In Defense of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

Can the cloud of negativity around Ghost in the Shell be lifted? By Firas Durri

The live-action Ghost in the Shell movie is enveloped by a cloud of negativity. Many detractors don’t just dislike or dismiss it; they are bitter or almost allergic to it. Someone noted the movie “gets people Hulk angry.” A Paramount exec wistfully remarked: “this movie wasn’t allowed to just be a movie.”

Now that the movie has left cinemas, and media attention has moved on, is there a chance that it will have a better afterlife? Some films, like GITS’ thematic cousin Blade Runner, transcend initial mixed reviews and low box-office returns to gain appreciation by later audiences.

I don’t know if GITS will eventually be reappraised critically or commercially, but I’ll venture a subjective, personal defense of the movie. Let me first address various issues that were adversarial to GITS.

(Note that this article contains mild spoilers.)

Adversary #1: Casting Controversy

I think the ‘whitewashing’ criticism is fair and I understand the issue. However, it doesn’t affect my personal enjoyment of the movie. I judge the movie itself as a final product with its particular actors.

Everyone will have decide for themselves how much the casting affects their view of the film. But intellectual honesty requires some untangling of the demographics of participants in a work of art from its quality. It would be absurd to scorn every aspect of the film — say, the background singers, or the motorbike design — because of one cast member.

Adversary #2: Movie critics

I’ll concede that GITS is not going to top any list of great movies. In fact it may not even be Scarlett Johansson’s best transhumanist movie, given other contenders like ‘Her’ and ‘Under the Skin’.

The biggest fault lies with the script, which could be much better in terms of both the story and the dialog. Some characters should have been fleshed out more. There are issues with pacing, although I’m not sure in which direction: the movie seemed too hasty to me, too slow to many casual viewers (go figure, but this duality suggests the movie was pulled in different directions while attempting to be both a GITS movie and a Hollywood blockbuster.)

However, even with such faults acknowledged, the movie was nowhere near as bad as the critical consensus. I do feel there was a ‘hive mind’ effect from social media negativity that led to more of a dismissal of the movie from writers than was warranted.

Adversary #3: Box office

The obvious reasons the movie struggled at the box office were the casting controversy and bad reviews. But I think some other factors played into it as well.

The marketing campaign spared no expense, but while it showed set-pieces like the building jump it perhaps didn’t really sell the story. To this day the official GITS Twitter profile bio is “She will stop at nothing to recover her past”, which is not a good description of the movie.

Could the release have better timed? GITS came out in the wake of of Logan, King Kong, and Beauty and the Beast — and before the ‘Fate of the Furious’, which was an obvious challenge in international markets. GITS topped the Chinese box office on its opening weekend and got decimated by ‘Furious’ a few days later.

Adversary #4: Anime purists

These guys are the worst. (Just kidding.)

It’s an interesting phenomenon because the whole reason I was excited about GITS is because I’d watched the ’95 anime. And then there is this flipside of people who maybe would have liked the movie more if it was a sci-fi flick that wasn’t called GITS.

First of all, all Ghost in the Shell versions exist in their own particular universe, so to the extent that the movie changes the plot or characters it is just continuing a GITS tradition.

Some people familiar with the anime are unhappy that the plot concerns memories. They say it makes the movie like Robocop, or the Bourne Identity. Or that in GITS she embraces her cybernetic body whereas in this film she’s conflicted about it. Hideo Kojima sums up the differences as changing the central theme from “What is it to be human?” to “Who am I?”

However, both themes are existential and somewhat related. Also, the live-action movie is an origin story and thus depicts the Major at a less self-assured stage in her life.

Furthermore, memories are a major concern in well-lauded works similar to Ghost in the Shell: Blade Runner (“Memories, you’re talking about memories.”) and Westworld (“I’m in a dream…”)

Not to mention, other GITS versions riff on memories. Batou’s line in the live action-movie, “What’s the difference, huh? Fantasy, reality… Dreams, memories. It’s all the same. Just noise.” is probably the line carried across with the most fidelity from the manga, to the anime, to the live-action movie.

Also, this may drive purists up the wall because of the different contexts, but I think these quotes are somewhat similar:

  • GITS ‘17: “We cling to our memories like they define us, but they really don’t. What we do is what defines us.”
  • GITS 95: “All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.”

Some concerns from purists seem like nitpicking. I’ve seen multiple criticisms of how the water fight in the movie differs from the anime, which is weird because the fight sequence is almost exactly the same. It’s fine to prefer one depiction over the other, but complaining that GITS ’17 doesn’t copy GITS ’95 frame-by-frame seems gratuitous.

All else aside, anime purists should look at it this way: at least the live-action Ghost in the Shell is worth talking about. Recall that there are live-action adaptations so unfortunate that everyone agrees never to talk about them. (The initials are DBZ. Sorry about the reminder.)


Now let me move on to some aspects of the movie that I really liked.

Spectacular visuals

Even the biggest GITS critic can’t deny that the visuals are remarkable. From the artistic concepts, to the holographic city and objects in the environment, to the imagery, Ghost in the Shell is visually arresting.

What’s unique about this movie— compared to other movies with great cinematography, design, or computer-generated imagery — is that GITS is ‘trippy’. When I watched the Major shimmer into visibility during the water fight, in 3D and set to the tinkling music on a large screen, the sensory experience was like nothing I’ve ever seen in a movie — for a second it felt like a hallucination.

Great soundtrack

The score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe is unique and well-suited to the film. While it’s not particularly loud, it is beautiful ambient cyberpunk music, perfect to ride around to in a futuristic car through a dark neon-lit city.

In addition to the ambient synths there are poignant cues with orchestral instruments and a choir. Someone commented that the shelling sequence music makes him “feel like heaven is real.”

Love letter to the original anime

It is obvious that much care was put into recreating the GITS universe, and exploring the technology, characters and stories.

I notice more similarities and allusions between the live-action movie and the original material all the time, but an overview is this post:

A love letter to Ghost in the Shell: images of 30 shots in the 2017 movie recreated from the anime

Kuze

Kuze might be the most interesting character in GITS ‘17. If you consider the story of Frankenstein’s creature, Kuze is probably a better depiction of the monster than the lumbering Hollywood monster.

Harold Bloom describes the moral arc of Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein: “It would not be unjust to characterize Victor Frankenstein, in his act of creation, as being momentarily a moral idiot… He flees his responsibility and sets in motion the events that will lead to his own Arctic immolation, a fit end for a being whom has never achieved a full sense of another’s existence.”

Kuze echoes this morality when he responds to the Major saying, “You kill innocent people” by declaring: “Innocent, is that what you call them? I am as they made me…”

Like Frankenstein’s creature, after being rejected by his creators Kuze is lonely and seeks companionship in others like himself, telling Major in dismay: “You want to kill me? Like everyone else…”

However, unlike Frankenstein’s creature, Kuze has other ideas adopted from the Puppetmaster in GITS ‘95. He is prepared to move on from being humanoid: “They thought that we would be a part of their evolution, but they have created us to evolve alone. Beyond them.”

Plus, Kuze is just cool. Chilling in a lawless zone while a robot geisha touches up the tattoos on your cyborg body might be the most cyberpunk thing ever caught on film.

Batou

I have yet to see any criticism of Pilou Asbaek’s depiction of Major’s Section 9 colleague, Batou. He nailed it, cybernetic eyes and all. He exudes warmth while being convincing as a tactical fighter. His collegiality with Major is a foil to her distant nature and helps keep her grounded.

Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox

Enough said. Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki delivered what is now probably my favorite cinematic kiss-off line. He was cued up by a taut action scene with cool visuals and sound design that is many people’s favorite scene from the movie.

Ending scene

Ghost in the Shell has one of my favorite closing scenes ever. It’s energetic and upbeat.

Listening the Major say in voice-over, “My ghost survived to remind the rest of us that humanity is our virtue” while jumping off a building, and waving her face into invisibility as in the anime, while the music sparkles in the background left me feeling pretty satisfied.

Gratitude

When I found out about this movie last year I was intrigued because I had watched and liked the ’95 movie. My excitement only increased when I saw the extent to which they had maintained fidelity to the anime.

When I had watched the anime I would never have imagined we’d ever see a live-action version of the tank fight. So when I glimpsed the tank fight in trailers, I was happy. When I saw the tank fight in the theater, I was even happier!

I’m just glad this movie exists.

A beautiful rarity

Consider how unlikely it was for Hollywood to greenlight a film like GITS in between churning out ‘The Avengers Part 5' and ‘Fast and the Furious Part 11’.

I saw a trailer for Scarlett Johansson’s next movie, ‘Rough Night’. It is about hard-partying friends who accidentally kill a male stripper. Whatever its merits, it is certainly not a film with extended sequences pondering the meaning of being human, I’ll tell you that much.

Beautiful cyberpunk films like GITS are preciously uncommon. So if you wanted a better version of this movie, burying it under criticism is a strategic mistake. Being mad at GITS ’17 doesn’t mean Hollywood is going to remake a better live-action adaptation; it just means they will drop GITS altogether.

In Conclusion

Haters gonna hate, but the movie is better than they suggest. Check it out with an open mind, give it a shot.

Any thoughts? Add a comment below or get in touch on twitter.com/gitsost


Sign the petition to get the Ghost in the Shell score released!

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