It was always going to split opinions. Making a live-action Ghost in the Shell out of a classic anime and casting Scarlett Johansson as the Major made a lot of people, including myself, quite sceptical. I went into the theatre bracing myself for the worst, but by the end of it I found myself breathing a sigh of relief. It certainly wasn’t without flaws, but it wasn’t ruined either. And in the age of terrible remakes and sequels, that’s saying something.
What makes a human, well, a human? This question is at the core of “Ghost in the Shell” and its universe as a whole. Major Mira Killian (played by Johansson) is a first of her kind: a cyborg with a fully prosthetic body and a human brain. A killing machine created by Hanka Industries and employed by Public Security Section 9, the Major acts as a powerful weapon for the government. As she goes on a hunt for terrorist Kuze, the Major tries to remember the past and understand her own self.
Visually, the film is stunning. It does a great job of capturing an already established environment of Ghost in the Shell and adding its own unique details to it. The CGI is stellar (except for one small moment towards the end), the action sequences are exciting and the specific colour scheme of the cyberpunk genre has been preserved.
They’ve also done a good job of staying true to the source material. Some scenes and shots that would not only resonate with fans of the original but also impress first-time viewers were recreated as close as they could without directly copying the visuals. Great references, even surprising but completely justified cameos show up in the film, which should evoke a big nod of approval from fans. The soundtrack keeps the pacing even though it doesn’t provide any memorable compositions. However, I was very happy to hear Kenji Kawai’s new take on his masterpiece theme at the end of the film.
Scarlet Johansson does a decent job as the Major. She was never an expressive character to begin with so Johansson’s monotone performance is justified. Another well represented member of Section 9 is Batou, played by Pilou Asbaek. Batou’s stoic yet caring nature manages to come through in the limited screen time he gets.
While the Major and Batou carry the film throughout, other members of Section 9 don’t get nearly any screentime at all. I was really interested in seeing Ishikawa, Section 9’s tech and computer expert, yet in the film he barely gets a frame. Togusa, the only fully human character among the unit practically gets two lines. It is Aramaki, though, the chief of Section 9, that I believe is completely misrepresented. His role as a tough leader, unafraid to wield a gun, works within the Hollywood tropes, yet is completely off from what he is in the manga, original films or the tv series. Having him speak Japanese while his team talk English to him and amongst each other also felt quite awkward.
Continuing in the vein of characters who don’t really fit within the narrative is Kuze, the hacker terrorist and the villain of the film. Played by Michael Pitt, Kuze is on the warpath to eliminate all those who have made him neither man nor machine; a broken being. And here is where my problems with the film arise. There are major spoilers coming your way so be careful if you choose to “ghost dive” past this point…
Let’s start with Kuze. Kuze is a combination of the Puppet Master from the 1995 film and Hideo Kuze from the second season of the tv series “Stand Alone Complex” (“2nd Gig”). He has Puppet Master’s purpose, which is to seek out the Major and merge with her as the next step in evolution, and Hideo Kuze’s childhood connection to the Major before she became a cyborg. And it’s precisely because he is a combination of those two characters with distinctly different purposes is why he fails at being either. He is a poor character whose motivations are never justified.
Kuze constructs a network, just like the Puppet Master who came from it. And just like the Puppet Master, Kuze asks the Major to join him at the end of the film in the scene that closely resembles the finale of the original. Yet it is never explained why, with Kuze basically saying “so we can be better than them”. The Major rejects by saying “I belong here”, a statement that is also completely unfounded. While wanting to belong to something in the real world (told, once again, through exposition) we never see why the Major would suddenly decide that her place is here and not with someone of her kind.
Cutter, the CEO of Hanka Industries that was responsible for both the Major and Kuze turns bad towards the end of the film for the sake of being bad. And once again, it might work in a conventional Hollywood story, yet sticks out like a sore thumb in a re-imagining of a philosophical masterpiece.
And since we’re on the topic of philosophy, here is the biggest issue of the film: the themes that Ghost in the Shell explores have been lost. Concepts and ideas are never taken far enough. The film beats you over the head with what the “ghost” and the “shell” mean .The meaning of “ghost” is even repeated 3 times within one line of dialogue early on yet the film does nothing with it. The importance of memories as identification of self fall down the same drain as the idea of the soul. And even though the Puppet Master from the original was sort of present in the film, within Kuze’s character, the Puppet Master’s whole point of being a “living, thinking entity created in a sea of information” did not even get a mention. And the film’s Hollywood ending was a jarring error within a cyberpunk universe.
I think it was foolish of anyone to believe the Holywood reimagining of Ghost in the Shell could come close to the original in terms of meaning and significance. However, it more than holds up as an entertaining film and should be viewed as a good introduction its world and cyberpunk genre as a whole. Unfortunately, the big budget spectacle comes with a watered down plot. They tried to combine the original film and tv series in one and, as a result, the film ends up not being strong in any particular direction. Nonetheless, I believe it succeeds at bringing the world of Ghost in the Shell to the new, wider audience and hopefully would encourage those who have not seen Mamoru Oshi’s 1995 film to… dive in.