Friday, October 17, 2014

Ghost in the Shell the Movie!!! or How my Head Exploded Friday Morning

So this all started when I woke up this morning and shortly after beginning my day I saw my name tagged in what I assumed to be a silly innocent facebook post by my boyfriend.  The post was a link to this article.

Soooooo.  Scarlett Johansson has been offered the lead role in Ghost in the Shell slated to be written by William Wheeler and directed by Rupert Sanders.  I have opinions on this news.  LOTS of them.  Let me first start out by saying that I think if you were to take Ghost in the Shell and move it to a western context and make all the characters suddenly white that Johansson is the perfect casting.  She has shown in Under the Skin and in a somewhat simpler way in Lucy that she can do cerebral, she has shown in Lucy and her work in the Marvel cinematic universe that she can do action, and she has shown in several contexts she can do stone cold pseudo sociopath.  While that's not who Motoko Kusanagi is, it's the persona she presents to much of the world.  In this respect she's a lot like Black Widow.  I love this casting for this project.  That's where my love ends.

I do not think this project is worth doing.  Now before people start lining up their arguments that are pro live action film rendition and pro alternate universe retelling let me say I would LOVE to see a live action GITS, and I am 100% all for AU, especially with a property like GITS that has 3 AU versions already (comic, movie, series). I have no issues with spinning another alternate telling.  My issues have to do with casting a western actress for this part and what that represents.

For another round of disclaimers I really don't want to get into the argument about the whitewashing of racial roles in the abstract.  There is a broad array of content on the internet about why this is a problematic trend, and I agree with the vast majority of it.  However I feel no particular need to re-hash it and I have so many complaints about westernizing this particular piece of IP that I really want to focus on my GITS specific issues instead of getting into the broader cultural trend of casting robust POC roles with white actors.

So with all the disclaimers and straw men swept away (I hope) let me go into my problems with this project.  First and foremost I do not trust Hollywood with post homo sapien sentience storylines.  There is a long history of Hollywood watering down these stories.  The most recent example I can think of is Her.  I know a lot of people liked this film, but to me it felt like they walked up to every major question common to this genre and then didn't actually address any of them.  "Oh I've evolved past connecting with one person and that's a really interesting opportunity to explore what that would mean for you as a human in love with me and maybe looking at poly dynamics and wait I'm about to leave.  Nope I only want to be with you now" (which basically means the earlier state was meaningless).  "Oh I'm changing and becoming so much more than I was programmed to be, but I'm going to continue to emotionally process exactly like a normal human".  I could go on, but you get the point.  It was not a nuanced inspection of post human sentience by any means.  The other example that comes to mind is Bicentennial Man which Hollywood felt for some bizarre reason required trampling on the Laws of Robotics (they were violated at several points during the film) and taking what was an internal evolution of sentience and making it a romance story.  That externalized the main character's motivation for wanting to be human and honestly drew the focus entirely away from his personal evolution.  While the evolution did happen, and was required to make the romance make sense it became a supporting role in the much more conventional plot instead of the core point of the story.

This genre isn't the bread an butter of Ghost in the Shell, but it is a major theme that is woven throughout the universe and it has to be handled deftly.  I have very little faith in Hollywood's ability to handle something as abstract as the Puppetmaster, let alone the evolution of the Tachikoma over the course of Stand Alone Complex.  While neither of these stories will necessarily be a part of the American film, if the theme itself is missing the story will really fall flat for most GITS fans.  What would be worse is if it's present but done poorly, which I feel is more likely.  The sci-fi coming out of Hollywood right town tends towards the action packed and less than cerebral.  Given that trend I find it very difficult to believe that the studios are going to have the stomach to do a truly cerebral GITS film as a big budget flick.  It just doesn't fit their current risk profile.  The closest thing we've seen to that sort of experimentation recently is Lucy, and it was a very superficial approach to the genre.

The other concern I have is that many of the themes in Ghost in the Shell just don't make sense in an American context.  First and foremost the politics of the series are based on interactions with a corrupt but very functional government.  What I mean by this is that several actors in the government that Section 6 exists in are acting in unethical ways, but they are all acting.  The speed at which things happen in the politics of the Ghost in the Shell universe is kind of mind boggling.  Even the most corrupt individuals in the government of our fictional futuristic Japan are generally doing what they believe is right for the country.  They may be trampling individual rights in the process, but they are doing what they think is right.  Also, the actions built into this story are often lacking the kind of gravity of "personal liberty" trampling in the way it's framed because Japan is a profoundly more collectivist country than the US is.  I mean let's be honest at this point the US is probably the least collectivist major power on the planet.  This sense of duty to the whole over the needs of the individual are core to much of the political maneuvering in Ghost in the Shell.  What all of the public safety sections represent would be a HUGE violation of due process and civil rights in America.  Yet that theme is rarely touched on in Ghost in the Shell.  Attempting to strip that cultural context will either leave you with a very poor story infrastructure or if you replace it with something more western will profoundly change the foundation of most of the Ghost in the Shell universe.

The other piece that will be missing is what it means that everyone is Section 6 except for Togusa has a military background.  If the story is set in Japan this comes with an huge amount of cultural significance.  Japan is not allowed to have a standing military.  They can have a local militarized police force, but the actions of that force may not be deployed beyond their own territory.  This was a portion of the treaty that came out of WWII and it was dictated by the United States as a term of surrender.  There is a great deal written on the significance of this in the Japanese psyche, even in Ghost in the Shell where Japan has retaken their standing as a military power in the world America has been upgraded to an empire.  The details of this global political  landscape are not necessarily the subject of exposition in the original material but they bear very specific significance.  This relationship is a major aspect of Japanese history that can be treated as assumed knowledge, much as the American Revolutionary and Civil wars can be treated in American media.  I can't really imagine a way that this context could be maintained in a western version of the story, and without it much of the characters' and the fictional government's core foundation is compromise.

So that bring us back to the core purpose and scope of telling the GITS story with westernized characters and presumably in a western setting.  GITS is really a cyberpunk story.  However, unlike most cyberpunk stories it is not fundamentally dystopian.  It is a future not unlike our own.  It focuses on political corruption, military corruption, but at it's core the characters are doing the right thing, for the right reasons.  They may be a touch jaded and deeply pragmatic, but at their core they are functioning within a government agency trying to do right by their world in a paramilitary "we don't really exist" context.  Now try to place that story in the cultural context of Edward Snowden, and Prism, and Ferguson.  With headlines pushing for the demilitarization of US police forces because of how dysfunctional they have become how can these characters possibly resonate as heroes?  In a country that suffers not from having their military hands tied, but from being far too loose with military might abroad and at home how are Motoko, and Batou and Ape face supposed to be protagonists?  In a society driven by a completely dysfunctional federal government that can't get anything done, and that is notorious for outsourcing their military force with no functional oversight how could section 6 read as anything other than a far off fantasy?

Section 6 represents a realistic answer to the questions "What if our hands were untied?", "What if the future comes with more overwhelming political and social challenges than we've ever seen before?", and "What would it look like if we had the skills and the right people in the right places to tackle those challenges?".  It is a far more serious socio-political commentary than Americans are used to from our action flicks let alone our cartoons.  It would be none of those things in a western context, and doesn't resonate with any of the current trends or themes prevalent in the world Americans wake up in every day.

I love Ghost in the Shell.  I love it for the tension it maintains between Japan's place as a world superpower and how much power is denied them.  I love it for the tension it maintains between a future even more corrupt than the one we live in now and the hope that there might still be institutional heroes in that world that will make it survivable.  I love it for the harsh pragmatism it represents, and the deep emotional strings it still pulls in the face of that pragmatism.  I love it for all of these things, and I just can't imagine any of those themes translating to a western setting.  I would love to see a live action Ghost in the Shell movie.  I think done properly it could be glorious.  I just don't see how westernizing the story could result in it being done properly.