The Neon Dystopia team comes together to take on Rupert Sander’s Section 9. Ghost in the Shell is one of the most beloved films in the cyberpunk canon and sits happily alongside classics such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Akira as some of the most influential movies in cinema history, even outside of the sphere of cyberpunk. Having seen the trailers and the extensive marketing for this new iteration of the film starring Scarlett Johansson, I don’t think there is a single GitS fan who believes that this movie is going to stand up to the meticulous perfection of the 1995 film. Jack into the collective hallucination that is the minds of Neon Dystopia as we examine this live action adaptation.
Before I get into the meat of this review, I have to admit, I went into Ghost in the Shell with a sense of dread, so I know I went in with my own personal bias. The day before I had a chance to see the film, I decided to sit down and revisit the anime, which initially premiered in 1995. I’m not saying that was necessarily a mistake, but then again, it probably jaded my feelings towards the live action film. After all, if you’re going to give a film a fair review, you should probably revisit the source material, right? As it turns out, rewatching the anime was entirely unnecessary for me to review the live action movie. In fact, I would have probably been better going in without it since what I watched was a brand new story, the only holdovers from the anime being the few scenes which, I’m going to go ahead and say, director Rupert Sanders decided would make Scarlett Johansson look cool.
In the live action Ghost in the Shell, Mira Killian is the first of her kind, a cyborg, whose only human remnants is a brain within the proverbial shell. Cutter, the head of Hanka Robotics, played by Peter Ferdinando, has one intention for the reincarnated Mira; turn her into a weapon. A year passes, and Mira adopts the role of Major, a favorite soldier amongst those who work for Section Nine. As the action unfurls, it becomes increasingly noticeable that the Major is not only ardently aware of her robotic origin but carries it like a cross. Where the Motoko Kusanagi of the original film appeared to relish her cybernetic abilities, Johansson’s iteration sulks about, seeming not only less confident than her anime counterpart, but grudgingly so. Ultimately, the speed, strength, and acrobatics are not enough to inflate Johansson’s rather flat character.
Alternatively, Pilou Asbæk’s Batou and Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki shine in their scenes, and both those familiar and unfamiliar with the anime Ghost in the Shell will welcome their time on the screen. Though witty dialogue is lacking, their presence offers a depth to a film that’s otherwise wholly one-dimensional. True there are other members of Section Nine’s crew, but none prove memorable enough to mention. No character was more disappointing in my opinion than Michael Pitt’s Kuze. In Pitt, director Sanders had real opportunity, but the character is less than memorable, and where Johansson’s character simply felt flat, Pitt’s character came across as a cybernetic emo kid with misplaced angst. A serious shame when held in comparison to The Puppet Master of the original film.
Regardless of the various sub-par performances, this film was in so many ways, dead on arrival. Though initially it showed potential and painted itself as a smart crime thriller in the first act, it quickly fell apart. This became apparent during the second act when Pitt and Johansson’s characters come face to face for the first time. Not only do these two actors lack any chemistry, but the film also takes a sharp turn and never quite gets itself back on track. And while it had the opportunity, it fails to redeem itself in the third act, illustrating the dangers of abandoning its anime roots.
Where the Ghost in the Shell of twenty years ago afforded the audience the ability to speculate what was to come in regards to technology and artificial intelligence, this film played it safe, opting instead to fall back on the evil corporation trope. For me, this is where the film truly suffered and felt like a safe play since it doesn’t force its audience a moment of introspection. Where the anime affords a dialogue, Sander’s film opts the role of popcorn flick, something that, in my opinion, does more damage to modern cyberpunk films than anything else. Putting it frankly, Sanders and his writers should have considered their audience a bit more carefully.
The film is not without its saving graces, however. From its opening, it quickly becomes a visual masterpiece, and at more than one point I found myself absorbed in the world that Major and her counterparts operated. More than that, however, Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s score in the movie, helps bring it life. As well, never once does the pacing lag. The film hits hard and fast and doesn’t relent, something that can be considered both a pro and con depending on the viewer.
Rupert Sander’s take on Ghost in the Shell is something that every cyberpunk fan should watch at least once. No two individuals are likely to have the same takeaway, and honestly, this is one of those films where viewers are likely better off if they’re unfamiliar with the source material. In short, save this one for video, it’s not worth the theater prices, but it’s rental material if for no other reason than the fact that it’s fun to look at the world it operates within.
I must profess, I am an admirer of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. I love the 1995 adaptation, and think it is perhaps one of the strongest cyberpunk films in the canon. S.A.C. was a great series, and is something that I can rewatch many a time without getting bored. The Major and the rest of Section 9 are great, fully fleshed out characters flecked with nuance and complexities that can be seen in the animation style. Even the Tachikoma bots had loveable nuisances that I couldn’t help but falling in love with.
And then we have this.
I’ll say that it’s not completely terrible. Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a pretty film; the holography and CGI is solid. I particularly enjoyed the way adverts leapt from the billboards in this alleged Tokyo sprawl. There was some interesting character design; the yakuza and bartender in the yakuza bar seemed to have had some love put into their concept. There were some decent action scenes and a very sleepy and/or drunk Aramaki. (Takeshi Kitano). And Scarlett Johansson can do a pretty neat robot impression, reminiscent to her role as Samantha in Her.
But that’s where the decent qualities end, Shell consumed by the vapid Hollywoodisms that litter the many a reboot.
I was disappointed quite early in the film where the viewer is met with an underwhelming replication of the outstanding shelling sequence from the 1995 adaptation. My mouth only further soured with the inclusion of a backstory for the Major, something nobody asked for, and a confusing feeling of white imperialism, which really didn’t help the film or the vibe. What I enjoyed most about Shell (1995) was how the audience was inserted into a world that required no history, nor detailed any heavy-handed exposition. It allowed the world to be delivered to you via your senses; sight and sound, the soundtrack and visual effects of the time aiding in depicting a lovingly thought-out script. The filmmakers of Shell (2017) think that you’re too stupid for that. It not only spouts very face-palming and philosophical bullshit that makes Roy Batty want to kill himself but also marginalizes the rest of Section 9 for its inclusion.
My primary concern is that this is a Ghost in the Shell remake and it doesn’t feel like the Ghost in the Shell I’ve grown up with. The sprawls are empty and feel very antiseptic. The robots are cool, but also feel very inauthentic. There was no real effort, or interest in using practical effects, which I think would have helped immensely with conveying a sense of realism. Cyberpunk is not just illusory, it’s also a very rigid genre that deals with props (rigs, keyboards, and various amounts of wires to just name a few) to convey character. When with think of Case, we think of his rig. When we think of Rachel (from Blade Runner) we think of the Tyrell owl. When I think of the Major, I think of the copious amounts of wires and techie hardware.
Another, far more serious concern is the “white-washing” of Tokyo. Never did I once feel as if I were in Japan; the token Japanese characters that aren’t Aramaki speak broken and nearly undecipherable English. Perhaps the most annoying thing a filmmaker can do is appropriate characters, and as the Major’s story comes full circle, we discover that Mira Killian, was in fact, Motoko Kusanagi, a young, Japanese runaway that was medically tested on and turned “white”. Did you think you could get away with this, Hollywood? Did you think that you could treat your intended audience with such disdain?
Overall, Ghost in the Shell (2017) feels like a generic paint-by-numbers cyberpunk film with the unfortunate side-effect of being branded with a beloved franchise. The problem is, this film has nothing noteworthy, nor anything interesting to warrant a cinema viewing. You want to see something with robots? Watch Blade Runner. Want to see some cool sprawls? Strange Days is for you! Want to see a better interpretation of the manga? Ghost in the Shell (1995) has you covered. If you’re really committed to the series, you might get something from seeing Johansson cosplay her hardest, but really, this film wasn’t made for you.
Ghost in the Shell has all the elements of the universe I know so well but places them in different arrangements, gives them different meanings, and as a result produces a movie so wildly different from the 1995 Mamoru Oshii classic it remade that there’s hardly anything tying it to the series beyond a shared name. Despite that, the movie can’t help but feel irritatingly familiar.
Director Rupert Sanders set out to make a movie that is his, and he mostly succeeded doing so with visuals. This looks quite unfamiliar to Ghost in the Shell as a whole because there’s such an open celebration of color and size. It makes for magnetic frames that make it hard to look away. Whether its mammoth holograms looking down at people walking the streets of New Port City or the intricate mechanical bits from Weta Workshop, there’s always something present to visually arrest you and leave an impression. It’s Blade Runner in daylight, in many respects, dazzling to see. Different in so many ways. There are some failures with the CGI becoming too apparent and a heavy hand in the editing room butchering some action sequences to the point where the violent dance on screen loses its magic, but the moments with large canvases are something that makes you want to reach for a phantom pause button and stare. The art tells a story without a script about this city that’s worthy of a movie of its own. It’ll make you wonder just what the art department and VFX teams could do with an entirely new franchise in need of a fresh visual language. And a fresh world, one inspired by, but not directly adapted from Ghost in the Shell would’ve worked better than this movie which tries to please fans of the original, make loyalists out of first timers, and fails to reach either.
Fans like myself will recognize names and plot elements from movies and the animated series, but their original context is stripped so they can fit a more familiar plot. No longer is Kuze a moral-bound terrorist fighting on behalf of refugees. There is no Puppet Master to threaten governments with its processing superiority. Major isn’t at all compelled by the prospect of higher forms of existence. Instead, Sanders uses cyberized bodies as a vehicle for a plot of revenge against a corporation that crushes individuality in the name of progress. It’s a story told a million times and no longer elicits a reaction. In addition to that, story elements that move beyond this set of tropes are a different set that were defined by Oshii’s anime 22 years ago. He’s influenced so many artists that the sci-fi elements encountered here feel old simply because other people were inspired by the original for decades now.
Knowing this, Sanders had every reason to take this and create something new, go wild with all the elements in the original and all the media that followed to deliver something audiences hadn’t seen on such a scale before. But at the center of this production was a need to be safe, and it radiates throughout this samey sci-fi romp, eliminating any potential to stand apart from other better movies.
Part of playing it safe was the casting of Scarlett Johansson. I’d be branded a coward and unfit if I ignored Johansson as Major and the year and a half of controversy that followed the initial announcement, but I’m also aware that there are people working in the film industry that have dissected this issue much better than I could. But it’s clearly something Sanders was aware of since Ghost in the Shell inelegantly addresses the issue of Major and Kuze’s origin. While they did have a shared childhood in Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, what’s done in this movie is completely new to this franchise. In an attempt to ward off controversy through narrative, Sanders made an empty philosophical gesture with these two characters that encapsulates what’s so thoroughly wrong with this adaptation.
Ghost in the Shell desperately wants to be seen as smart sci-fi. It wants people to think about it as they leave the theater, talk about it online and at home, and feverishly theorize about its forthcoming sequel. But where Oshii subtly suggested thought provoking questions that were more thought exercises than ponderous nothings in search of answers, Sanders jams a spoon between the audience’s clenched teeth to forcefully feed them overt dialogue until they’re bloated with empty lines that do as little to introduce philosophy as they move the plot along. Johansson doesn’t do much to help circumstances as she bypasses the original Motoko and goes full robot, removing any faint impression of humanity in her shell, an important aspect of the original.
Oshii treated the introduction of cyberization in Ghost in the Shell as an opportunity for Motoko to consider the possibility that she, as an individual, was not special, that there was no permanence to her existence, that there were higher planes of existence were she brave enough to explore them. Those are challenging concepts to consider, that the viewer, a flesh and blood person, is no more important than a prosthetic shell. Major, on the other hand, is so focused on the specialness of her individuality that it takes any questions about humanity in a technologically advanced age and chucks them off a rooftop. Major sees herself as precious and worthy of note because she’s a person–a real live girl!–and each life is unique and worthy of protection at all costs. And haven’t we heard that message a million times in similar sci-fi settings? Hasn’t reclaiming who the hero was become a tent pole in sci-fi at this point? Especially in anything involving robotic prosthesis and artificial intelligence?
Schools of philosophy aside, this was an opportunity for Sanders to introduce ways of thinking that informed the manga and the original anime to an audience that isn’t familiar with them. Discerning Ghost in the Shell fans and regular moviegoers could’ve explored a different way of thinking about cyberization instead of showing a different way people blatantly misuse technology. But Sanders had a second job beyond remaking Oshii’s anime, and that limited any artistic expression he might’ve wanted to show.
With known Marvel movie producer Avi Arad attached to Ghost in the Shell, it should be clear that Paramount wanted a franchise, and perhaps an untapped medium to adapt in a series of movies. Arad is one of a handful of people that produced successful superhero movies since the first wave, including Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) which kicked off the superhero franchise by being the first success from a Marvel property, convincing studios that similar properties could sell. With Battle Angel Alita and Akira on the way, Paramount would be prudent to make their first anime adaptation work by not trying to do anything that may upset audiences. So it makes sense Arad is part of this production since Ghost in the Shell feels very much like an amnesiac superhero movie with crab-walking robots, another reason for the familiarity found in this movie and why it’s such a letdown.
The rejection of what worked in 1995 in favor of a hodgepodge of Ghost in the Shell moments and characters to mutate a unique story into a known one could have worked were this movie half as smart as it wants to be and left the room to ask its questions properly. With nothing to differentiate this madlib from better interpretations of the same questions, Ghost in the Shell‘s self-consciousness rises to the surface. Major wants the audience to care about her the way she cares about herself, to want to know her past, to want to see her pieced back together. But why would anyone care when nearly identical stories have been told far better in the original Robocop or The Bourne Identity? Yet Ghost in the Shell insists on this point with none of the subtlety and appreciation of the audience’s intelligence found in the original, making forcing its sympathetic beats on the audience until they submit and admit that yes this is deep, yes this is smart, yes make more of it. But it’s only the visual element that really leaves a lasting impression.
Everyone who was part of this movie’s art direction and the people at Weta Workshop deserve much praise for their work on this movie and managing to be memorable against a foreground where so much nothing takes place. While recreations of certain moments like Motoko waking up by the bay window and the tank fight aren’t superior to the original animation, there is still so many set pieces for viewers to gawk at for the two hours they’re held captive. With their help, Sanders succeeded in capturing moments on film that will live on desktop backgrounds and as smartphone wallpaper for months. But everything else in Ghost in the Shell, the remake of a classic, the rearrangement of known canon to tell a tired story will accumulate in the collective memory of moviegoers like another a drop in the bucket.
Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas)
I second everything said by our other contributors, but I have to throw in some caveats. First, Rupert Sander’s Ghost in the Shell was better than I expected it to be, which means I felt like it was a 4/10 rather than 1/10. There are some good actors in this movie, this shined most thoroughly in the performances of Pilou Asbæk’s Batou and Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki, but Sander’s failed to direct them effectively. This failure of directing is also visible in the poorly choreographed fight sequences. Even when the fights aren’t bogged down by disappointingly poor CG, they aren’t compelling. Since the movie didn’t deliver on the promise of philosophical depth that usually accompanies Ghost in the Shell, this is a tremendous failure. I blame the failures of this movie on Sanders and the writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger.
When the CG is augmenting the street and interior scenes, though, it actually adds depth to this digital and augmented world. People all over the internet have been praising the sweeping cityscape scenes, but besides the great holographic projections, all I could see were poorly rendered 3D cars on the streets below and it threw me out entirely. Now, when we turn to the practical effects, that is where this iteration of Ghost in the Shell shines. There were fantastically done augmentations abound, some even felt inspired by Neuromancer. The interior sets were also excellent and succeeded in creating atmospheres for each scene, coupled with the actually decent music that was entirely left out of the film’s marketing for some reason. I was actually super disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of The Major’s (I refuse to call her Mira) apartment, because the tour video they released made it actually interesting, whereas what we saw on film inspired nothing but sterile boredom.
I’m going to disagree with Daniel and say that the evil corporation angle could have worked, but failed miserably because it interspersed itself with the stories from Ghost in the Shell’s canon that followed much more political stories. The only politics that made its way into this movie was a corporation threatening a government official, and that happens in GitS, but politics is as important of an element to Ghost in the Shell as diplomacy is to Star Trek (spoiler alert, I hated the Abrams films). Gutting politics and complex philosophy from the movie made it so generic that it had no possibility of being memorable or relevant to today. Which is funny, because they made a political slip that made me snort in the theater, and I’m not talking about the whitewashing.
Part of the film’s back story for The Major is that as a little girl her parents brought her to Japan as a refugee, but died as they crossed by water to Japan. This, of course, is discovered to be the fictional reality that has been implanted in her memory. This made me think, and I can’t be the only one, that the film was metaphorically suggesting that the current global refugee crisis was, at least in part, not real. I sincerely hope that was an accidental inclusion, but I couldn’t overlook it in this review.
Speaking of The Major as a character, I think we have to discuss her through the lens of feminism because this film simultaneously handles this subject matter well and poorly. It has been suggested that The Major’s depiction of not owning her body, is a metaphor for how women often don’t feel that they have as much physical freedom as their male counterparts, and in some society’s are actually property, even to this day. This is handled surprisingly well in the Sander’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. A corporation builds her body, gives it to her against her will, then demands that she fill a specific role. As she should, The Major rebels against this as the film goes on, but this is the most obvious in the Yakuza bar when she is accosted by and she literally stomps on the patriarchal Yakuza thugs, who are trying to take advantage of her, while saying, “This body wasn’t built to dance.” Where The Major fails as a feminist figure in this film, is that she is depicted as overly emotional in a number of scenes, which is contrary to any previous interpretation of the character, possibly for the purpose of making her more relatable. None the less, this runs contrary even to the apparent direction of Johansson to act robotic. Furthermore, The Major has always been a confident and capable individual, and it has always been suggested that this is because she is competent beyond all those around her. In the live-action adaptation of the movie, The Major is competent only because she was built to be, and that is a problem.
The original Ghost in the Shell‘s (1995) message and theme is that memory is what defines us and that we must embrace technology to evolve. This is a philosophical stance that has inspired a generation of cyberpunks. This version of the story tells us over and over, that it is what we do that defines us. This is a more American ideal, so perhaps it was changed to appeal to an American audience but mish-mashed with the references to previous iterations of Ghost in the Shell, such as Garbage Man from 1995’s GitS, undercuts the movie’s premise by showing us that memory matters, but then saying what we do matters in the context of self-identity. Secondly, there is an anti-technology undercurrent to Rupert’s Ghost in the Shell film from the evil corporation cyberizing people against their will to a Motoko who writes anti-technology manifestos. This leads to a movie that holds the central themes of Ghost in the Shell in contempt saying that it is our actions that define us and that technology must be resisted, the exact opposite themes of a franchise that has garnered fans all over the world for its embrace of technology.
I think the best way to sum up the 2017 Ghost in the Shell is with a metaphor from the movie itself. Motoko Kusanagi was buried and resurrected in a new shell, a shell that was imparted with exactly the opposite of the beliefs that she held dear. At least they got that right.