A crisp, gorgeous, very deliberate live-action take on “Ghost in the Shell”. I hesitate to say “adaptation”, as what this, Rupert Sanders’ 2017 “Ghost in the Shell” film, does regarding other works in the franchise is more complicated and calculated than simply adapting wholesale. He (along with the film’s three credited writers) pulls characters, plot points, concepts, visuals, and music from multiple iterations of the franchise, particularly the original manga, Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” anime film, and the second season of the “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” anime show.
Rather than just mashing the most marketable and recognisable elements together with whatever excuse of plot would carve a through-line through them, Sanders crafts a very self-aware original story prodding at the very issues adaptations such as this give rise to (whitewashing, superficial recontextualisations robbing events of their original meaning, sanitised globalisation quashing unique cultural identities, etc.). This film couldn’t be further from the fanservice-heavy “Arise” films, as it takes elements from other works to spin them into new contexts and ask, if not always new questions, than the old ones in different ways.
The film’s approach to homage goes beyond just the script. While Beat Takeshi and Pilou Asbæk do very solid, likable work in playing their characters very close the previous source material, Michael Pitt and Scarlett Johansson embody more notable divergences from their character’s past depictions. Johansson falls completely into the role, completely believable as a mind unsure of her “own” body from the moment she appears on screen struggling to adjust to new lungs. Every glance, every line of dialogue, every movement is completely in keeping with this new interpretation of the Major. Pitt plays a Kuze of righteous rage and self-loathing, but also driven by very different motivations than the character’s appearance in “Stand Alone Complex”. He sells a completely different approach to his status than the Major, and the scenes between them play very well as both actors approach their roles very earnestly.
The music blends a modern mostly motif-less soundscape courtesy of Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe with occasional purposeful hints towards the iconic “wedding song” that opened the original 1995 film. The visuals of the film go well beyond just reappropriating the look of the city in past “Ghost in the Shell” works, instead offering a stunningly detailed, enchanting cityscape that transcends the “Blade Runner lite” look of most modern cyberpunk films. The film never outright pauses to bask in the glory of its setting the way the 1995 film (and its 2008 sequel) did, but is never hurried in its establishing shots either – clearly the film-makers are rightfully proud of their creation.
Gone is the extensive philosophical exposition and more cerebral nature of the original 1995 film, replaced with more standard Hollywood-esque plot-heavy exposition and a more character-focused story. In many ways this film feels more authentic and human an experience in lacking the constant name-drops of philosophers and focus on concept above character. Gone is Kuze’s overt socialism, and the general political focus of “Stand Alone Complex”, but Kuze’s backstory remains similar, recontextualised into a story placing much greater focus on what humanity he shares with the Major. Gone is the Major’s ostensible Japanese ethnicity, replaced with the film’s secret weapon, what eventually amounts to a daring question of what truly defines ethnicity. In making the issue of Scarlett Johansson’s casting explicit, the film rises above homage to other works and begins to ask the same questions both in-narrative and metatextually – how does one retain their nationality in an increasingly globalised world? Should one do so at all? What value does cultural identity hold in a world where such identity is becoming increasingly divorced from actual physical space? How can corporations manipulate our insecurities relating to such matters? How can we resist such manipulation?
The film doesn’t take the easy route of professing memory as the be-all and end-all of such issues, ultimately concluding consent and mindfulness as the more important concepts as they apply to identity. The illusion of consent comes in the form of both the literally artificial and the metaphorically hollow, and all the noise of an increasingly inter-connected world comes across as the barrier to any mindfulness which enables one to become at piece with their own identity. The interplay between the two concepts is where things get particularly interesting. It’s easy to read a character’s family, memories, ethnicity, identity being erased without their consent as an evil act, but what about a character just passively surrounding to the noise and hubbub of the world, incrementally swapping out natural body parts for cybernetic replacements, constantly awash in an interconnected blast of media subverting all manner of cultural concerns?
Is consent defined purely in strict “I consent” and “I do not consent” statements, or is the mere act of being born into a society and “going with the flow” not quite enough to be truly consent? How can one become mindful enough to revoke consent if they are never taught how to achieve mindfulness in the first place? The Major is instinctively drawn to cold, frightening expanses of nature, wherein her mind’s natural instincts kick in and she becomes mindful, focused, human. But many lack such instincts – through no fault of their own? Batou’s quiet loyalty, Aramaki’s discreet constancy, these showcase their natural humanity, but do all the civilians and action fodder of the film lack such qualities only because the noise of the world has drowned out their chance to develop an inclination for seeking out something different? Both Kuze and the Major end up representing the triumph of surrendering one’s self to a greater cause (be it as grand as liberation, or as humble as loyalty), but only after they gain the opportunity to become mindful enough to recognise what exactly that choice represents.
The film never comes out and explicitly condemns its cyberpunk setting as dystopian, but through contrasting Kuze and the Major’s mindful decision-making in the third act with the litany of characters either dead, underprivileged, twisted, or maimed, a statement can be construed. Such characters suffer due to the institutions of the setting. The great inevitability of the noise and crushing systemic nature of that world have robbed all too many people of their chance to express, if not their humanity than at least their agency, as Kuze and the Major could.
Far more than I expected, the film is a worthy successor to the original 1995 film and its exceptional 2008 sequel in offering not just an extension or homage as most later “Ghost in the Shell” works did, but instead a work that is also contemplative, aware of how to use its genre status for the best, and original through examining its own unoriginality. I give it four beagles, and a spider tank.