Though this film has been out for some time, there is a great deal to unpack and analyse within this live adaptation. So, to fully understand why I find this film problematic, I will be discussing and therefore revealing key plot points.
There are three narratives present that have been handpicked by the creators of this film. There is the original 1995 Japanese Manga film, there is the 2017 Live adaptation and there is a second narrative taken from the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ comics, and all three have been set against a backdrop that rather closely resembles ‘Blade Runner’. So, owing perhaps to one too many cooks in the kitchen, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a mess of promising narratives with each story a potentially interesting stone-alone film, but when mixed together, each is merely touched upon rather than explored. So, what ought to be an intelligent exploration of either the cybernetic human condition or a government Bourne like training programme with assault teams, is instead an episode of ‘Long Lost Family’ with actions sequences.
The original 1995 ‘Ghost in the Shell’ examined a world of cybernetic soldiers working as an assault team within the police force, led by Major as they are sent into hostile situations. Within the film, themes of existentialism and the moral ethics of technological advancements are explored, with the main narrative focused on hunting down a cyber terrorist known as ‘The Puppet Master’. The film was ahead of its time and though it is over 20 years old, it still retains the title as one the more imaginative and progressive films of its period.
Flash forward to 2017 and we find Hollywood making the bold decision to create a live adaptation of the popular Japanese Manga, except this version is really not the same film. Rupert Sanders was a poor choice to direct this complex narrative, a director who suffers from both inexperience and little critic success, to be entrusted with such a complex project was a mistake as the film continually demonstrates a poor understanding of the source material. So, instead of focusing on a single narrative, the producers clearly tried to incorporate a second narrative from the same source material, however, the second stories rich complexity requires much greater time and development than can found as a mere side story.
So, in an age where far too often you find your beloved characters living in a wash of dull colours with rows of grey and black buildings, often accompanied by shots of desolate landscapes, it would seem fortuitous to adapt ‘Ghost in the Shell’. A film that depicts a beautiful and vibrant technicolour city, where though the buildings themselves are dull colours, they are covered in many bright and beautiful advertisements. This design gave the original film an energy, a vibrant nature, a character almost that enabled the city to come to life, and which crucially remained throughout the film day and night. This 2017 adaptation has chosen to bypass all these niceties, instead opting for a design very much stolen from ‘Blade Runner’. For, during the day, the entire landscape is predominantly formed of dull colours, while at night the city explodes with vibrant holograms and animations with aerial shots of the city. The film is therefore without the many powerful low-angled shots so carefully thought through in the original film, shots that were captivating and somewhat more immaginative. Now, rather than going on to describe each scene that has been handpicked from the original and explaining how this remake failed to incorporate the same level of intelligent design, I instead refer you to a Youtuber. ‘The Nerd Writer’ perfectly explains how the film mistakenly interprets many of the scenes taken straight from the original, with perfect analyse of the scene design and the use of the films smaller but significant characters. I will link it below.
Having said this the film does do a lot of things right, by sticking very closely with the design of the costumes, cars and smaller alley scenes taken from the original film. However, it misses some very crucial directional choices and therefore lacks the energy and emotional depth of the original film.
Onto Whitewashing, which like a stubborn child, Hollywood seems instant of continually doing despite constantly being reprimanded for its action. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a Japanese Manga film, therefore the cast of the original is entirely Asian, in the 2017 live adaptation they decided to do things a little differently by casting Scarlett Johansson in the role of Major. Cue the justified protests of whitewashing. Now, at the time, I remember attempting to justify this casting choice, seeing it as a move to introduce manga to western cinema, granted not a great excuse. However, having now seen the film, the racial subtext is quite horrifyingly clear.
Major is supposedly one of the first of her kind, a human brain in a cybernetic body. As the plot unfolds we begin uncovering the mystery of her true family, her lost memories are presented as glitches that she regularly has wiped from her mind. The revelation of her true family becomes clear once Major discovers a middle aged Asian woman who lost her daughter a year previously, roughly the same time Major was transformed into this advanced government weapon. It is quite clear that this woman is Major’s mother, but what is also quite horrifyingly clear is that the young Asian girl who was kidnapped by the government has been given a white person’s face because the government believes white people to be the superior military beings. Quite the bold and racist statement, and one I don’t think I’ve reached by any misunderstanding or by a false conclusion. Furthermore, though this is speculation, the film’s initial villain, Kuze (Michael Pitt) is also a cybernetic soldier who was similarly part of the Bourne-like government programme. He too is white, though it is unclear whether Kuze was also originally Asian as we never see any of his relations, merely his connection to Major.
In order to make Scarlett Johansson’s ethnicity less profound, the rest of the cast is a mixture of white and Asian actors, with Batou (Pilou Asbaek) possibly being the best casting choice along with Kuze (Michael Pitt). One oddity is Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) who is the only character to speak only Japanese. Whether this is designed as a nod to the Japanese heritage of the film is unclear, furthermore, why he is the only one to speak Japanese when clearly everyone understands him. If this fluidity with language is a technological advancement, it is one that is never explained. Now onto Johansson’s performance as the beloved character Major, which though impressive with the continually pensive expressions yet still displays just a thin layer of emotion. However, her walk leaves a lot to be desired, feeling oddly clunky and desperately awkward at times where she struggles to move around corners with any ease or grace despite the advanced technology, her inconsistency is quite distracting at times.
Where the film really loses momentum is when we begin unravelling Major’s past, as it means taking a huge step away from ‘Ghost in the Shell’, with its action sequences and inventive interactions with machines and telepathic ability, to be replaced by a very sentimental path. So, despite Major being a cybernetic being, she seems to totally forget this far too soon because barring her ability to run over walls and have sections of her face removed, there is very little to indicate her cybernetic abilities. Batou is also guilty this because although his eyes become cybernetically advanced they are never used beyond their initial installation, baring examining the female doctor in the next room. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ becomes far too Jason Bourne and sadly seems to forget its technological abilities which made the original film unique. For the opening of this film and the team’s first mission is really impressive, wonderfully designed with the robotic spider woman, which all sadly disappears too quickly, making for a rather lacklustre final battle.
OVERALL ** This is not a ‘Ghost in the Shell’ live adaptation, this is a film of a white Johannsson rediscovering her lost Asian family in a Bourne like-saga, during which there are some moments of inventive technology but which are quite quickly forgotten. Simply stealing iconic moments from your predictor does not make you the same, particularly when they are poorly reconstructed.
RECOMMENDATION – Watch ‘Ghost in the Shell’ 1995.