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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

We’ve all seen enough adaptations to know how they can go wrong. There are problems inherent in adapting animated films to live-action or vice versa. There are different problems in adapting TV to film, comics to film, or whatever else have you. There are unique problems in adapting something with an ardent fanbase, and there are totally different problems with adapting something unknown to the mainstream. And of course adapting something from another country has its own set of problems: Even with subtitles or if the language is the same, there will still inevitably be indigenous references and cultural shorthand that will never completely translate.

Now put all of those problems together. And I do mean ALL of them, across all the different kinds of adaptations listed above. That is what you get trying to adapt anime into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) has been in development for ages, ditto for quite a few other anime properties. (Seriously, Hollywood, just let Akira go already.) And even now, the filmmakers are getting flak because the Japanese source material is butting heads with the American Hollywood system, which is how we got Scarlett Johansson playing a character named Motoko Kusanagi. That’s not even getting started on fidelity to the source material, how the visuals of the anime and manga translated into live-action, or even if the film is any good on its own merit. Hell, we haven’t even gotten into director Rupert Sanders — between his uninspired debut on Snow White and the Huntsman and his infamous extramarital affair with the lead actress of that picture, I’m astonished he still has a career at all.

My hopes for this movie we’re exceedingly low, but the trailers looked interesting and Johansson (issues of race aside) has more than earned the chance to star in her own intelligent action vehicle and prove that the epic failure of Lucy wasn’t completely her fault. Alas, it turns out that adapting “Ghost in the Shell” was indeed a mistake, but not for the reasons I had expected.

To get this out of the way up front, we’re told from practically the very first frame that our protagonist is nothing more than a brain in a full-body prosthesis. As such, the only reason she looks like Scarlett Johansson is because some corporate suit designed her to look like Scarlett Johansson. Which, let’s be honest, makes sense. Furthermore, because the main thrust of the plot involves Major Mira Killian learning more about where she came from and who she was before she became a cyborg, of course we eventually learn that her body and her identity are not real.

To that end, I think I can say without spoiling too much that in her previous life, Mira Killian was actually a Japanese woman named — what else? — Motoko Kusanagi. So what we have here is an Asian woman who got turned into a gorgeous white woman at the will of some soulless corporate suits. I have no idea if the filmmakers wanted to make some kind of meta commentary on the exact same kind of whitewashing and cultural appropriation that they themselves were accused of in casting Johansson, but if that’s the case, this was a very clever and subversive way to go about it. Doesn’t take away from the fact that this was a golden chance to bring a little more diversity to Hollywood, but if a white woman absolutely had to dominate the marquee by order of some bigwig at Paramount, this was a hell of a way to soften the blow.

(Side note: Fuck the name change, I’m calling this character Motoko for the rest of the review.)

A notable side effect of Motoko’s race change is her iconic thermoptic camouflage suit. To put it delicately, the white suit doesn’t look quite the same against white skin than it might have against brown skin. To put it bluntly, Motoko looks naked. I have no idea if this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but it raises an interesting aesthetic point: There’s something inherently unsettling about the vision of something clearly recognizable as a nude human form, but without marks, hairs, nipples, navel, or genitals. It calls to mind a mannequin, which in turn emphasizes the artificial and utilitarian nature of Motoko’s design.

Motoko is a strange paradox in that she looks like a woman, and she has many traits commonly associated with powerful women, yet Motoko herself is not a woman. She does not have any of the bodily functions (menstruation, lactation, estrogen production, etc.) or anatomy (vagina, cervix, ovaries, etc.) that typically distinguish a human being as female. For that matter, she doesn’t even have any of the biological traits that distinguish her as a human being. Yes, she may have a human brain, but is a brain in itself a human being, much less a woman?

On that subject, what if a person’s brain could be hacked and/or reprogrammed at someone else’s will? If somebody commits a crime while forcibly controlled by some hacker, who is then at fault? Are we only the sum of our memories? If so, what does that mean when our memories can be falsified or deleted? If not, then what else could possibly be the basis for our identities or our perception of reality?

We live in a world where everyone is interconnected through electronic means, the people in the film’s world even more so. But what about the kind of interpersonal connection — empathy, sympathy, compassion, whatever you want to call it — that exists outside of the internet? Is it even possible for someone like Motoko, without an organic human body, to have such a connection with anyone else?

At what point does an enhanced body or a mind become the property of some corporation? At that point, does informed consent from the individual even matter?

The good news is, all of these questions are in the film and carried over 100 percent intact from the source material. The bad news is, all of these questions are in the film and carried over from the source material, which is now over 20 years old.

“Ghost in the Shell” started as a long-running manga in 1989, and it was adapted into an anime film in 1995. The franchise was a huge game-changer, revolutionizing sci-fi all over the world in permanent and far-reaching ways. Its impact was bolstered to an even greater degree when it served as a key inspiration for The Matrix, itself an indispensable game-changer in sci-fi cinema. The effect is that while all of these questions are no less important or relevant, they’ve been used as the basis for so many countless cinema works in the time since that they’ve become cliche.

To wit: We’ve got an amnesiac super-soldier who’s searching for her past while trying to escape from the forces that made her. Between Jason Bourne and Wolverine (and probably a few other franchises I’m forgetting), we’ve already seen that countless times through so many films in the 21st century. Moreover, we’ve got a cyborg cop going up against a greedy corporate overlord who sees her as nothing more than company property. That one actually predates “Ghost in the Shell”: RoboCop came out in 1987!

Because “Ghost in the Shell” raised so many questions that have been so thoroughly explored over so many years’ worth of science fiction, this adaptation had to work that much harder to distinguish itself from the sci-fi cliches begotten by its own source material. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t seem eager to put in any such effort, presenting us with a transparent and predictable plot stitched together from scenes clearly recognizable from other movies. Some of which, to be fair, are clearly recognizable from the 1995 anime film.

It’s astounding how the filmmakers clearly had a passion and an understanding for the source material, but they consistently took the easiest and laziest possible route. Funnily enough, Scarlett Johansson herself is a key example. Our main character is a gorgeous and badass woman with attitude and brains in abundance, specifically engineered to be an apex predator. Issues of race aside, casting Johansson was an easy choice. Too easy. It’s sort of like casting Melissa McCarthy as a loudmouth with a chip on her shoulder: It’s entertaining, and there’s no one who does it better (certainly no one who does it like her), but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen a million times before.

The other characters offer lamentably slim pickings. Pilou Azbaek puts in a memorable turn as Batou, a wry comic relief and a suitable partner for Motoko. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano also gets a couple of straight-up awesome scenes, more than proving his character worthy to be the boss of this anti-terrorist task force. Otherwise, the supporting cast is loaded with thinly-veiled plot devices and cardboard cutouts. An especially sad example is Juliette Binoche, who gamely tries and fails to salvage her role as the corporate scientist with a conscience.

The inclusion of the white actors is even more distracting, as the production is positively drenched in Asian imagery. The setting is clearly set in some future Japanese city, with a skyline dominated by neon lightshows and holograms the size of Godzilla. What’s more, the CGI is consistently impressive, used to showcase all manner of creative and shocking ways in which humanity has been changed by the proliferation of cybernetic enhancements. The presentation of cyberspace is a sight to behold as well. Every frame of the movie is utterly gorgeous — even the darker shots are beautiful. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I dearly wish I had.

The music also deserves mention, because it’s something truly extraordinary. The score was composed by the great Clint Mansell, alongside former Hans Zimmer protege Lorne Balfe. They prove to be inspired choices, turning in music perfectly suited to the source material.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a beautifully produced movie with a ton of deeply important questions to ask and a clear passion for the source material. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the screenplay wasn’t up to par. It’s tempting to blame this on Hollywood as usual — rushing a film into development with a half-baked screenplay and all that — but I think the bigger problem is that it was made in a context that was at least partially shaped by its source material. So much of “Ghost in the Shell” has become integrated into mainstream sci-fi that of course an adaptation of the same source material is going to come off as cliche. The filmmakers could have used that mainstream familiarity to build on the established concepts and reach new heights, but instead it uses the familiarity as an excuse to tell a plot we already know by heart.

Then again, Ghost in the Shell (1995) had an extremely dense plot that could take multiple viewings to completely understand. If a simpler plot is needed to make such profound and heady questions more accessible, is that necessarily a bad thing?

On the whole, this is a film that gives you plenty to think about while you’re enjoying the pretty pictures and the brainless action. I can recommend the movie for that much, but anyone with a deeper interest in thought-provoking science fiction should definitely stick with the original franchise.

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