Creating a new installment in the Ghost in the Shell universe is no small task, nor is it easy. Masamune Shirow’s original 1989 manga is celebrated as one of the cornerstones of late first-wave cyberpunk, while Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation is considered one of the greatest anime films of all time. So when considering Rupert Sanders’ film, an American adaptation and the series’ first live-action incarnation, there’s a pedigree to aspire to and a pitfall of redundancies to circumvent. In the immortal words of Omar Little, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
Roughly every incarnation of Ghost in the Shell follows these lines: In a world where technology has advanced to the point where humans are physically augmenting their bodies with cybernetic enhancements, Major Motoko Kusanagi is the leader of Public Security Section Nine, an elite task force that specializes in solving and preventing cases of cybercrime. A cyborg herself, the Major grapples with her identity as a half-human machine hybrid while dispatching criminals with equal parts force and intelligence. Sanders’ interpretation takes several liberties with the series’ source material, postulating a world in which Japan, in the wake of two world wars, has become the nexus of a multinational diaspora of people displaced by the conflict. Section Nine is no longer a domestic security outfit, but rather a private unit created by the Hanka Corporation on loan to the Japanese government, pulling specialists from across the world. And the Major, played by Scarlett Johansson, is no longer Motoko Kusanagi, but rather Mira Killian.
Far from a carbon copy of Oshii’s 1995 film, Sanders’ film takes an “exquisite corpse” approach to his adaptation. The skeleton of Oshii’s film is here, but so is the nervous system of Shirow’s manga. The vital organs are exhumed from the body of 2002’s Stand Alone Complex television series, and a smattering of cosmetics are dug out from Oshii’s 2004 follow-up Innocence and the critically maligned Arise movie series. The result is a frankenstein of an adaptation, jolted to life by the rejuvenating bolt of a $110 million budget. As such, arguments on the basis of the film’s adherence to sequential “canonicity” are effectively moot. What is left is the question of whether the film manages to capture the poignance and appeal of the series’ history. Sadly, this is not the case.
Despite what producer Avi Arad might protest, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is an origin story. Though not necessarily of the Major, but rather that of the dawn of cyberization itself. As the film continuously points out, the Major is the “first of her kind,” a full human brain transplanted into an artificial body. As a result, the film’s depictions of first-generation cybernetic enhancements is predictably crude and at times grotesque, translucent wires spliced into the temples of African dignitaries and clots of cable spilling out of the eye sockets of felled enemies. To compare Sanders’ film to Oshii’s in this sense is enlightening, a study of contrasts between two culturally divergent views of technology. While Oshii’s film by first appearances is drab and dystopic, it is ultimately an optimistic parable of technology’s potential to elevate the Major, or perhaps even humanity itself, from the depths of fear and doubt and into transcendence. Oshii was and remains a techno-optimist, who grew up in the wake of post-WWII Japan and witnessed firsthand the country’s revitalization through technology. Sanders’ film is colorful and scintillating by comparison, though its starry-eyed appeal to transhumanism rings hollow amid the dark insistence of its repeated technophobic cautions.
The film’s plot does away with the intricate shadow game of geo-politicking and bureaucratic subterfuge which informed the series’ backdrop for the last twenty-eight years, instead replaced with an aggressive straw man argument in the form of a corporation that just so happens to dabble in human vivisection. Likewise, the movie’s philosophical tangents come across as either surface-level readings of the “brain in the vat” theory and, at worst, a book of madlibs wherein the owner filled in each blank with a different variation of the words “Ghost” and “Shell.” “She’s more than human, and she’s more than A.I. [...] her Ghost lives on.” As if the script is somehow concerned that the audience might have forgotten what the name of the film was halfway through watching it.
However one might feel about the film’s casting decisions, Scarlett Johansson, to her credit, does deliver a convincing portrayal of a female cyborg combatant whose body and emotions are tragically out of sync. Whether the viewer believes that this is a consummate portrayal of Ghost in the Shell’s “Major” is up to the audience. Pilou Asbæk’s performance is worthy of mention, perfectly encompassing Batou’s role as the gruff yet relatable heart of Section Nine. The breakout role, however, belongs to none other than “Beat” Takeshi who, after an initially soporific portrayal of Section Nine’s Chief Aramaki, comes out of nowhere with the best damn line and scene in the entire movie. A scene, mind you, which is unprecedented in any other incarnation of Ghost in the Shell prior to this film. Kaori Momoi is a close runner-up with a performance that, although brief, is heartbreaking in its raw empathic simplicity. It’s curious how two of the film’s supporting actors, both Japanese, happen to deliver arguably the two best performances of the movie, yet the film’s premise is written in such a way to be predicated on the protagonist being played by anyone, caucasian or otherwise, who is not Asian.
The film’s pacing is scattershot, breathlessly hurrying from one set-piece to the next throughout its almost two-hour running time like a child dumping the contents of their toybox onto the floor in a rush to show off their collection of Ghost in the Shell memorabilia. There’s seldom a moment to pause, to catch one’s breath and ruminate on the nature of this film’s world and how the people in it manage to live alongside one another. To invest over three years of production crafting an aesthetic, only to have it blur across the screen amidst intermittent fits of gunfire and stiffly choreographed wire-fu, feels like a severe disservice not only to the world of which the film is trying to create but to those who had a hand in crafting it.
To that note, Rupert Sanders went to the trouble of assembling a powerhouse trifecta of veteran concept artists to plot out the film’s visual design, and unfortunately what they’ve turned out is a city of derivative ’80s cyberpunk kitsch, populated by obnoxious holographic billboards dubbed “solograms” that are borderline parodic in their futuristic exaggeration. “There’s kind of a hip culture today that favors the ’80s music, some of the ’80s clothing styles, some of the ’80s design,” says art director Richard Johnson in the film’s artbook, “so it seemed to make sense to us to go that way.” Ironically, this very attitude of retro-future fetishization is what stymies the movie’s potential to become not just an adaptation, but a successor to Ghost in the Shell. As my colleague Astrid Budgor so presciently put, “For Sanders and company to repeat [or reboot] the aesthetic of Ghost in the Shell is to fall victim to stasis—the same stories-high Blade Runner billboards, the same exoticized neon Japanophilia, the same feminized androids [...] It serves no purpose other than hollow nostalgia.” Nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake only serves to pamper an audience with a safe and antiquated vision of the future while denying them the ideas and questions necessary to confront the present. It would be glib to compare Sander’s Ghost in the Shell to that of the 2014 Robocop remake because, for all of that film’s faults, it at the very least attempted to engage with the pressing concerns of its present by eschewing Reagan-era reverence and instead contextualizing its premise alongside the American military’s growing reliance on drone warfare. Sander’s Ghost in the Shell has no such parallel.
For every new element that Ghost in the Shell attempts to add to the visual lexicon of the series, it is obnoxiously dwarfed by an avalanche of scenes and references cribbed from the series’ twenty-plus year history with little apparent reason other than to looked “cool.” It’s a film of two minds, both well-meaning and misguided, touting a radical reinvention of elements that formed the bedrock of the series’ canon, while at the same time fawning reverently over a broad and anathemic interpretation of the series’ aesthetic. It grasps after the series’ live-action potential and fumbles spectacularly, seldom doing enough to assert its own claim to existence apart from that of its source material.
By the end of the film, one has to wonder just who exactly is this Ghost in the Shell film made for? If you’re a fan of the original and your bar for an adaptation amounts to a feature-length, greatest hits highlight reel of past Ghost in the Shell moments robotically reenacted, then yeah, this one might be for you. For everyone else, it’s a fun, if at times tiresome sci-fi whodunnit with bright colors and fast action. For those looking for an installment in the Ghost in the Shell universe that probes deeper at the questions laid by its forbears in a contemporary sci-fi setting, the movie feels much like one of its many “solograms”—an expensive, artificial spectacle of vibrancy and depth, revealed to be little more than a trick of the light.
Director: Rupert Sanders
Writer: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger (screenplay); Masamune Shirow (based on comic)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk,
Chin Han, Juliette Binoche
Release Date: March 31, 2017
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications such as Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.