12
May
17

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Being a fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise isn’t easy. There are five million different universes to keep track of. Each iteration is its own thing, having the same characters, but entirely separate events. This is a good and bad thing. Good because you can ignore Mamoru Oshii’s shitty film versions, but bad because each time you get a new TV show or movie, you’re always starting over, there isn’t enough continuity.

My favorite version is the TV series, Stand Alone Complex. It is the most accessible due to its incredible action, interesting characters, and amazing soundtrack. Digging deeper, it offers up philosophical insights regarding human nature and identity, and humanity’s interaction with connectivity and technology. Even though I haven’t liked every version of Ghost in the Shell, this was the one that got me into the franchise, and made me excited to see the live-action movie.

2017’s live-action Ghost in the Shell is a failure. It is a hodge-podge of the entire franchise. It combines disparate elements from all the different universes. In doing so, it becomes confused and diluted. It is a mere soup of what makes Ghost in the Shell unique. They had a number of deep storylines from which to choose, and they attempted to tell them all in the most milquetoast way possible.

It begins by taking notes from Oshii’s 1995 film. Public-security Section 9 is on the trail of a powerful and mysterious hacker who is causing trouble. This diverts into a riff on the first season of Stand Alone Complex in which the hacker is altruistic, and attempting to bring to light an evil corporation’s cover-up. Later, this shifts gears into a take on the second season of Stand Alone Complex in which the hacker is actually an important person from the main character’s past who wishes to change society’s status quo. All of this then diverts into an “original” and extremely tired origin story for the main character. It becomes a bad rip-off of Robocop. Scarlett Johansson’s character, The Major, is a secret robotics experiment from an evil corporation, and she is an amnesiac who has to discover her origins and take down the bad guys at the same time.

It is this amalgam of storylines that leads to such a generic plot. By changing gears so often, the story isn’t allowed any chance to naturally evolve or reveal deeper truths about its characters or themes. It simply allows Johansson to move from Point A to Point B, fight bad guys, and then learn some shocking truth that is as shocking as a wet paper bag.

The filmmakers were so concerned with making a Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell, they removed nearly all the personality from the various versions. And by switching between them, they attempted to appease fans, but created a confused universe that never becomes sure of itself.

This film has also carried a fair bit of controversy. In all of the Japanese versions, the main character’s name is Motoko Kusanagi, and she carries a rank of Major. Most of the characters refer to her as “Major” or “The Major.” The Hollywood version dropped her Japanese name, and simply calls her “Major” throughout. This is mostly due to the amnesiac angle, but some have complained that it was due to fears that Hollywood couldn’t sell a movie with an Asian lead.

Whitewashing is nothing new to Hollywood. They’ve been doing it since they first started making movies. I firmly believe it is something they shouldn’t do. If a role requires a certain race to play it (e.g. a Native American character), then they should cast a person of the appropriate race. Alternatively, if race has no bearing on a role whatsoever, they should simply hire whoever is best, whether they are white, black, Asian, Indian, etc.

Adapting Ghost in the Shell presents a unique problem. Identity and robotics create a compelling world in which people can be anyone they want. In all versions prior to the live-action film, it is well established that anyone can inhabit any body. The Major has been shown to switch into the body of a child. She could switch into the body of a man if she liked. Sometimes, it isn’t clear if she is actually a woman, but is rather inhabiting a female cybernetic body for sake of convenience.

So, in a world where you could be anyone, why does the main character have to be Asian? Simply because the character was born an Asian woman doesn’t mean she has to slavishly stick to that race and gender as a robot. Isn’t it more interesting to think she could be a six-foot tall black man or a short bald Asian man or a hot white woman or anything in between? How many of us, in online conversations and postings, may have reinvented our personalities even just a bit? If you could reinvent your entire persona, your entire look, would you? Or would you choose to inhabit a robot that looked exactly as you did in your previous life? I’m not advocating a position, I’m just asking the question.

Despite all that, people have still clamored against the movie, because the main character was born an Asian woman, and after she died she was put into a white body. But the film offers a decent explanation for this. It was part of an evil company’s nefarious plan. Are we expected to believe they would put her mind into the same kind of body she was born in? Of course not. They didn’t want to attract attention, so they changed her race so no one would suspect anything. It is a reasonable explanation.

If you’re still not convinced then consider this, Oshii himself stated he didn’t think casting Johansson was a big deal:

Scarlett Johansson, playing Motoko from beginning to end, has gone above and beyond my expectations for the role…I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.

Sure, I didn’t like his version of Ghost in the Shell, but he certainly understands its themes and characters. When it comes to accusations of being racist or whitewashed, I believe that Ghost in the Shell can be convicted of neither. The filmmakers should get a pass.

The live-action movie did a good job of being inclusive. The cast had American, French, British, Chinese, and Japanese characters. Races ran the gamut from Indian to white to Asian to black. They tried hard to be inclusive, and found actors that brought the characters to life rather well. If they had just stuck with the template already in place, then the cast would have been all-Japanese. I’d say they actually improved things in this aspect.

The casting was spot-on for most of the roles. Johansson was quite good as the stoic Major. Of all the big female stars working today, she’s pretty much the only one I can envision kicking the asses of so many people. Takeshi Kitano was perfect as the leader of Section 9, strong and silent, yet ruthless when he needs to be. The biggest surprise was Pilou Asbaek as Batou. He completely nailed the role, and was exactly as he should have been. There was a fairly big cast, so I’m not going to go through them all, but everyone did a good job.

The filmmakers captured the look of the Ghost in the Shell universe perfectly. The original was heavily influenced by Blade Runner, so there is an over-populated, overly neon city vibe. But it has its own unique aesthetic with how robots appear and how technology is portrayed. There is plenty of attention to detail, such as with Kuze’s glitchy robotic voice. They even threw in a few bits just for the fans such as Oshii’s basset hound and keeping the Major’s car exactly the same. They successfully translated all of that to the big screen. The cinematography alone is rather beautiful.

Surprisingly, the movie is incredibly weak on action. Being a Hollywood film, one would have expected great action coupled with a lame story. Sadly, this movie has lackluster action to accompany its bland story. The action beats are too short, and nothing more than the Major shooting or punching a couple of bad guys. The choreography leaves a lot to be desired, especially in this post-Matrix era, which itself owes a lot to Ghost in the Shell. The only action scene that works is in the middle of the film, when the Major beats up a bad guy in a river. It’s a near replica of a scene from the first animated film, and is probably the only action scene that raised my excitement level.

Overall, the live-action Ghost in the Shell is a very mixed bag. If you are a fan of the comics or any of the various TV shows or animated movies, you should check it out. If you aren’t, then there isn’t much here that’s worth watching. While it has nice visuals and a good cast, it severely lacks in the action and story departments. And when those are sub-par, what’s to enjoy in an action/sci-fi movie?

Verdict: Bad

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6 Responses to “Ghost in the Shell (2017)”


  1. May 15, 2017 at 5:06 am

    This is about as close to agreeing with you as I can come in recent memory – I didn’t think it was awful, neither was it brilliant; rather, I found it a failure of concept but a success of inspiration. It must had been hard to not just carbon-copy the original film (the only other thing in this franchise that I’ve actually seen) and I think they did a great job in differentiating just enough to be enjoyable, without screwing it up entirely. Sure, it’s basically the same story with a few flashy bits in between, but on the surface I found it rather enjoyable, if not entirely comprehensible.

    The moral and ethical dilemmas the film posits are clumsily handled, IMO, and the lack of real action (you’re right about it holding up in this post-Matrix world) is an indictment on Sanders, who strikes a terrific *visual* style (Blade Runner-esque, as you mention) but lacks the intellectual chutzpah to really make this film work.

    I think I gave it a B (my review up in a week or so) but I approached it more as a valiant failure than an outright turd. Might revisit it in a year or two to soak up more of its melancholy overtones.

    • May 15, 2017 at 4:43 pm

      I hope it improves on repeat viewings. It wasn’t worthless, and may reveal more when watched again. As a fan of the franchise I will give it another shot on blu-ray.

  2. 3 Air Man
    May 27, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Trust me, a single episode of Power Rangers, a single Star Wars lightsaber battle, even a single 11-minute episode of Paw Patrol has more action than this movie!

  3. 5 Lupin A.
    July 14, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    I just watched it, and it’s just bad shit. Like I lost 2 hours of my life and I now have horrible picture of ‘Major’, depicted here as a lame-ass and weak character… yeah, The fucking Major who is just the most bad-ass female character ever if you stick to the animated versions.
    Bad bad bad. I wouldn’t even say the acting was good, I think it was just like the rest, without any impersonation and cold as ice.
    I could hardly stand looking at Scarlet watching robot-like from one place to another. This is not the major, this character is supposed to be strong / smart / highly skilled AND feminine. The story is an unskilled rip-off of different bits from the 2 movies and the series, nothing has been created here. Just a demonstration that hollywood can do a lot of damage in a 100 minutes when its uninspired and target sheep audiences.


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