Views on adaptation can vary from person to person. For purists, fidelity is paramount. The are so attached to a piece of media that any change can only serve to diminish, because it is already perfect. Conversely, there are those who see an absolutely accurate re-creation as a complete waste of time. Since the original version exists, an exact replica is superfluous. Rather, the opportunity should be taken to do something novel with the premise or characters, to put a new spin on a familiar story. The Ghost in the Shell franchise certainly leans towards the latter philosophy, being no stranger to divergent incarnations. This is no surprise, since the concept contains huge scope. After the manga, there have been at least four separate continuities spread across movies, TV shows and video games. The new live-action film is yet another take on the mythos, taking elements from its forebears and attempting to strike out in its own direction. In this it has decidedly mixed success, getting caught between a desire to retain iconic scenes and images, and to be its own thing. It’s fairly impossible to discuss this movie properly without spoilers, so consider this fair warning going forward.
The plot of the film is less original than those which came before, cribbing not only from the 1995 anime, but arguably equally heavily from RoboCop (in particular the dismal remake). Scarlett Johansson’s Major Mira Killian is another superpowered, bionic police officer who is left with even less biological tissue than Alex Murphy, comprising a human brain encased within a completely artificial body, the titular “shell”. This being a hyper-technological future, the line between the public and private sectors has become extremely blurred, and we are firmly in the world of the shadowy multinational corporation. Allegedly a dying refugee saved by a ground-breaking experimental medical procedure, Major is revealed to be a teenage runaway, kidnapped and brainwashed by the nefarious Hanka Corporation in an effort to create the perfect weapon. When she discovers this deception, Major goes rogue to take revenge on the people who stole her identity, and naturally succeeds in defeating malevolent-CEO-du-jour, Peter Ferdinando’s Cutter. So far, so predictable. The film is silent on quite how members of the police force can carry out summary executions on prominent members of the business world with zero consequences, but the plot is not really a priority. This is not necessarily a killing blow, as the original film’s story is a fairly basic criminal investigation, albeit one with a sci-fi twist. Where the nuance lies is in the characters, and the concepts at play beyond the mere events unfolding.
The “villain” of the film’s first half is Michael Pitt’s Kuze, a cyberterrorist capable of hacking robots and augmented humans alike in a one-man war on Hanka. The scare-quotes are due to the fact that Kuze is revealed to be a fellow victim, a former friend of Major’s and a botched earlier result of the same super-soldier experimentation. Cutter is the true monster and is a completely paint-by-numbers antagonist, who doesn’t even have the decency to twirl a moustache or two. This is a disappointing and pedestrian development. Kuze had the potential to be engaging, though it is unclear where his nigh-omnipotent hacking skills came from. The original’s Puppet Master was an emergent artificial intelligence who, upon achieving sapience, was fighting to survive in a world that wasn’t ready to accept it. As a creature of cyberspace, it makes sense that this entity would have such mastery over its natural environment. Cutter wants power. Or money. Or influence. Or something. It is never made quite clear. Neither main foe is well-developed. Kuze has an element of tragedy to him, but is really only as interesting as his connection to Major’s backstory. Cutter is one-dimensional and entirely unmemorable.
While their adversaries are thoroughly underwhelming, the film’s heroes are stronger. Johansson has a difficult task in playing a person with a cybernetic body. Her performance suggests a disconnect between mind and body; she is not emotionless, but neither is she fully expressive. Her action chops are not in question, as she brings the same physicality to Major as she does to her prior action role as Black Widow (credit, of course, to her stuntpeople as well). Pilou Asbæk’s Batou is less grimly stoic than his animated counterpart, and he brings some much-needed warmth to an otherwise rather cold film. Seeing the origin of his signature bionic eyes is curious, though it does allow for a moment of deeper understanding between him and Major, as he now literally sees the world through the same unnatural way that she does. In general, the relationship between Major and Batou is a good element. There is a clear friendship and genuine respect underpinning their professional partnership, and the two actors really sell the idea that these two like and trust one another. The rest of Section 9, Major’s elite police unit, have comparatively small roles, notably side-lining the previously prominent Togusa. It seems misguided to cast Chin Han in the part, and then refuse to use him more. The exception to this is Section Chief Aramaki, played by the legendarily unflappable Takeshi Kitano. Even playing a heroic character, a mentor and stalwart ally to the heroine, the man is still quietly terrifying, and projects an absolute authority and invincibility in his supporting role.
The visuals are easily the strongest element of the film. Several iconic scenes from the anime original are recreated to stunning effect, and while line-drawing and CGI have differing textures and strengths, they are a welcome inclusion. Major’s cloaked BASE jump, framed against a glittering skyline, her brutal apprehension of a suspect in the flooded courtyard, and even her “birth”, passing through a liquid layer of artificial skin, are just as good here as they were in 1995. The only real weakness of these re-creations is the rather disjointed way in which they are integrated into the narrative, bowing more to fanservice than to the natural progression of the story. There does seem to have been an effort to create memorable moments unique to this movie, notably the flashing cattle-prod fight scene and Major’s “deep dive” into the mind of a hacked robotic geisha, but these do not reach the same heady heights. The film’s nameless megalopolis, blending elements of Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York, looks incredible. As with almost every cyberpunk city depicted on film since 1982, Blade Runner‘s influence is unmistakable, but this is only part of the story. There are plenty of sweeping shots of the skyline in full daylight, and the aesthetic has a distinctly ’90s kind of retro-futurism. LED street signs take precedence over LCD or holograms, and the cars have an angular, slightly boxy design. (If Batou’s vehicle is not a DeLorean, it is something fairly close.) Despite presumably being a Japanese city, there is an international feel to the place, with a diverse range of both named characters and extras populating the urban landscape.
More interesting than the wider aspects of conspiracy and terrorism is the personal journey that Major undergoes through the film. The most affecting scene in the movie comes when she returns home to her mother, who believes her dead and does not recognise her in her new android form. Having already learned that her backstory as a lone survivor of a cyberterrorist attack is a lie, the realisation dawns that more than just her name and history are fabrications. Mira Killian was once Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese woman who dropped out of society to become a political dissident. All at once, Major and the audience realise that she has been robbed of her body, her memories, her family, and even her ethnicity. At the film’s conclusion, she begins to refer to herself only as “Major”. Motoko Kusanagi is an identity that, while she now remembers, she has lost and can never truly recapture. Mira Killian is a poisoned pseudonym, a forged persona used only to warp and control her. She is Major, a title that, while it was forced upon her, is one that she has grown into and in which she has gained the respect and friendship of her peers. Her acceptance of this label is a symbol that she has taken back her agency.
This revelation of the connection between Killian and Kusanagi can serve to mitigate or to exacerbate the controversy surrounding Johansson’s casting, depending on one’s interpretation. Failure to address the issue at all could have been seen as tone-deafness, and the fact that Major’s new body is more alien to her gives the horror of her situation even greater potency. The decision to cast a white actor in this role, whether it was taken for purely creative or cynically financial reasons, is utilised as a tool to better serve the story. On the other hand, art has imitated life in literally replacing a Japanese with someone who is (or at least looks) non-Japanese. Commenting on the accusations of whitewashing, Johansson was emphatic in her statement that, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.” She suffered a backlash for these comments, insofar as this seems to be exactly what she is doing. This does not seem to have been done maliciously, but is another troubling aspect of the choice. Ultimately the movie itself lends more evidence to the view that the film-makers were foolish rather than pernicious. Despite this, the emotional weight that this lends to the narrative does not extinguish the feeling of acute disappointment at the loss of an opportunity to cast an Asian actor. More would have been gained than lost.
Ghost in the Shell will likely be remembered more for its bad publicity and its casting controversy than for any merits of its own. As a story it is largely functional without being exceptional, and it lacks the thoughtfulness of its source material. Speaking as a fan, there is nothing here that feels like an outright betrayal; it’s just shallower, capturing a lot of the beauty without much of the profundity. Its addition to the Ghost in the Shell universe adds and subtracts little, and maybe its worst crime is that it is merely average amongst its more thought-provoking predecessors. Unlike its primary character, the way it looks is far more compelling than the soul within.
Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (based on the manga by Masamune Shirow)
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano and Pilou Asbæk