Ghost in the Shell is an animation masterpiece.
To fully appreciate its quality you have to marvel and understand what makes it so famously renowned. It’s a film that resides in its own kinetic energy. It’s a beautiful, contextualize mixture of technology and its integration with human society in a cyberpunk future not so distant from our own. It’s the in-depth and philosophical questions it asks about identity and how technology can change, manipulate or evolve us. It’s the duality and the conflict between the ‘ghost’ (the mind or the consciousness) and the ‘shell’ (the body). It’s so highly regarded, Ghost in the Shell was the inspiration for The Matrix Trilogy and its high concept mythology and design belongs in the same stratosphere as Blade Runner and Ex-Machina.
I must admit it’s not the easiest of watches. When first released back in 1995 it was groundbreaking in the same cult-like fashion like Akira but a lot of the concepts can go over someone’s head. It jumps straight into the action without much of a parent to guide you through. But like all good sci-fi films, the more you invest in it, the more of the reward is revealed and Ghost in the Shell 2 and the TV series, Stand Alone Complex in particular are perfect companions to that deepening exploration of artificial intelligence in a technological world.
Given what I’ve described, you would think Ghost in the Shell has the perfect ingredients for a Hollywood version. All the material (including the original manga comic) is there waiting to be hacked, exploited and most importantly visualised for the big screen.
The live action version had a lot to live up to and sadly it didn’t.
“They created me. But they cannot control me. They took my life. I’ll take my revenge.” – Major
The whitewashing argument aside (which frankly was the least of the film’s problems), the live action version of Ghost in the Shell is simplistically generic and very boring. To the unfamiliar, the live action version may serve up as a nice introduction into this mythology. But for those who are familiar then it will appear somewhat confusing.
Ghost in the Shell came across as a weird, amalgamated version of a prequel and the 1995 anime film. It wants to distinctly set itself apart from the original by doing its own thing but couldn’t help but re-tool the iconic scenes to fit in with this new narrative. For those who are familiar, what you get in return is a bloated back story that delves into the history of Major (Scarlett Johansson), how Batou (Pilou Asbæk) got his eyes, and a weird mash-up of The Puppet Master’s original intentions with the character Kuze (Michael Pitt).
With so much time dedicated to this, from the offset it already loses its interest and impact. It’s the abandonment of Ghost in the Shell’s core and thought-provoking logic. There’s no debate to be had on identity and what makes someone human or a cyborg or if there’s a difference at all. There’s no debate on the ethics of living in a technological world if our minds are vulnerable to attacks and our memories can’t be trusted. There’s no debate on whether there’s a next evolutionary step in self-awareness and whether our ‘ghosts’ are a limitation in reaching that goal. Those questions are hinted but never re-enforced, tossed aside to tell a story so familiar that we’ve seen this replicated in so many other films. The difference here for Ghost in the Shell is that it doesn’t make a statement on what it wants to associate itself as.
However, it’s not just the over-simplification of Ghost in the Shell’s complex mythology that was discouraging, it was its cultural identity as well, something I like to call lost in translation.
In order to understand this point I refer to Mark Kermode’s brilliant book, The Good, The Bad and The Muliplex. There’s a fascinating chapter in which he talks at great length and detail about foreign films being remade for Western audiences. Films like Let the Right One In and Dark Water are so culturally based and ingrained in their respective countries that a Hollywood film immediately loses that essence once a remake goes into production. For example, you may simply view Dark Water as a horror film but in the Japanese culture it’s more to do with the connection of spirituality, that the spirit world and the real world are not so distant, a connected realm that becomes an integrated way of life. You may simply view Let The Right One In as a horror film but many view the vampire aspect as a violent mechanism for a bullied schoolboy to emit his real feelings. Both films were remade and while the box office numbers were respectable, it never quite captured that original essence. A lot of the time, remakes take the simplified view of the concept and adapt that for their own audiences.
In some ways Ghost in the Shell suffers that exact problem. There was never a point where I felt connected to this world. Contrast that to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner where you view a neon-lit society on its last dark knees, culture is a blended mix, robots are slaves and humanity feels like a faded memory, New Port City in Ghost in the Shell is all the visual aesthetics but no definition. It lacks a realism or a believability. Scenes are over-saturated with holograms as if to keep a shot looking busy but it never really takes a moment to invest what that cultural impact is. The populous always feels distant from characters whereas in the original, it was interconnected, a symbolic harmony for the story. Slowing down the pace of the film as the live action version did, doesn’t necessarily convey that rhythm, especially when the plot doesn’t elevate to those intelligent themes and told simplistically in its goal orientated agenda. The film takes those iconic scenes from the anime and slots it into the film without the understanding of why those shots were so significant.
Of course Ghost in the Shell delights on a visual level however without the complex foundation that made it popular and critically acclaimed in the first place, the end result is a massive disappointment.
“Never send a rabbit to kill a fox.” – Aramaki
Before Ghost in the Shell came out, the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johannson dominated the headlines. Many argued that Major should have been played by an Asian actress and I agree with that statement. But I was also willing to give this film the benefit of the doubt.
The question is does Scarlett Johansson live up to the role of Major? In my opinion, Scarlett Johansson was OK and it’s evident why she got the part.
If you’ve seen the films Lucy and Under the Skin (Johannson’s best role in her career), Scarlett has this uncanny ability of playing that awkward, reserved and out of touch human being. In particular with Under the Skin, it’s that self-perpetuating journey towards being a human or at least understanding what it’s like to be a human that captures the imagination for her performance in Ghost in the Shell. You could easily go as far as suggesting that her performance is subtly replicated.
But there’s a dilemma to be had. On one hand Ghost in the Shell plays up to Johansson’s strength of playing a character that’s not quite human and she’s very comfortable in action scenes. However there were moments where the robotic nature counted against her. In some scenes it felt too forced or lacking the personality that the anime version allowed you to identify and connect with. This is often felt when the jumbled script and the plot contradicted itself. First Major was classified as being a unique specimen and the first of her kind and then Hanka (the generic, evil corporation that must be stopped) wanting to destroy her. Then the film acknowledges Major’s heritage and her real name and the whitewashing arguments starts to resurface again in a very awkward manner.
The truth be told, Ghost in the Shell bored me in its pacing, its tone and its execution and did little to excite me or gain an interest. Under a better and more experienced director we could have gotten something intellectually special. The longer the film went on, the more I wanted to go home and immediately watch the anime version. Because if you want the authentic Ghost in the Shell story, you’re not going to get it with the live action version. It’s a watered-down, devalued concept, lacking the depth the original had and sacrificing that concept for style over substance.
Honestly that’s the real shame about it. I was rooting for it to overcome its criticisms. It had all the mechanisms to be better than most average films. But not even the star power of Scarlett Johansson can bring the film up to that next level. Just like The Last Airbender and Dragonball: Evolution and who knows Akira may follow that path too (if it gets made), Hollywood remakes of Asian films hasn’t hit that critically acclaimed stride and you can add Ghost in the Shell to that list.
Like most of the internet has said already – it’s all shell, no ghost.