The live action Ghost in the Shell was extremely controversial when it came out in 2017, with many people furious that the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi was being white washed and cast with Scarlet Johanson. Like for many other anime fans, this was a dealbreaker, and when it was in theaters I didn’t watch it, or buy it when it was on DVD. Which didn’t seem a huge loss since the majority of the reviews Weren’t That Great in general.
But when I spotted the DVD in my local library, I decided to check it out, since it would be free, and I could see how gigantic a mess this movie really was.
First thing that surprised me is that it wasn’t entirely terrible. The acting was largely solid (though ScarJo seemed like a block of wood) and visually it was very cool. But beyond that, it was definitely a mess for a variety of reasons, and the best parts of the movie visually were when the director copied the animated movie frame by frame by frame. Fundamentally, what made this movie so absurd was that while it tried to get to the core of the original movie and the manga of which it was based was the definition of humanness, it dropped the ball entirely by making the changes it did, and casting not just one, but two characters who were supposed to be originally Japanese not only within the source material, but in the movie itself.
There are spoilers wherein, but at this point if you didn’t see it, you probably don’t care.
In the original Ghost in the Shell, the Major and the rest of Section 9 where tracking the Puppetmaster, a hacker who was breaking into cybernetically enhanced human minds in order to cause acts of terrorism against the government. As Motoko tracks the hacker down, the hacker develops an interest in her because unlike most cybernetic humans, so much of her body is artificial that the only thing separating her from a robot is her ‘ghost’, her essential human soul and total experience that exist within her few brain cells. The movie plays with the idea of what makes a person ‘real’ when even human memories can be altered, and programs can be so advanced that they seek to discover a purpose beyond what they created for, and be introspective.
The live action movie tries similar themes, but in a much more heavy handed way, and because of the changes from the original, unintentionally shoot themselves in the foot with that same theme. In the ScarJo version, the Major is the first of her kind, an entirely robot body with a human brain. The procedure saved her life when her family drowned, but a side effect of is she has little memory of her past, and frequent glitches in the form of audio/visual hallucinations. The company that built her, Sanka, gives her to the government to work for Section 9, the division that investigates cyber crimes. A year after her creation, major scientists from Sanka involved in her project are being systematically murdered by robots hacked by ‘Kusae’, a mysterious figure with a major hate-boner for the company. As the Major looks into the crime and frequently questions her humanity, she comes face to face with Kusae and discovers what actually happened to her when her brain was transferred into her body.
And this is where things fall apart. Unlike the original Puppetmaster, Kusae isn’t an AI program, but another human brain/android body, a failed experiment before the Major’s success, and someone who knew her before she became a robot. And the Major wasn’t a rescued refugee whose family died when she almost did, but an anti-technology rebel who was arrested and experimented on along with others in her group, where 98 other people died in the research. And to make matters worse, the woman she was before her new body was Japanese, as was Kusae originally a Japanese man named Hideo, except both characters are played by Caucasian people, which is especially gross. Furthermore, though the aesthetic of the city is largely Japanese, with Geisha-bots, photo-projected monks and holographic koi, there are veeeeeery few Japanese people in the movie, and they are mostly window dressing. Which is where the plot of the movie gets lost. The point is still about the definition of humanness, but then it actively dehumanizes and objectifies Japanese people. The director of Section 9 speaks Japanese even though he can clearly understand English since his subordinates all speak to him in English, and the only other Japanese member of Section 9 barely has any screen-time. The movie wants the visual ‘coolness’ of Japanese culture without all the icky understanding of it. Secondly, because it rips off so much of the original animated version, half of the scenes lose any meaning. The hacker is another human not an AI, so when a Geisha-bot begs for its life after the Major shoots it, it doesn’t go anywhere and look into whether robots are actually self aware. The scene before the water fight also loses meaning, because previously everyone who was hacked was a robot, not human, and again, goes nowhere. Even the beagle (which in the original was a basset hound) that reoccurs in the movie means nothing because Motoko’s family had a cat, not a dog, so it loses its symbology as a fake or artificial memory. And despite having no nudity, the live action movie is ironically more sexualized than the original, with focusing on ScarJo’s body in a sultry way, instead of the mechanical, structuralized way that views a human body as an almost perfect machine.
I certainly don’t regret seeing Ghost in the Shell, since it’s nowhere in the same league of bad as Dragonball Evolution, but the criticism for the movie is largely valid. Stick to the original unless you were as curious to see it as I was.