In movies, as in life, timing isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
Consider the strange fate of ‘Ghost in the Shell’, the long-awaited live-action adaptation of the 1995 anime film by Mamoru Oshii. When Steven Spielberg announced in 2008 that Dream Works had acquired the property, it looked like a stroke of genius: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ had attained near-legendary status in the decade after its release, worshiped by fans for its artistry, its ineffable blend of fantasy and realism, and its nourish undertones of tech-savvy paranoia.
But the film took longer than expected to be developed and produced and what once looked prescient and even revolutionary feels as if it’s been dramatically outpaced both by movies and off-screen life.
In a way, the 2017 version of ‘Ghost in the Shell’, which has been directed with respect and lavish visual style by Rupert Sanders, is the victim of its antecedent’s success. Among the most ardent admirers of Oshii’s visionary movie – about a female robot with a human soul who fights cyberterrorism in a 21st-century city resembling Hong Kong – were the Wachowski siblings, who artfully borrowed and sometimes outright stole elements of “Ghost in the Shell” for their own revolutionary sci-fi thriller, “The Matrix.” Viewers can see similar influences in everything from Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” and “Minority Report” to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and the 2014 fem-bot drama “Ex Machina.”
The original “Ghost in the Shell’s” cool factor – its noirish urban atmosphere, the visual slippage between the human form and technology, the beautiful, often startling depictions of physical transformation – has now been appropriated so often that it can’t help but feel derivative when Sanders does it, even though he’s arguably going back to the source for his inspiration. The same can be said for the technological leaps the first movie represented: Back in 1995, Oshii’s use of state-of-the-art computer animation dazzled audiences with its uncanny imagination, fluidity and realism; after years of toiling in the “uncanny valley,” wherein the mix of live action and animation tended to result in a creepy sense of animatronic ambiguity, filmmakers have perfected the balance to create rich, seamless aesthetic experiences that literally combine the best of both worlds. From the Wachowskis’ anime-inspired (and arguably pretty dreadful) “Speed Racer,” the art form has progressed all the way to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and last year’s fabulous part-live action, part-computerised reimagining of “The Jungle Book.”
When it was released in 1995, “Ghost in the Shell” was far from the first movie to explore themes of technological anxiety and existential dread; both “Blade Runner” and “RoboCop,” two groundbreaking sci-fi movies in their own right, had come out years earlier. Still, a self-possessed, physically brave female crime fighter battling an unknown avatar of cyberterrorism feels eerily predictive at a time when anonymous hackers have played havoc with everything from nuclear reactors and financial systems to presidential elections. What once carried the shock of the dimly possible can’t hope to match the shock of what’s probable on any given day’s front page.
Nowhere has “Ghost in the Shell’s” timing felt more off than in its casting, which came in for immediate derision when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the story’s protagonist, called “The Major” for most of the movie. Although the character is of a piece with the futuristic heroines she’s been portraying lately in films from “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” to “Her,” plenty of fans thought the role should have gone to an Asian actress, in deference to the way the source material’s cultural roots and the way the original character was conceived and drawn.
Interestingly, Oshii himself has blessed the casting of Johansson, noting that the “shell” into which her character’s brain is placed needn’t match her internal “ghost.” (“The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one,” he wrote in an email to the gaming website IGN.) Reportedly, Japanese fans of the first film are similarly unfazed, having expected all along for the Hollywood adaptation to feature a big star.
The bitter truth, of course, is that – so far, at least – no actress of Asian descent qualifies as a “big star,” at least in financiers’ opinions.