Adaptations are always a tricky business, especially when the source material is as beloved and influential as the original Ghost in the Shell franchise. There’s pressure to please both longtime fans and newcomers alike, and rarely is everyone satisfied. The backlash about this particular version began as soon as the cast was announced, which filled a very Japanese role with a very white Scarlett Johansson. (The fact that many people weren’t surprised by this whitewashing is an indication that it happens far too often in Hollywood.)
But casting aside, director Rupert Sanders’ adaptation faced another obstacle—this one unavoidable—before any cameras started rolling. The original story, released almost thirty years ago in 1989, was at the time visually and thematically groundbreaking. It’s been cited countless times as the inspiration or influence for films ranging from The Matrix to Avatar. Thus, watching Ghost in the Shell in 2017 might feel a bit…derivative. Although this is an inevitable condition of art-making (a process which is and should be in conversation with work that came before it), I couldn’t help wonder if some of my disappointment in the film stemmed from feeling frustrated that I’d been robbed of the awe felt by first-time consumers when they experienced the original.
This version of the story picks up with Major Mara Killian, the lone survivor of a ship attacked by terrorists, shortly after she’s been rescued. Though her body was destroyed, her brain has been salvaged, and scientists from a corporation called Hanka Robotics, which specializes in artificial intelligence technology, have built her a new one. She’s heralded by her creators as a miracle, dubbed “the first of her kind,” and declared “more than human; more than AI.” This sets her up as a sort of mythical, Luke Skywalker-esque Chosen One, someone whose uniqueness will dictate her destiny. Major uses her enhanced skills as a member of Section 9, an anti-cyber terrorist organization led by the wise but remote Chief Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). When a mysterious figure called Kuze (Michael Pitt) starts targeting members of Hanka via “cerebral hacking,” Major and the rest of Section 9 are tasked with discovering his identity and stopping him.
Use of such lingo helps establish Major’s world, which is fairly well-realized, though not quite as visually innovative as I’d hoped. A coiled, cylindrical tenement building from Major’s past feels both futuristic and worn out, and provides a stark contrast to the skyscrapers and neon lights of her new life. A Coliseum-looking cemetery, with mausoleums packed together like spectators enjoying stadium seating, is a sobering reminder of death, the great equalizer. Enormous, cartoon-like holograms loom creepily in the spaces between skyscrapers, as if watching the human drama below. Almost everyone who populates the streets and alleyways has been robotically enhanced; some for pleasure (like the man with the artificial liver so he can drink more), others out of practicality (blinded eyes replaced with x-ray vision). People communicate via “mind coms” (telepathy), and some can even explore each other’s thoughts and memories. While this is all cool, it might feel a little redundant to an audience who’s already experienced Blade Runner, Minority Report, or Looper.
But the biggest weakness of Ghost in the Shell is not that it lacks originality, but that it fails to thoughtfully explore any of the extremely compelling questions that it presents. It’s not enough to posit broad musings about humanity and technology, because at this point we’ve heard them before. When characters say things like “You’re reducing a complex human to a machine” or “You’re not the same as them; you’re not a robot,” it feels like being banged over the head with a thesis statement. What’s more, in 2017, artificial enhancements and highly evolved computers aren’t anomalies; we live in a world with synthetic hearts and plastic hips; we have wildly complex algorithms and the internet. Our science fiction must transcend mere technological inventiveness, because what was once fiction is now reality. Ghost in the Shell spends too much time ogling how interesting it is that technological advances create ethical dilemmas with moral repercussions, but not enough time exploring what these dilemmas and repercussions actually are. Lines like “Your shell belongs to them but not your ghost…remember that,” and “We see our uniqueness as a virtue…only then do we feel at peace” are an attempt to convey the emotional impact Major’s unique origin has had on her, but they’re heard rather than felt.
What Major really wants to ask is what we’ve all wondered at some point: “What makes me ME?” The answer, which demands more than a Meyers-Briggs classification or summation of our experiences, is of the gravest importance, because it’s followed by a more sobering question: “Can it be taken away?” Unfortunately, every time Major seems about to contemplate these questions, her introspection is interrupted by a machine or gunfight. And I get it—cinematically, it’s more interesting to watch her run and shoot than stand and think. But thematically, “defense of self” (as one character puts it), is a more compelling motivation that simply trying to use someone’s science to out-science them.
Personally, Major’s story was most interesting to me when interpreted as a sort of metaphor for the female experience. Anatomically, her form is hyper-sexualized and clearly feminine, though to her it’s merely a utility. She moves like a soldier, not a seductress. Despite the fact that it houses her brain, her body feels foreign to her—not only because it’s synthetic and man-made, but because it’s treated as the property of the corporation she was rescued by. The disconnect that this provokes, and the realization that the mind and body are separate entities, ones that we must get to know and manage on their own terms, feels almost poignantly familiar. Society can make us feel like our body is the world’s first and ours second. I can’t be the only one who’s spent days puzzling over (at best) or lamenting (at worst) the fact that what I present to the world physically might have very little in common with what’s going on inside my head. That my best work—my thoughts, my emotions, my imagination—what makes me most me—will never be as visible as the body that I have limited control over. What Major understands, and what her story affirms, is that the mind and the body are of equal importance, and that no matter how complicated her origin, she has ownership of—and responsibility to—both of them. There’s a line Major repeats throughout the film, one that moved me more than other more intentionally emotional dialogue: “My name is Major Mara Killian, and I give my consent.” The statement is oddly formal, yet powerfully direct, and it benevolently assumes that people ask before they take. I want more of this woman, this robot human who only had the chance to show glimpses of the thinker and doer that she is.
Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack in Ghost in the Shell if you’re willing to put in the time, though I can’t say with confidence that this version merits the effort. As a stand-alone action film, it’s fun to watch even if it’s ultimately forgettable. Its flaws are not what’s onscreen, but what’s left off. As part of Scarlett Johansson’s oeuvre, it has me wondering if it’s more than coincidence that four of her recent films are about not-quite-human women (Under the Skin, Her, Lucy, and Ghost in the Shell). (Is SHE a robot?!) And as the most recent contribution to a respected franchise, it serves a worthy purpose of making a new generation curious about the source material. I’ll excuse this film for being mostly shell, but only because I believe its ghost is still out there somewhere, and that it’s worth looking for.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.