I hope this isn’t too controversial an opinion, but I always found the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell underwhelming. For as pretty a movie as it is – and it is very pretty – it’s a feature length police procedural; essentially an episode of Law and Order with cyborgs. I felt that it brought up interesting ideas about privacy in the digital age and our responsibility to AI consciousness, but largely turned away from the more interesting ideas implicit in its setting in favor of a simpler plot. Although the Puppet-Master causes her to doubt it, the Major is human, the Puppet-Master isn’t; the cops are ultimately good and for all intents and purposes, so is the criminal.
That all out on the table, I think that as derivative as this new Ghost in the Shell is – of both its source material, and the hundreds of other works tackling the same subject (See: RoboCop) – it does manage to explore some more interesting areas of the world it borrows from.
The Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human brain successfully implanted into an entirely artificial body – a shell. She is an agent of Section 9, a government police force that investigates cybercrime, funded largely by Hanka – the corporation responsible for making a majority of cyber-implants, including Major’s body. Their latest case involves finding a hacker responsible for the assassinations of multiple top Hanka scientists, all of whom were also involved in the creation of the Major. Upon finding the hacker, who claims to have been a prototype of the Major, she begins to doubt the veracity of her own memories, and question the real role Hanka played in giving her new life.
The adaptation takes major liberties with translating the source material, the biggest of which I’ll discuss later in the review, and ties directly into the white-washing controversy surrounding the movie. Many of the other changes this movies makes to the source material are in favor of that one big one, but also work towards making the story of the manga/anime/videogame franchise fit neatly into a single 100-minute movie. Functionally, they work in much the same way that having the Joker also be the person who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in the 1989 movie works; they make the story neater at the expense of having an immediately more open world to play in. These changes also do make this Ghost in the Shell more traditionally Hollywood, and by the end, turn what is ostensibly a police-procedural into something that more closely resembles Mission Impossible and ends on essentially the same note as Batman Begins – down to a re-wording of one of that movie’s more famous lines.
Despite those changes, Ghost in the Shell manages to fit in an incredible amount of visual references to the 1995 adaptation, finding ways to wallpaper much of that movie’s now iconic imagery over what is an almost entirely original plot. It’s a little uncanny in the way the movie does prompt you to think about how much of the 1995 version’s cultural cache really was strictly audio-visual rather than based in plot or character, and how easily those same images can translate to an entirely different context and retain much of their integrity.
And, it almost goes without saying, but the movie is gorgeous, coming off as the closest live-action adaptation of a cartoon this side of the Wachowski’s. Oversaturated neons radiate in abundance from the cyberpunk megacity that the movie is set in. Strong visual design makes the evolving technology of human augmentation feel believable, with augmentations looking radically different based on their functionality, and who is using them. The clean sleek white curves and lines of the Geisha robot maids at an upscale hotel contrast greatly with the industrial machine grey nature of the implants that the villain’s goons have augmented themselves with. Fifty-foot high hologram advertisements pop out of the cityscape, many of which beg deeper exploration of this city’s relationship between corporate interests and government oversight that figure back into the plot in small ways. Ghost in the Shell is concentrated visual sugar, but I can’t imagine that people who are already against the use of heavy green-screening and CGI would change their minds on seeing it.
Finally, how Ghost in the Shell tackles the issue of white-washing figures directly into the plot, and so I’ll put it behind a spoiler alert.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW – Highlight to Read]
We learn by the end of the movie that the brain inside the Major – who is given a Western name in the adaptation – actually belonged to a Japanese girl (named Motoko Kusunagi, naturally) who was killed by Hanka, and that she was brainwashed into believing she was a White refugee to Japan whose ship was blown up by terrorists so that she would have the proper motivation to be a good cop. She was literally white-washed in-story.
Is self-awareness always a justification of messy politics? Of course not. But, if I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, the writers behind Ghost in the Shell did attempt to tackle the white-washing issue head on, but ran into the uncomfortable place between example and endorsement. Ghost in the Shell clearly thinks that the erasure of Asian culture and heritage is a bad thing, but tries to get that point across by being a westernization of a Japanese story with a mostly white cast. It’s…not the best look for that sort of message. And yes, it is difficult to approach a topic without a depiction of it, but the failure to square that circle is still a failure of imagination on the filmmakers’ parts.
And one other weird thing; why does “Beat” Takeshi’s character seems to be the only person in this movie’s Japan who actually speaks Japanese?
For better or worse, Ghost in the Shell is almost exactly what you should expect from an adaptation. It pays copious amount of fan-service and references to the original while tinkering with that story’s world and characters to create an entirely original plot. While it won’t please everybody on all sides of its main adaptational pain-point, I do feel it goes further than most other western adaptations of eastern works to justify it and even find its own place within that discourse. And if there’s a lingering question of whether or not this Ghost in the Shell retains the spirit of the originals, I’d have to say yes. While tackling different issues, this movie does still address concerns stemming from an increased human reliance on technology and the power the people in control of that tech have over how we regard the parts of ourselves that make us human.