Given my love of Ghost in the Shell in all its many iterations, I would be remiss in not reviewing Ghost in the Shell (2017) – the US remake from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and starring Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Under the Skin) as the Major. Remakes in general are always a tough sell, and while I think there are some good examples on both sides of the equation (The Ring is a strong adaptation of Ring, Yurusurezarumono is a fantastic adaptation of Unforgiven) the general expectation is that any piece of world cinema being adapted for Hollywood is going to lose something in translation. I wanted to approach it with some degree of open-mindedness – perhaps it could be one of those rare examples of a remake that transcends its source material, or if nothing else, perhaps it could stand alone as a decent film even if in failing to surpass the original version it winds up feeling unnecessary (not unlike the recent RoboCop remake).
In this version of Ghost in the Shell, the Major* is a prototype cyborg, the first of her kind: a human brain in a fully cybernetic body or ‘shell’. This is a fairly large deviation from the rest of the Ghost in the Shell franchise where cyborgs are fairly common; in this movie’s world, while many have cybernetic ‘enhancements’, no one else has a completely artificial body like the Major. She’s unique. Cybernetics corporation Hanka built her body following significant injuries from a terrorist attack where only her brain could be saved and now she works for Section 9, a governmental anti-terrorism unit. Unfortunately for the Major, the cyberisation process has given her amnesia and she has no memory of her life or identity before the attack. As the film progresses, however, she experiences ‘glitches’ – hallucinations that suggest not everything is as it appears to be and that some of what she has been told is a lie.
*One of the weirdest things this movie does is with the name ‘Major’. For obvious reasons with the casting of Johansson, this character is not called ‘Major Motoko Kusanagi’. Instead, she’s ‘Major Mira Killian’, and it’s clear that Major is intended to be her rank. However, no one ever refers to her as ‘the Major’, just ‘Major’, like its a given name. She even reports in over comms as “It’s Major”. While trying to avoid late film spoilers, she ultimately drops the name ‘Mira Killian’ altogether and one of the final lines includes the phrase “My name is Major,” which by that point is just pure nonsense.
The Major and Section 9 are investigating ill-defined ‘terrorists’, though that’s mostly just a plot device to move the characters through the story. The film opens with a scene built from chunks of several different versions of Ghost in the Shell: the Major dives from the roof off a skyscraper wearing thermoptic camouflage, a la the original 1995 anime, but the scene she’s entering is closer to the first episode of Stand Alone Complex where hostages have been taken at a teahouse with robotic geisha. The geisha themselves are highly reminiscent of the gynoids from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, right down to the repeated refrain ‘help me’ (tasukete in the original Japanese) that makes no sense out of that film’s context. This is emblematic of the problem with the movie: it uses the existing Ghost in the Shell franchise as a visual guide, but exhibits no understanding of how the pieces fit together. In Innocence, that gynoid is ‘dubbed’ with the ghost or consciousness of a real person, which is why it’s begging for help. In this movie, the robot is just a robot, and repeats ‘help me’ for no reason but to call back to the other film. Say what you will about the franchise – perhaps instead of finding it philosophically inspiring, you merely find it pretentious – but each component has been carefully crafted to advance the themes of the story. The gynoid begging for help isn’t just a creepy scene – it’s actively linked to the plot of the movie. By taking random pieces from the many different versions of the franchise, Ghost in the Shell (2017) not only lacks its own personality or tone, but it garbles all those other pieces together in a way that doesn’t build to anything.
The opening action sequence isn’t the only bit of borrowing, either. The film is peppered with visual references, large and small, to previous films and episodes. There’s the morgue technician based on Halliday from Ghost in the Shell 2, with her cigarettes and pop-up ‘eyes’; a character with the same multi-digit hands as the Section 9 secretaries; Batou’s affinity for dogs. These smaller touches, more akin to Easter eggs, are much more palatable than the larger lifts from the franchise. Another sequence recreates the iconic chase from the 1995 film where someone hacks a garbage truck driver and the Major pursues them through a beautifully cyberpunk Hong Kong-esque city. It’s an almost impressive shot-for-shot remake, though it lacks many of the layers the original had; like most of the rest of the film, it isn’t allowed any time to breathe. That lingering shot of the plane flying overhead, framed in the narrow patch of sky between buildings? A fleeting moment. Unsurprisingly, there’s no sequence recreating the incredibly long, soundtrack-only interludes of city scenes from the 1995 film or the parade from Innocence. Another scene recreates the Major’s nighttime dive into the bay, but without the threat of sinking a heavy cyborg body. It suggests mimicry without understanding. When Sanders turns to recreating the spider tank confrontation, it’s all sound and chaos; the beauty of the original was the contrast between the roar of the tank’s weaponry and the quiet between bursts of gunfire. Here, there’s a pounding soundtrack, and the bullets never let up.
The film suffers because of these comparisons, but it’s in the cherry-picked storyline that it’s the weakest. The villain or antagonist is not the Puppet Master of 1995 but ‘Kuze’, a character loosely drafted from a combination of the Puppet Master’s hacking abilities and a half-remembered version of Kuze, the antagonist from Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG. Startlingly given how many other visual cues have been lifted, Kuze lacks his most arresting visual tic from 2nd GIG: an old-fashioned facial prosthesis that doesn’t always move when he talks. That Kuze was a sympathetic figure with a history tied to the anime’s Major, and there’s some effort to recreate the same thing here, but it’s not particularly successful. In the 1995 film, the Puppet Master is a useful contrast to the Major; it’s an AI that developed sentience and a ghost, soul, or consciousness. The Major is a cyborg who, like other cyborgs, is in an existential crisis, unable to truly know if what remains of their biological body is really human. The Puppet Master furthers this worry, representing an AI with a ghost, and suggesting that the Major’s worries about being a machine with a ghost herself could be true. Kuze in this film offers no such contrast, no deeper understanding of the Major; he’s mostly just there to provide exposition about Hanka, the inevitably evil corporation.
That the film introduces a powerful corporation who is at fault is an odd change. In most versions of Ghost in the Shell, the concern is instead the government and its potentially corrupt or illegal actions. If not the Japanese government, then the US is often at fault. Both of these scenarios seem to reflect particularly Japanese fears – I’ve often wondered if it’s a coincidence that the extra-legal Section 9 shares a number with Article 9, the article of Japan’s post-war constitution that prevents it from having a military, but that the country’s modern conservative government seems set on working around. The Kuze of 2nd GIG, for example, is a former Japanese Self-Defense Force Soldier disillusioned with the country’s military policy. Replacing those rather more Japanese concerns with the standard sci-fi, cyberpunk trope of a malevolent corporation further sands off the interesting edges of the narrative.
It’s a real shame that the one area I was rather hopeful over doesn’t come to much. Sanders’ only other feature length directorial credit is Snow White and the Huntsman, a fairly hollow but visually superb fantasy film. It contains what I would consider some of the best on-film depictions of fantasy and magic ever, and I imagined he might bring a similarly potent eye to Ghost in the Shell’s cyberpunk future. Unfortunately, the result is more of an eyesore than a revelation. There are some neat towering holographic advertisements but the skyline never stops looking like CGI, and while various extras sport interesting prostheses they’re never the focus – the Major is all too human, and when Batou gets his iconic ‘Sleepless Eye’ he doesn’t look quite right, though in the film’s defence I’m not entirely sure how translatable the anime Batou’s eyes are to live action.
The whitewashing of Kusanagi into Scarlett Johansson overshadowed the film in the lead up to release, but quite apart from the ethics of removing the Japanese leads from a Japanese property (while not shifting the locale to, say, the United States – not that that would have prevented them from choosing an Asian-American actress), that discussion seemed to get in the way of the fact the film just isn’t very good. Whitewashed casting suggests a lack of respect for the source material and the audience that comes across in the lacklustre finished product. The film throws a bone to the idea that because the Major’s body is artificial, her outward ethnicity does not need to reflect the character’s origin (something picked up by the new Netflix series Altered Carbon), but there’s not even lip service paid to why her shell is white – it’s just because they wanted to cast Johansson. It’s especially galling when Rila Fukushima (The Wolverine, Million Yen Women) is in the film and criminally underused as a non-sentient geisha robot. The rest of the cast is barely notable. Pilou Asbaek is not how I picture Batou, but at least he’s probably the most likeable character; this version of Batou seems closest to the relatively happy-go-lucky Stand Alone Complex iteration (and I would never have realised it was Asbaek as the annoying Euron in Game of Thrones based on this). Togusa barely registers – played by Singaporean Chin Han, replete with a half-hearted mullet. Beat Takeshi is actually a pretty good Aramaki even though I have no idea why he was the only cast member speaking Japanese. As Kuze, Michael Pitt turns in a weird performance halfway between the Puppet Master’s gender neutrality and something built from the loose outline of Kuze’s original character. The less said about Peter Ferdinando’s Cutter the better: the character is a blunt tool for the filmmakers to deliver the same evil corporate crap you’ve already seen from OmniCorp to Weyland-Yutani.
After the casting, my biggest problem with the movie probably sounds like a niche complaint, but it’s that Johansson’s Major is unique. She’s the world’s only cyborg. Instead of the existential questions posited by Ghost in the Shell (1995) or Innocence, or the more practical questions of how to live with technology raised by Stand Alone Complex, the narrative shifts to become a pretty rote ‘chosen one’ melodrama with a mystery surrounding the Major’s background and origins. There’s a lot of talk about how she’s the first of her kind or represents the future, but the film only gestures vaguely in the direction of those questions and doesn’t really ask them, let alone start to form some answers. The last act of the film hints at some potentially interesting plot developments built from fragments of the Puppet Master’s desire to ‘procreate’ and the Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG notion of a ghost surviving on a network, but instead of embracing those ideas, the film basically discards them in favour of a more generic conclusion.
Setting aside the hard to avoid comparisons that come with any adaptation, Ghost in the Shell just isn’t a very good film. For a better version of its story about a cyborg grappling with their lost human life and the corporation that built them, watch Verhoeven’s seminal RoboCop. For a cyberpunk visual tour de force in a future full of high technology and towering holographic advertisements, watch Blade Runner 2049. For a Ghost in the Shell, watch any of the existing anime versions. There’s no one true canonical version of ‘Ghost in the Shell’, no hard rules of what its characters can or should be, but there have always been themes that the series explored and this film does little but squander the opportunities in favour of a few flashy, borrowed action sequences and muddled plotting. Skip it, and watch something that treats its audience more seriously instead.
Ghost in the Shell / ゴースト・イン・ザ・シェル
Director: Rupert Sanders
Japanese Release Date: 16th March, 2017 / US Release Date: 31st March, 2017
Version Watched: 104 min (Sky Cinema)