What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a machine? What defines identity? What constitutes a soul? Where is humanity, as a species, going, and what is our relationship to technology? Can individuals still exist? If so, can they ever find peace, both within and without? How influential is a 22 year old anime? Weren't Blade Runner and The Matrix, like, totally awesome movies? How underrated is a big budget Hollywood art department? Isn't it great that we're getting another action film starring our most prominent A-list female action star? Are those accusations of whitewashing warranted?
Ghost In The Shell asks a lot of questions, whether you're talking about the original Masumune Shirow manga, the 1995 Mamoru Oshii anime, or this, the 2017 Hollywood-ized live action adaptation directed by Rupert Sanders. Not all of those questions are answered; some because they can't be, some because they're not meant to be. Moreover, the few answers that are given aren't always easy, (especially that whitewashing question in particular). Let me make this clear up front: if you don't have a love for the philosophical, you can just about give up on enjoying any version of Ghost. The 1995 anime is particularly egregious with its philosophical content, sacrificing relatable characters for long, rambling monologues about the soul, technology, life, the universe, and everything. It's less like a cyberpunk adventure anime and more like a 90 minute college course, with hyper kinetic action sequences peppered in. (It's entirely obvious where the Wachowski sisters got their primary inspiration for their Matrix trilogy from.) This new live action version of Ghost is far more accessible, if obviously far less groundbreaking. Its very existence is its own philosophical question: can a big budget ten-years-too-late Hollywood remake be deeply socially problematic and yet be culturally relevant and incredibly visually inspired? In my admittedly white, male, and cisgendered opinion, the answer to that question is easy: absolutely.
The plot of Ghost 2017 basically follows the original manga and anime, but with significant tweaks. While the original depicted a future where human and machine have become completely intertwined and "real" humans are a rare breed, this Ghost presents a future where "real" humans are still a majority, but extensive cybernetic enhancements are now the norm. There is a new, experimental life form out there, thanks to the Hanka robotics corporation: "Major" Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), whose body is completely cybernetic, with the remnants of her human brain inside. Her body, then, is the "shell", and her mind (that is to say: personality, memory, soul) is the "ghost". Major works for anti-terrorist bureau Section 9, who are on the trail of a hacker known as Kuze, who seems to be killing off Hanka scientists who all mysteriously worked on the same project years ago. Major must find Kuze while struggling with her own "glitches" in her memories, unable to recall her real past.
The 1995 Ghost was densely packed with swathes of endless dialogue that doubled as both plot and world building, exploring the intricacies of its brave new future world. Ghost 2017 follows the structure of the original's plot almost to the letter, even swiping some shots and action sequences wholesale. All the context, however, is completely different, as the plot is streamlined to better serve a blockbuster movie narrative as well as create a more emotional arc for the main characters. Simply put, I was far more emotionally engaged in this Ghost than the 1995 one, and that's thanks to the rote, but still effective, tropes that writers Jaime Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger employ here. Major's search for her past, her partner Batou's (Pilou Asbaek) struggle with loyalty to duty versus loyalty to his friends, corrupt CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), conflicted scientist Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche); these are all characters with defined, relatable hopes and fears, and while none of them have much intellectual depth, their emotional depth isn't so easily dismissed for me. The plot may eventually wind through twist after betrayal after discovery, and its all been-there-done-that in the cyberpunk genre (if you've seen Blade Runner and The Matrix, you can guess most of the story) but sometimes the old tricks can still work.
Especially when those old tricks happen in such a visually imaginative, lush film. Director Sanders and his design team (including DoP Jess Hall and production designer Jan Roelfs) could have easily copied and pasted the look of the 1995 Ghost onto the film and called it a day, but while the design certainly feels reminiscent of the original anime, it expands and builds upon it so much that it becomes wholly new. The entire city in Ghost (it's never given a name, though it can be reasonably assumed it's the manga's New Port City) is a heavily Asian-influenced city, albeit with a melange of other cultural ingredients, and is constantly moving. The city is not only packed with people, but saturated with colors, graphics, video, words, slogans. It looks like one gigantic amusement park, and it's not so much dystopian as it is more. It's an extrapolation of where our lust for technology is headed, turning us into a culture that needn't keep our heads buried in our smartphones any longer because our smartphones will be in our heads. Major is searching for her identity in a world that's become almost completely unrecognizable as human, one that is evolving into a pan-ethnic, cybernetic sensory overload. And that's just the environments; the design innovation continues throughout the prop, costume, and character design, with everything from spider-like geisha robots to black mask wearing assassins to Kuze's deformed, broken cybernetic body. The centerpiece is Major's form-fitting suit that can bend light and turn her invisible. While the suit's appearance in the anime was undoubtedly partially for sex appeal (which is certainly a factor here), it feels more functional in this film, and less exploitative. Of course, that could be because Johansson gets to keep her clothes on, unlike her animated forebear.
And that brings us to the topic of Johansson's casting itself, a point of controversy since it was announced, and rightly so. The accusations of whitewashing here carry much more weight then they did with The Great Wall (in which Matt Damon was, while the white male lead, neither playing another ethnicity nor was the true hero of that film), but aren't as obvious as Emma Stone's casting as a woman of Asian descent in Aloha. Without giving too much away, the filmmakers seem to have tried to subvert Johansson's presence by both increasing the diversity of the actors around her, as well as comment directly on it via one of the film's twists, dovetailing it with the story's intrinsic themes of the fluidity of identity and humanity. While admirable and not out of place, these attempts seem more like excuses to cast a more bankable star in the role then someone of the proper ethnicity. However, the biggest argument for Johansson's involvement is her performance itself, which is phenomenal. Johansson could have just played Lucy or Black Widow again and gone home, but she brings to the Major all the transhuman confusion, searching, and longing that her characters in Her and Under The Skin had. It took me until about a third of the way into the film to realize that Johansson was actually performing not like a robot attempting to mimic a human, but like a human mind within a robotic body. It's a subtle difference, but one that pays dividends once you notice it. It does wonders for the film, its story, and her character, as she not only looks cool kicking ass, but allows the audience to invest in her true quest. As I said earlier, there's no easy answer here. Johansson may not be the right choice for the role, but she truly makes the film work.
That's ultimately my feeling on Ghost 2017: it works. It's by no means an original, groundbreaking film as its predecessor was, and exists for no greater reason than to exploit a popular IP. It has large issues with its racial politics, and they can’t so easily be swept aside as they may have been even 20 years ago. However, it’s still a progressive film in its philosophy, staying true to the franchise’s themes of evolution and human enhancement, providing fascinating wrinkles such as Binoche’s scientist character treating Major as less an experiment but more as a mother. And let’s not discount the fact that this is a major studio sci-fi action film in which the lead character’s journey is wholly about her search for identity and her place in the world. There’s no unnecessary nude scenes, there’s no tired and contrived romantic subplot, and it’s refreshing. Like Major herself, Ghost In The Shell has a lot going on beneath the surface. Not all of it is pleasant, but some of it is fantastic. And it looks really damn beautiful as well.