There’s been a furore about the issue of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in the movie version of the classic Japanese anime story Ghost in the Shell. Some critics say that casting a white Hollywood star in the role (just as Matt Damon was the lead in The Great Wall and Tilda Swinton was the sensei in Doctor Strange) is cultural appropriation, or ‘whitewashing’. But it’s not actually that simple, because Scarlett plays a human brain in a synthetic body (a body that is non-racially specific and unrealistically augmented) in a racially mixed future society. One of the key messages of the film is that under the skin we’re all human. It’s an essentialist message. Added to that, there’s a similar intertextual message if you look at other recent Scarlett Johansson films e.g. Under the Skin, Lucy, etc. At the end of the day, I’m not entirely sure which side of the argument I come down on, but it’s perhaps a shame the ‘issue’ is putting people off going to see the film at all, since there is no doubt this is a thought-provoking film.
So what’s this high-concept scifi movie actually about? Well, Scarlett wakes up and finds that scientists have saved her from death by transplanting her brain from her dying body into a synthetic body. She is now expected to work for the government (as secret service) since they kind of own her. Turns out, of course, that she’s being used by unprincipled parties. Ultimately, she has to break free of their control, which sees her branded as a dangerous terrorist. All hell then breaks loose.
The special FX are stunning. There are some lovely scifi ideas, many of them incidental. The world is intricately imagined and delicately described. And we do care about the characters.
There are other themes I could explore (feminist, child-soldier, alienation, etc), but it’s probably best to leave these for you to discover for yourself. So, Ghost in a Shell scores a respectable 8 out of 10 from me.