Thoughts on and review of Ghost in the Shell (2017)

There are spoilers in this. Seriously – see the film before reading this. For the TL;DR people. – I like the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell better than the Anime movies or TV series.

Ghost in the Shell has developed into a cult fan favourite over the last two decades. Lots of people are very invested in the 1995 Anime film, the Anime sequel film titled Innocence, and the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. All these were based on the Ghost in the Shell Manga books. I have the DVD's sitting here on the shelf. They are good, but I’m not as invested in them as some people are, nor do I consider them to be masterpieces. It’s okay that others think they are. As I’m known to say; if we all liked the same things it’d be crap. (That sentence is paraphrased from a Roger Taylor interview he gave backstage at the Queen 1982 concert at The Milton Keynes Bowl.)

This year we got the live action adaption of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. It arrived with a bit of controversy regarding the casting of Johansson in what many people see as a far eastern role. I never had any problems with the choice. Firstly this is a Hollywood film, and the current thinking in the studios is to put a well-known actor to American and European audiences in the lead to help fill seats. Secondly, and more story related, the character Johansson is playing is a cybernetic human with a full body prostheses with just a human brain in an android “shell”. This body is artificial and can have any appearance the manufacturers decide. The first scene of the film shows that the person the brain comes from is Asian (Played by actress Kaori Yamamoto). I had no issues with Johansson before seeing the movie, and afterwards, I have to say she was perfect for the role.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a technically advanced mid 21st-century Japanese city called New Port City. Due to geopolitical events and war Japan is a major world power and the population in New Port City is very multicultural and has lots of ethnic mixing. In this future, the boundaries between humans and computers are essentially nil. With lots of cybernetic enhancements available to anyone who can afford them. What it means to be human when more and more body functions are enhanced or replaced by cybernetic parts is the central theme of Ghost in the Shell. The ghost refers to a person's consciousness or spirit, and the shell is the body that this ghost inhabits. Johansson plays a character called Major Mira Killian (her name at the start of the film anyway) who is the first successful full body prostheses with just the brain from her original remaining in a cybernetic shell. So the Major is an extreme version of the Ghost in the Shell paradox. Is she human? This idea of ghosts or spirits inhabiting inanimate objects, but still having some vital aspect, is a big part of the Japanese Shinto tradition, in which they are known as Kami. Or so I understand, but I’m not an expert. I don’t buy into it myself as I’m a strict materialist, but it’s a good premise for stories that address what it means to be human.

Plot wise the new 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell starts a year after Johansson’s character has been ‘born’ as a cyborg. She is part of a government security team called Section 9 that is tasked with dealing with cyber-related crime. Someone is killing scientists and managers from Hanka Robotics, the corporation that made Major’s cybernetic body. Investigating these deaths leads Section 9 to someone called Kuze (Michael Pitt). He captures Major when they do a raid on his location and tells her that the story Hanka Robotics told her about her origins is lies, and that the hallucinations she has been experiencing are her real memories that are suppressed by the drugs Hanka Robotics give her. Kuze says her parents didn’t die in a terrorist attack on refugee boats and that Hanka didn’t save her, but in fact stole her life for their own cybernetic soldier program. As they did to him, but he was a failure. Kuze lets Major go before he escapes, and she disappears into the depths of New Port City before confronting Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), her Hanka Robotics creator, and getting the truth from her. Ouelet tells her that Kuze was one of 98 previous failures that led to the success of Major. Ouelet is ordered by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) the head of Hanka Robotics to terminate Major after she gives herself up to security. Instead, Ouelet helps Major escape and gives her details of her real past. Cutter attempts to kill Major and the other members of Section 9 to cover up the fact that Hanka Robotics had been abducting runaway teens off the streets to provide the brains for the full body prostheses experiments. Section 9 Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) kills Cutter after Major survives an attack on her and Kuze in New Port City. The film ends with Major back working with Section 9 after her cybernetic body is repaired, but this time under her real name of Motoko Kusanagi.

From a craft perspective, I loved this film. Johansson is excellent as the Major. Her portrayal of the angular and stymied movements of the artificial body are subtle but excellent. She walks and moves fluidly, but just different enough from a real human to signal that Major’s body isn’t human. The depiction of New Port City is incredible. With advertising holograms sprouting all over the place in the more upmarket areas, and plenty of squalor down in the narrow city streets. The CGI is great except for one bit near the end when Cutter is attacking Major and Kuze with a remotely controlled Spider Tank. There is a bit in which the Major is running away from gunfire and rockets where she jumps up on pieces of falling masonry to get to an overhead walkway. It looked wrong and rushed. I read somewhere that the CGI was only finished 2 weeks before release. So maybe they ran out of time. There is an excellent scene in which Major does a deep dive into a damaged Geisha Bot to read it’s memories before they fade. Inside the memories, you can see objects dissolving to pixels and dust as they fade away. That one weak bit of CGI at the end was definitely an aberration.

The subplot towards the end in which Major regains her identity as Motoko Kusanagi and reconciles with her mother Hairi (Kaori Momoi) is fantastic. The scene in their apartment is wonderful. The counter-play between the facially expressive mother and the passive android Major is excellent. As is the graveyard scene where Motoko tells her mother that she doesn’t have to come here anymore to see her grave.

Pilou Asbæk is excellent as Batou, and he and Johansson work together well. I liked that we get to see the origin of Batou’s cybernetic eyes in the film. The rest of the cast are also great. The music was probably not as good as the Anime film from 1995. Some of the same themes are in both, but the new one didn’t leave the impression with me that the 1995 music did.

But overall I like this 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell more than the Anime versions. I went to see the new one several times in the cinema. I loved it every time. I watched the Anime version one day before going to the new one. It confirmed my view that the new one is better for me. But I’m not a big Anime fan. The fact that both exist is good. Having the new one doesn’t mean that the 1995 Anime, or the Manga books, are confined to history. It’s possible to like all, some, or none of them. I’ll be very surprised if Ghost in the Shell 2017 isn’t on my top 5 list of films at the end of the year. If it hadn’t been for that dodgy bit of CGI in the Spider Tank scene, I’d have rated it 10/10. As it is it's a 9 and I can’t wait to get a copy for home viewing later this year.

From a business perspective, the takings are creeping up towards a point where it might break even. Currently, it is sitting on $164M in box office takings, with a week of international takings still to be added. The production budget was $110M with probably about the same for marketing. Hopefully, DVD and download sales and TV licensing later in 2017 will tip it into profitability. I would love to see more films in this franchise with this cast.

As an aside. I can highly recommend the question 'What To Think About Machines That Think' that has 192 essays on topics relevant to the issues raised in Ghost in the Shell.