Overview: In a cyberpunk, futuristic Japan, a cyborg commander known as Major and her counter-terrorism unit Section 9 works to stop hackers and cyber-terrorists. Paramount Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 106 minutes.
Natural and Artificial: The 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii, is both beautifully animated and profound in its exploration of the human experience, pushing ideas about both technology and subjectivity to their extremes. If a third party can alter someone’s perception, memories, and actions—what constitutes one’s identity? It is a film that’s just as concerned with its main character’s psychology as with its futuristic setting.
Taking inspiration from Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga, the 1995 film, and and the 2003 animated series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, director Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell aims to have its cake and eat it too. It largely simplifies the characters, narrative and themes of the 1995 film while still attempting to benefit from of the iconic status of its characters, visual style, and even specific scenes. It neither commits the exploration of its protagonist to the extent of its predecessor, nor attempts to adjust and reinvigorate a story to fit our current economic, political and technological environment. Ghost in the Shell provides stunning visuals and effects but falls short in its commitment to Major and her psyche.
Mind and Body: In a society in which technology and the human body have been integrated, and most people are, to varying degrees, cybernetic. As a result, cyber-terrorism and hacking in Ghost in the Shell can be carried out on the most personal level, against a person’s very mind and body. An independent police unit called Section 9, led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki and cyborg Major, confront these crimes. The film’s Main conflict involves Major and Section 9 pursuit of Kuze, a hacker who has been killing members of the robotics manufacturer Hanka.
Scarlett Johansson’s Major is almost completely monotone throughout Ghost in the Shell, and though Johansson seems to be trying to imbue her performance with some heart, the script does her no favors. In general, Major is convincingly deadly, physicality is believable, but the way she walks, along with her voice, is sometimes a distraction affectation. Pilou Asbæk’s Batou is a highlight, as one of the only Section 9 members that is allowed both a personality and a relationship with Major. Batou’s kind-hearted, sensitivity toward Major is refreshing and some of the strongest scenes are between the two, the only with any sense of light humor in which Major is allowed to do something else than stare, intense and confused.
Kuze (Michael Pitt) is a missed opportunity. His milquetoast motivation, revenge against Hanka that created and discarded him, is especially disappointing considering other antagonists available from the original Ghost in the Shell. He seems to be moreso inspired by the original film’s Puppet Master than the series’ Kuze, but with, like Major, less attention given to his journey of understanding his identity and sentience.
The Puppet Master’s preoccupations are with its own self-preservation, and the way its inability to biologically reproduce inhibits adaptation, evolution, and genetic diversity. It eventually asserts its humanity and demands political asylum after unexpectedly becoming sentient while working for the government, and seeks out Major Kusunagi because the two “resemble each other’s essence,” and he sees merging with her as a possibility to reproduce. In comparison, the concerns of Sanders’ Kuze and the reveal that Hanka is ultimately at fault feels not only overly simplistic but also less connected to the story’s themes and universe. What is revealed to be a shared history between Kuze and Major also felt both unnecessary and limiting to the scope of both of their motivations. A connection between the two could have simply been found in their similar existential situations, had these situations been better explored. Hanka CEO Cutter, (Peter Ferdinando) who is even blander character than Kuze and whose ambiguous behavior cannot carry the second half of the film, is another downside of the watered-down plot of Ghost in the Shell.
Jamie Moss and Ehren Kruger’s script for Ghost in the Shell tries to make up for proper exploration of existential themes by incessantly mentioning “the ghost” and “the soul,” leaving very little for the audience to contemplate much about Ghost in the Shell. Some lines are simply cliché questions like “Are you human?” and “What are you?” peppered throughout, with some lines being outright cringe-worthy (“Humanity is our virtue,” and “Your shell belongs to them but not your ghost.”)
Accusations of whitewashing have, rightly, plagued discussion of Ghost in the Shell; major characters such as Major, Batou, Dr. Ouélet, Cutter, and Kuze are played by white actors, while many of the more minor characters Aramaki, Togusa, Saito, Borma, and others are played by Asian actors. This film is set in a futuristic Japan, and the film’s visual character is distinctly Asian; “New Port City” contains giant holograms in kimonos, Japanese text on the sides of buildings, and cyborgs styled after geishas. The extent to which this film is committed to incorporating Asian visual elements in its aesthetic without casting Asian actors as leads makes the casting choices feel even more disappointing and exploitative. The ending, which reveals aspects of Major’s past identity, and seems to try to answer for this choice, feels both uncalled for and tone deaf.
Self-Developing and Externally Designed: The universe of Ghost in the Shell feels lived-in, futuristic but far from sterile. Cultural elements and are detailed and add color and texture to this world. Every room and costume, car, and technological accessory is beautifully crafted, and the environments feel layered, alive, and cohesive. The way technology has integrated itself visually is also complete and feels thought-through. Kuze’s glitches, as well, were a great touch. Major’s thermo-optical camouflage suit and her outfits in general feel well-adapted. Batou’s cybernetic eyes, however, could be jarring to look at and didn’t translate well from animation.
Sanders’ action sequences are crisp, less than astounding but legible, although slow motion is used a staggering amount of times throughout Ghost in the Shell. His direction is at its best in quieter scenes, however, brief moments when this film’s potential is felt. One scene in particular stands out: when Major, kneeling across a human woman, touches the face, and asks her what it feels like.
Overall: Ghost in the Shell is well-suited to an adaptation in 2017. In a world in which refugee crises, nuclear war, cyber-terrorism, hacking, and political corruption (all elements depicted in either the original film or series) are all relevant to our daily lives. This film had a chance to refresh and adapt its source material with more creativity, more impact. The whitewashed casting of Ghost in the Shell is not the primary issue with this movie but rather a symptom of its primary issue; this film had to appeal to so wide of an audience that it watered down its source material to the point where it had no emotional impact or exploration of existential themes. The visual spectacle remains, but any soul is non-existent.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures