By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
As mentioned previously, I wrote my piece on the futility and nihilism around the “Ghost in the Shell” whitewashing controversy before the film had been released, meaning I had little context for the actual content of the film. Now that it is out, and pundits are making sense of its underwhelming box office performance, I think it is worth amending some of my previous comments and look at the film now that there is something more concrete to analyze (spoilers for the film obviously).
Remember when I argued that the makers of the film could potentially have their cake and roll around in it too if they were to reveal that The Major was Asian and her creators had her race changed, creating the potential for an interesting commentary on the view of white as “default?”
They did that. Except not really.
See, the films big twist is that “The Major” is actually Motoko Kusanagi. The company responsible for building her were abducting orphans and runaways and put Motoko in a robot that happened to have white skin.
In hindsight, I wish I qualified my previous statement: This could be a brilliant twist, assuming they had bold and artistic minds that had something to say with this revelation. And as we discussed already, they most certainly did not.
Instead of doing something with this narratively—if loaded—plot idea, they did nothing. The film drops this bombshell on the audience then refuses to comment on it. It’s not shocking or surprising because they grafted a white woman’s skin onto an Asian woman, erasing her identity in the most extreme and disturbing way possible. It’s not shocking in a meta-way, the filmmakers commenting on how gross it is that they needed to make an Asian character white to sell this movie to massive studios and audiences. The film seems to think it’s shocking because an obviously shady corporation lied to her.
As a result, there is nothing particularly positive or artistic behind this twist. At best, it comes of as a studio hastily adding a retconning their story in an attempt to placate fans. At worst, it is a nightmarishly tone deaf move that makes the controversy more egregious. It’s worth mentioning that all of this builds up to the Major reuniting with her mom, and the fact that dozens of creative minds could look at a scene of a white woman embracing this older Asian woman she identifies as her mother without realizing how horrible it looked is surreal.
The limpness of this twist really does get to the bottom of the problem I discussed last week with the project as a whole: Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell” has no interesting artistic vision. This isn’t an adaptation, taking the source material and putting a spin on it. It’s s streamlined remake that goes through all the iconic moments in live action with little new added. The reason this film exists is because a handful of producers really wanted a film called “Ghost in the Shell” in theaters.
What damns this film more than anything is that it has nothing new or interesting to say, and the whitewashing controversy is what manifests from that maddening emptiness. All the pieces were in place to take the central premise of “Ghost” and make something new and topical from a source material that has been well trodden already.
Think about it. You have a story about a shady corporation artificially creating a perfect woman to fight crime staring Scarlett Johansson, a woman whose has become iconic for staring as the perfect feminine object (“Her,” “Under the Skin,” her role as Black Widow). Her entire career has been defined by how she is reduced to an object by the world around her, like she’s a customizable robot. That writes itself.
All of that is before we discuss the transhumanism/augmented humanity themes that have only become more relevant, now with the advancements in prosthetics and how gender fluidity has become a far more accepted concept in 2017 compared to 1995.
And I know I’ve hammered this point to death already, but you really could make a version of “Ghost in the Shell” that only comments on the relationship between machines and race, and it would be brilliant. Robots are a race-less and genderless concept, yet a corporation designs a supermodel white woman to be the leader of their elite police force? Meanwhile, the iconic ‘evil’ subhuman robots are designed to look like geishas? There are so many chilling implications from that with the potential to make a morbid, thoughtful movie. As long as it was in the hands of a studio that wanted to say something – anything – in their blockbuster.
I like to believe any almost any creative decision can work if it is creatively justified. Even something as dull-headed as casting a white woman to lead a famously Japanese source material could work if it was used to make a statement. But the only “statement” was that Paramount wanted to make as much money as possible, and casting Hollywood’s most bankable female star in Hollywood seemed like the best means to that end. The problem is when you lack a creative goal, you find yourself struggling to justify the big ideas you never really thought about, like whitewashing.
In a recent interview, Paramount domestic distribution chief Kyle Davies acknowledged that the whitewashing of the film was a problem, but not in the way you would hope. As Davies stated, “I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews… those reviews definitely hurt.” The way I read that is that in his mind, the whitewashing itself wasn’t the problem, it was how the reviews treated it. Unfortunately, I feel like this was coming from a mile away, the “reviewers didn’t give it a fair chance and ruined our movie” defense. If they had just looked past the whitewashing, they would have given our boring, uninspired film a chance. Not to mention the many writers wondering if audiences just can’t handle “cerebral” stories, when there is very little cerebral going on in this film.
I genuinely hope I’m misreading this, but if that’s the case, then we really learned nothing from this. Even with the encouraging news that Jordan Peele is being considered for the “Akira” remake, it feels more and more like the “white anime” cycle will continue.