“It’s not like there aren’t any East Asian actors who could have done a good job as the Major.” This was me, to my dad, during the height of the Ghost in the Shell whitewashing scandal. Ever clued-up on the workings of the film industry, he rightly pointed out that the film would likely never have been made without a big (white) name like Scarlett Johansson attached to the project. “Sure,” I agreed, “but would a universe in which this movie did not exist really be an inferior one?” For that, there was no retort.
Despite some pacing issues and (in the English dub at least) rather clunky dialogue, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga of the same name by author Masamune Shirow, has remained influential in the worlds of both anime and science fiction due to its thoughtful exploration of themes regarding technology, humanity, and theology. Following cyborg agent Motoko Kusanagi and her collegues at security service Section Nine, the first big-screen adaption of Shirow’s manga hinges on the hunt for the super-hacker named the Puppet Master, and fits government cover-ups, philosophical wanderings and dynamic action scenes into its scant 82-minute runtime. The film also holds the rather rare honour of being the start of a franchise full of reboots and re-imaginings that by and large match, if not surpass, the original feature in regards to quality, including the Studio Ghibli-produced sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Kenji Kamiyama’s stunning Stand Alone Complex series. Unfortunately, Rupert Sanders’ 2017 adaptation, the first to be shot in live-action, is also the franchise’s first significant failure.
It feels too obvious to say the 2017 movie is a shell with no ghost, but such unsubtlety would not be out of place in such a film as this, which swaps the philosophical and sociological depth of the anime franchise in favour of big action scenes and Hollywood’s customary superficial attempt at examining themes of identity. Credit where credit’s due, those big action scenes are not too shabby – the occasional self-indulgent slo-mo aside, action scenes are energetic and well-choreographed.
This is hardly surprising, as the technical skill on display in this movie is first class – from the costumes to the production design to the astounding visual effects, Ghost in the Shell is glorious to look at. While the city’s neon skyline is perhaps shown-off a little too much, it is not hard to understand why the filmmakers were reluctant to cut any of the footage, and the iconic shots re-created from the 1995 movie – and there are many – are stunning, and more than a little exciting for a fan of the franchise.
But for all this, Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a classic case of style over substance, and little else in this film but the visuals really hold up. Script-wise, it feels like a Ghost in the Shell ‘best of’ compilation, with moments ripped from Oshii’s 1995 film, its sequel, and the Stand Alone Complex TV series. The plot goes something like this: Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is a security agent working for Section Nine, who is tasked with tracking down super-hacker Kuze (played by Michael Carmen Pitt, and written as a mash-up of the SAC character and the original film’s Puppet Master), who is targeting for assassination senior figures at the Hanka Robotics corporation, who ‘created’ Killian. She intervenes in a meeting-turned-massacre that chiefly resembles the similarly ill-fated gathering in the early moments of Oshii’s film, except now with added lethal ‘companion’ robots taken from the second film. Oh, and they’re geisha now. BECAUSE JAPAN. Major deep-dives a geisha-bot like she did the Puppet Master in ’95, the garbage-truck-attack-and-water-fight scene from the original is chucked in, as is Major and Batou’s (Pilou Asbæk) boat deck heart-to-heart, with the film eventually culminating in what is essentially a remake of the ’95 film’s climactic fight scene, except without any of the depth or philosophical subtext.
Done better, with a consideration for the franchise’s underlying themes, this approach could potentially create another iteration of the story that brought something new to the franchise while paying homage to what has come before. Instead, what we are given is a Ghost in the Shell pick-and-mix that at every point fails to match the sum of its parts. The smaller details that are kept, such as Batou’s basset hound Gabriel, or the smoking doctor Dahlin putting out her cigarettes in her drink, raise a smile of recognition but only serve to crystallise the film’s biggest problem: that it revels in the franchise’s cyberpunk aesthetic but displays little to no understanding of the complex themes and ideas underneath.
A particularly jarring example is the encounter between the Major and the heavily-marketed Geisha robot near the start of the film. This moment, which sees the robot murmur ‘help me’ before being destroyed, is ripped straight from Innocence. In that film, the robot girl’s words hold significance, and she is later revealed to have been the product of an experiment which put the cloned ‘ghost’ (consciousness) of a nine-year-old girl into a sex robot. Her tragic last words are a plea for help from an abused child, and underline the film’s themes of the human cost when technology is used to satiate the worst of human desires. Here, her words mean nothing, and exist only to make the already exoticised creation more mysterious and unknowable.
It’s hard not to conclude that the plot of this movie is little more than a thin excuse to string together scenes and images already dreamed up by superior filmmakers. And the characters fare no better, with quietly powerful Section Nine leader Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, bland) turning gun-toting gangster and Togusa (Chin Han) being sidelined completely.
The worst off, however, is undoubtedly the Major herself, who resembles her anime counterpart in little but appearance – and the questionable casting means even this is far from perfect. Transformed into an amnesiac human weapon, The Major Formerly Known As Kusanagi is reduced to a blank slate, with neither the strong presence she commanded in previous incarnations nor any semblance of a personality beyond her generic Hollywood Identity Crisis (TM).
While the decision to make the story one of personal discovery is not unusual for Hollywood, the radical change to the Major’s backstory and the decision to make it a mystery for her to uncover strips her of everything that made her unique. Here her entire character is based around her missing memories of the past, but in the animated franchise Kusanagi was already an interesting and engaging character, without being made into a puzzle for the viewer to solve. Ironically, this means that the choice to make the story so personal to the Major actually diminishes the emotional impact it intended to increase, as her characters is too paper-thin for the audience to ever feel any connection.
It is Kusanagi/Killian’s Section Nine colleague and confidant Batou that emerges from the transition process most intact. Though he does not get the development necessary to fully become the Batou fans know and love, Asbæk nails the gruff but loyal soldier in a performance that is undoubtedly the most faithful to the source material. It is a shame that the relationship between him and the Major, so compelling in the story’s anime incarnations, is given such little exploration.
Gorgeous visuals and a stylish soundtrack can only go so far, and if Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell succeeded in anything, it is showing us precisely how far that is. On its own, the film is simply one of many underwritten, overproduced Hollywood failures that are not even remarkable enough to hate. But when one of the most thematically mature and philosophical media franchises of all time is reduced to a man boasting of an artificial liver that enables him to drink more alcohol? That’s where it gets hard not to feel at least a twinge of resentment.
Ghost in the Shell is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.