implications of this question.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
Paramount Pictures

The original Ghost in the Shell explicitly avoids trying to define the soul, but this movie, following most thinkers and theologians, takes the basic stance that your soul is what makes you an individual. This is a philosophical position — in fact, it’s practically a theological position, and the obvious aping of divine-creation imagery in the film’s opening moments, as Major’s body is created, evokes this. When Major’s body is being formed, what exactly is being created? At what moment does it become more than a machine?

Dr. Ouelet argues that Major is not a machine, but a human, because she has a human brain — and that’s where her soul (or her “ghost”) resides. The body, for all intents and purposes, is beside the point, an accessory that can be swapped out or modified at will.

There are all kinds of interesting implications here when you kick the matter into a networked reality: If the brain can be hacked by someone for their own designs, have they taken over your soul? Is any of your ghost left in that shell?

Settling for lazy existentialism, Ghost in the Shell ditches its own past

But science fiction is never just about the future; it’s always about today. So while the networked reality question is increasingly important, it’s even more important in 2017 to note what Ghost in the Shell says about people, and what the implications are.

Dr. Ouelet insists (and Major later parrots) the rather existentialist idea that though we cling to our memories as if they define us, it’s actually our actions that define us — as if this was some kind of meaningful dichotomy, and we can only pick one. Either our memories define us or our actions do, the movie says.

This, to put it bluntly, is a facile and boneheaded idea. Of course our actions define us. But our memories — by which the movie really means our histories — shape the essence of who we are, too. One doesn’t override the other. The two together are what makes us unique. So we exercise some agency in shaping our future selves, but we can’t just erase the past, and (as Ghost in the Shell itself suggests) it’s downright villainous to erase someone else’s memories — because you then have taken away their soul.

Scarlett Johansson and Takeshi Kitano in Ghost in the Shell
Scarlett Johansson and Takeshi Kitano in Ghost in the Shell.
Jasin Boland

The controversy around Ghost in the Shell, in which Johansson — one of the most recognizable white actresses in the world — was cast to play a character who is Japanese in the original story, is more or less a result of the movie’s own philosophy. Ghost in the Shell does try very hard to make this casting choice make sense, and by the plot’s logic, it more or less does.

And yet, cultural memories and experiences are part of individuals’ identities (you might even say their “souls”) as much as what they do in the future. In trying to swap out an Asian character for a Caucasian one, the casting choice is at cross purposes with its own characterization of villainy. Major’s soul was stolen right out from under her by a government. In the story, that’s called corruption.

Ghost in the Shell settles for the kind of lazy existentialism that often haunts Hollywood productions, encouraging us to make choices to construct ourselves while also spouting platitudes like “when we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then are we at peace.” That’s just boring. The stories it’s based on, though, directly addressed the murky ethical future of human and individual identity in a technology-dominated age, and the socio-political implications of this shift. Ghost in the Shell skirts those questions as much as possible, ditching its own history to pave a new future as a big-screen franchise. It’s safe to say that it’s lost its soul.

Ghost in the Shell opens in theaters on March 31, 2017.

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