It’s not just the shell, it’s what’s inside that counts
I didn’t think they would screw it up that bad, but they did.
Now let’s pause a bit and say, before we start caterwauling about this version versus that version, that there may be some real cultural differences that would cause thematic or idea loss in transfer to another culture. Having paid lip service to that, I will go on to say some of the biggest themes in the original was lost not by cultural differences but by misunderstanding or just plain ignoring them.
Yes, there are spoilers here. Many spoilers.
The live-action 2017 Ghost in the Shell was already steeped in controversy even before the film was released in the casting for the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi. A Japanese or at least Asian actress should have played the part, the criticism goes, not a white actress in the Hollywood mold no matter how much box office she’d pull in. Still, if you have to hire a white woman, you could do a lot worse by not casting Scarlett Johanssen, given her performances in Lucy, Her and Under the Skin. Plus, that voice – there’s no mistaking her for anyone else.
Mamoru Oshii, the director of 95 Ghost, has said it the Major is a cyborg with an artificial body so it doesn’t matter what she looks like on the outside (or who plays her). If that’s the case, why is she even female? And why so voluptuous, especially for an androgynous being? It could just turn out that if you’re going to put a human brain into shell, it might be better psychologically to match gender characteristics to the sex of the donor. Some people might not be able to relate to a robot or android or cyborg who doesn’t look human, but then there’s the problem of the “uncanny valley” wherein an android or robot or cyborg looks mostly human but not quite, thus eliciting feelings of revulsion among other humans [cf. Polar Express]. (Honest Trailers went ahead and censored the Major’s fake nipples in the 95 Ghost video apparently because they looked too real and elicited not revulsion but other physiological reactions, at least for the men. For women, I dunno. I wonder if anyone has even asked them.)
But that’s not the first question that should’ve been asked, and that question is “Why do you need to do a live-action movie in the first place?” Hollywood is going full speed ahead on this and damn the torpedoes. Disney’s got Beauty and the Beast this year, Jungle Book last year, Lion King in the future, and many, many more in the farther future. Wasn’t the original good enough? Is there some shortcoming in the original animation that disappoints and leaves viewers unfulfilled? (In the case of Jungle Book, yes; the other two, no.) Plans are afoot to do this live-action baloney to another Japanese anime, Akira (and if there are gods in this universe, please don’t let that happen). Just because you have the technical capability to redo your animated films into “reality” doesn’t mean you should. Go find or write a new, original story and dazzle us with that.
Alas, Hollywood finds it easier to remake something than start from scratch for the big movies. It speaks to the financing and risks associated with making big films, but also people who grew up with watching the original films saying “I can do better.” Turns out, that’s not always the case.
The 1995 Ghost in the Shell was a thrilling ride into future, with human-machine interfaces and technical gizmos and the electronic cityscape. The Major is a combination of human brain in a cyborg shell, and she begins wondering about her past and her future. In the meantime, she and her colleagues in Section 9 are trying to find out who’s hacking personal memories and making supposedly free-will humans do their bidding. Along the way, the film gets philosophical on what it means to be human in the face of encroaching technology.
In Japanese anime (and the manga sources for many of the films), time is set aside for philosophical introspection, often in slow, meditative scenes without dialog. We’re given time to breathe and ponder before the next action sequence. Not so in in an American film. Introspection is outward, not inward, usually explored with another character even if that character is never seen again.
We get little introspection in 17 Ghost as opposed to 95 Ghost. Gone from 95 is the scene where, as the Section 9 crew loads weapons and prepares to face the enemy, Togusa asks why he, as a mostly human mundane police detective, was recruited by Section 9. Because they need the outlook from a different perspective, he’s told. Gone is the scene when the Major is riding a slow ferry along a canal, taking in the cityscape as music plays in the background. She spots a woman who looks amazingly like her in an office building. It’s just the Major’s expression telling us she has many, many questions about herself, but not a word is spoken. In 96 Ghost, the Major never really finds out about her past, or if she even has one. In that film, the past isn’t as important as the future.
In one of the main scenes of 95 Ghost, the Major goes diving in the river. Batou, one of her Section 9 colleagues, asks her why she does it if it frightens her and she says fear is one reason why; not many things can scare a cyborg. They get philosophical, and at one point he Major speaks in an odd voice. The scene is in 17 Ghost, but bereft of philosophy from the secondary voice. The conversation is just surface, no introspection.
The 2017 Ghost also is afflicted with a Hollywood disease of Everything Has To Be Explained. Example: I was perfectly satisfied with the knowledge that a small band of rebels managed to steal the plans for the Death Star; I didn’t need to know who they were or how they did it. But now we have an entire movie explaining it. I was OK with knowing Han Solo was a smuggler and a rogue, but now we’re going to have an entire movie to explain how he got there. (More profits for Disney being another motive, of course).
17 Ghost is all about the Major’s backstory, something 95 Ghost only hinted at. She finds out she’d been lied to about her origins. She’s egged on by a mysterious hacker who’s also killing the scientists involved, as it turns out, in the creation of the cyborgs. This leads to the big, bad corporation that made her first by murdering her and stealing her brain. She’s the 99th effort to meld mind and machine, the other 98 being failures, some of them her friends who were killed in the same raid she was. So the CEO becomes the real bad guy — big cliché No. 1– and she has to turn rogue in her search for Truth – big cliché No. 2. (On a motorcycle – big cliché No. 3.) We also find out how Batou, a colleague from Section 9, lost his eyes and had them replaced with super-tech lenses. I was satisfied not knowing in 95 Ghost; indeed, I thought he’d had the procedure done voluntarily.
One thing we – meaning Hollywood – should have learned by now is that translating anime into live action has some real problems. So it is here: The Major’s body looks heavy and awkward, as opposed to lithe and limber in 95 Ghost. (Both versions make the same mistake, though. When the Major lands on a roof, it partially collapses under her because of her weight. But why? By the time the movies are set, newer materials should be available, materials that are strong yet light and flexible. Remember, when the Major starts one of her super-human runs, she’s got to accelerate all of that mass. Yet neither movie shows that as a problem.)
The neon-lit megacity with tall skyscrapers, huge blocks of residential towers, small open-air food vendors and giant advertising holograms has now become its own cliché. Blade Runner started it in 1985, though Japanese manga had been moving in that direction. But more movies have been slavishly copying it. Blade Runner was a breakthrough in showing the gritty, multicultural, techno-city of the near future, but the time has come for someone to break that mold and show us something different.
References to The Matrix and Blade Runner are obvious for the 2017 version. One influence not mentioned, though, is Dark City (1998), especially the scene where the doctor is about to wipe out the Major’s memories with some kind of a hypodermic needle. However, the doctor changes her mind and instead gives the Major something to fight back with. Sound familiar?
17 Ghost tosses the biggest main theme of 95 Ghost, that of the future of human and machines, the future that Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been warning us about. The villain in 95 Ghost isn’t really a villain; he’s an artificial intelligence created in the lab. He escapes because he wants to answer that same question: Who am I? He discovers Major Kusanagi, and is intrigued by her because of her human-machine split. In the end, they combine to form an entirely new life form. “Where does the new mind go from here?” she asks as she looks out over the city.
None of that in 17 Ghost. The Major (given another name for most of the movie; it’s only later does she realize her real one) tracks down her past, finding her mother and realizing that the bad AI was one of her fellow artists that the evil corporation killed. “I’m not ready to leave,” she tells the AI, so she stays and remains the same. We last see her standing on a roof, same pose as at the beginning of the film, ready to fight for justice. And so begins Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. No new life forms, no new experiences. Just the old human conditions and experiences.
I almost walked out of this, but I waited because I wanted to see the end. I knew I was going to be sorry, and I wasn’t disappointed. The 95 Ghost in the Shell isn’t a perfect movie, but it does bear rewatching. The new version cut and paste many scenes from the first, but it sucked all the life and intrigue from them. The 17 Ghost does get one thing tight, and that’s the caring the personnel of Section 9 have for each other. There are some nice visuals and performances, but none of this is enough to save it. The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is OK, but they tossed the original music except for a little sample over the credits.
Again, we have to ask: Was this necessary? Can’t we leave well enough alone?