There’s something strange going on in Hollywood. It’s a frenzy that suggests that maybe the powers that decide Spider-Man needs another try only three years after the last botched attempt, or The Mummy needs to be raised from the dead of the late 90s and into a Tom Cruise vehicle are running around in complete disconnection. They’re so terrified by television, Netflix, and whatever else that they’re reaching for the most nonsensical products to reboot; things long forgotten or ones that will only be enjoyed in their original intended form. But in the fray, is anyone asking the crucial question – “who is going to watch this?’
In a way, this English-language, Hollywood studio-produced adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is the film that’s a sign of the times. It was embroiled in a whitewashing controversy, due to Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major, a Japanese woman who has been engineered as a perfect soldier to catch terrorists. She’s held under an illusion of consent, only to become self-aware and fight. Are we in the mid-20th century again, where Mickey Rooney played Holly Golightly’s Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese woman in Dragon Seed, and Marlon Brando a Japanese interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon? The past years have made the lack of progress even more abundantly clear, with Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan and Emma Stone a half-Chinese woman. But to add insult to injury, Ghost in the Shell is predicated on identity politics – it’s easy to surmise the meaning of the title, Major a hollow vessel filled out with a consciousness, controlled by those who created her, and fighting others who wish to erase consciousness. “It’s like way to reduce race to mere phys(ical) appearance as opposed to say culture, social experience, identity, history,” actor Constance Wu tweeted.
Wu may have said that nearly a year ago, but it gets to the other fact that makes Ghost in the Shell emblematic of the times – it’s a film that feels so absent, stipped and dulled and smothered of any possible identity, a befuddling choice for a blockbuster reboot when the original has such a devoted audience. Director Rupert Sanders helmed Snow White and the Huntsman, a much more zeitgeisty blockbuster made in the days after Alice in Wonderland and Twilight burnt up the box office with a hunger for darker, sexier fairytales for teenagers. That movie was another glossed-over and absent blockbuster that felt pandered to its teen audience, drowned in a sex of VFX that it lost any sense of adventure. Sanders’s intention is to create a cyberpunk coolness, a cheap Japanese version of Blade Runner that feels built in a local Chinatown and filled in with holographic koi and geishas to telegraph the location. There’s a sleek distancing to the film, all fake blood and glitches that feels like grasping for something; anything that sets the box office alight, to cause an excited resurgence of 90s Japanese culture to join the return of Pokemon, only to come up empty. Who will see this? Not even Ghost in the Shell knows.