1 Year 100 Reviews — Ghost in the Shell [2017]

One night when I was in high school is was channel surfing to find something to watch. One of my go-to channels back then was Cartoon Network. I stumbled upon an anime where the episode was just this round-table discussion about the cyber-attacks committed by a terrorist named the Laughing Man. For 18 minutes I watched four people on a talk show debating the ethics and deeds of some hacker. I had no context for the show, but the conversation had me enraptured for the whole 18 minutes of the episode’s runtime. To this day, those 18 minutes are some of the best television I have watched. The show was an anime based off a seminal movie that came out in 1995 called Ghost in the Shell.

Once I finally got down to watching the original Ghost in the Shell movie I saw exactly why this piece was so wildly influential. This movie was basically Japan’s Blade Runner. The 1995 film is animated, absolutely gorgeous, and deeply philosophical and haunting in its themes and imagery. It truly is a sci-fi classic.

Now here’s the part where I would normally just dump all over its Western, modern, adulterated remake. But, I honestly feel nothing but pity for the live-action Ghost in the Shell. I think all the people involved really wanted to make something worthy of the original movie, but either studio demands, modern audience expectations, or just coming from a different time and culture all stood in the way of letting this movie achieve greatness.

For starters, it’s clear that Ghost in the Shell wants to be similar to — but not a remake of — the 1995 animated film. The plot is completely different this time around, though has echoes of familiarity to the 1995 film. The main character is a wholly different person: in 1995 series her is name Motoko Kusanagi and is Japanese, while in this movie her name is Mira Killian and is Caucasian. This movie does use a lot of set-pieces from the original film that are lovingly recreated and are often the most visually stunning moments of the entire movie. It must be nearly impossible to make something based off of such an important piece of cinema history and do something new with it. While Ghost in the Shell 2017 fails to be a good adaptation, I have to applaud t for still trying its best.

Next, there is the issue of Scarlett Johansson’s casting being a “whitewashing”. Honestly, I would be willing to bet money that the only way the director could get half the creative license he wanted for making this movie was predicated on the casting of someone with Johansson’s star-power. Yes, it sucks that an Asian/Asian-American actor wasn’t cast in this role, but movies are such a gamble to make these days that half the time you need compromises like these in order to get the green light in the first place. And Johansson does a fine job. The movie even plays with the fact that she is Caucasian, but to talk about it would require me to go into spoiler territory.

Finally, there is the biggest problem with the decisions that went into making this movie: turning into a blockbuster action movie. The thing that makes the Ghost in the Shell such a special franchise — the thing that makes it worthy of adapting — is how it interweaves fascinating characters into a world and narrative with deep, troubling philosophical consequences. In a world where the singularity has occurred, where the mind is now transferable as data, what does it mean to be human? If someone can literally hack a memory into your mind, change your entire history without you knowing it, how can you tell what makes you you? All this and so much more is what makes this franchise so outstanding. But, making it into an easily-digestible action movie kills all those things that make this franchise so great. Either this movie thinks audiences are too dumb to think that deeply or too apathetic to care, but what few themes Ghost in the Shell 2017 does toy around with ultimately get pushed aside for tropes and predictable twists. And that is an enormous disservice and tragedy.

The change that irks me the most is how Johansson’s character was changed to be a sort of super hero origin story. In both films the protagonist is an entirely synthetic body with the mind of a human digitally imprinted into it. While the live-action movie makes her to be the first of her kind, she was nothing special in the original anime. The name “Ghost in the Shell” was not something new in the anime; calling synthetic bodies “Shells” and their minds “Ghosts” were common vernacular in that world. This change bothers me because it shifts the focus of the protagonist’s existential dilemma and dilutes some of the key central themes. Again, this is really hard to describe without you having seen both movies and would require an entire other article itself just to explain. Just suffice it to say that it is a huge difference and one that breaks this movie for me.

I do not think this new Ghost in the Shell movie is bad. Honestly, if it were not for the history behind it, the movie might actually approach something we could call good. But, too many poor decisions went into making something that comes off as a blurred facsimile of something great; like a crayon drawing of a Monet painting. It might be worth checking out at some time in the future, but there are plenty of better movies in theaters worth seeing before this.


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