I’m going to split this review into two. One is looking at Ghost in the Shell (2017) as a stand-alone, no-strings-attached movie. The other will be as an anime adaptation. For the former, I’m going to try and discuss the plot, imagery, philosophy, etc, at face-value without reference the source material. Adaptation complaints and noticeable references will be in the latter.
As a Stand-Alone Movie
I saw Ghost in the Shell with my mother and when it ended I immediately asked for her opinion to get an unbiased perspective. She said it was okay. Course, she isn’t a sci-fi person.
The movie begins with the main character, Major Mira Killian, being brought to a hospital following a terrorist attack. The cybernetics company Hanka provides her a new synthetic body, dubbed her ‘shell.’ Her brain, however, is fully organic. This is her ‘ghost.’ Because she has her organic brain and her ghost, she is considered human.
This is the internal conflict of the Major – can she consider herself human? She has trouble remembering her past, which further questions her humanity. She’s also experiencing memory glitches, so she has trouble trusting her own mind.
Because of her cybernetic body, the Major is part of Section 9, a government organization that reports to the Prime Minister but is also somewhat under the control of Hanka.
Over the course of the film, Major and Section 9 are in pursuit of the terrorist Kuze who, as demonstrated in the opening action scene with robot geishas, is committing cybercrimes. Cybercrimes – any illegal activity that relates to hacking a human’s enhancements (erasing their memories, controlling them, etc.)
The plot is new for Western media, but simultaneously stands in familiar territory. The opening action scene is the Major foiling a hostage takeover via fancy parlour; Section 9 focuses on cybercrime, but manages to solve issues with firepower; the setting is littered with tech and holograms, but everyone speaks English, save the boss of Section 9.
Visually, Ghost in the Shell is great. There is the wonderful opening scene where the body of the Major is being constructed. Although all establishing shots of the cities have huge, obnoxious holograms (some near 30 stories tall) it also has good cinematography. In one foot chase, there is a really beautiful shot of an alleyway between apartment buildings. The CGI is near seamless, only very apparent when the Major makes huge jumps (à la Marvel action heroes). Yes, the cybernetic hands and body parts are fake, but they blend very well and never took me out of the scene.
Unlike a lot of films these days, Ghost in the Shell has lots of colours. The Neon-Tokyo-esque setting helps in this aspect. When monotone, the film is in a gray/blue -scale. Characters are easily distinguishable thanks either their clothes or their hair. One character, Batou, has platinum blond hair which, kind of surprising now that I think about it, is rarely seen in film.
Characters are unique. I like the Major’s haircut. I like Batou’s platinum hair and cybernetic eyes. His love of stray dogs was also cute. I like Togusa’s mullet. I like that one Section 9 girl’s dreads. I like how the boss of Section 9, Aramaki, only speaks in Japanese and no one questions it. I like the use of rain coats – weird I know but they’re used in more than one occasion and it worked.
I also really liked how there was no romance. They were certainly instances where it could have happened, and with two different guys, but nope. Thank you! Whoever did that, thank you. Let the Major be strong without a man by her side.
There are problems, however. (Outside of the one currently in the spotlight all over social media)
There was this weird thing about consent. Whenever the Major allowed accessed to her brain (like in the beginning during a checkup, and early in the first third when she ‘dives’ into a geisha’s memory) she says “My name is Major Mira Killian and I give consent to…” I think this was meant as an identity thing because she begins with “My name is Mira Killian” then goes “Major Mira Killian,” than ends the film with “My name is The Major.”
Okay cool, but why make it a consent thing? I guess they couldn’t work out another way for the Major to state her identity aloud. Maybe the producers ran test-screens and audiences didn’t like how scientists were just messing with the Major’s mind, so they wrote in the consent line. But then we see, in the last third, that her giving consent didn’t matter. So was it a power thing? It was originally presented as her having the power but turns out Hanka had the power all along? They could’ve workshopped this one.
We frequently see the Major in a skin-tight body suit, but from the opening sequence of her body being formed I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have nipples or genitals. What I’m getting at is that no one bats an eye when they see her in this body suit. In the middle of the film, however, the Major half-strips out of wet suit and turns away from Batou to do so. So she’s modest about her body, but not when it’s in the body suit? She doesn’t notice when she gets injured, but cares about her co-worker seeing her naked? Kinda weird to me but whatever, nbd.
Some smaller things that kinda bugged me.
I found that, despite a large cast in Section 9, much of them had less than 10 minutes of screen time and therefore, generally unnecessary to the plot.
When we first meet the Major’s mother, her mother just lets her in. Objectively, it’s a woman (the mother) running out of her apartment to chase after her cat which was caught by a stranger (the Major). This woman then invites the stranger into her home for tea. I know the Japanese are hospitable, but this welcoming? I have doubts. From the plot, I can guess it’s because the mother feels lonely, but it’s still a little off.
In-scene, it’s easy to think that the mother somehow knows that the Major is her daughter, but she doesn’t. So, objectively, it’s a scene where a woman is really friendly and confiding with a stranger. Like, the mother reveals a lot of exposition which is central to the plot, but would never happen IRL. I know this is a movie, but this is pushing the line a little too much.
I also found the real villain kind of weak/generic – just some CEO protecting his secrets. The main villain was okay, but I would have preferred his look to be more damaged. But the sound of his voice, you’d think he’s malfunctioning, but he gets along fine except for a limp. Meh.
ScarJo’s acting was like 70% hit, 30% miss. She was so-so when it came to acting ‘afraid,’ but did pretty alright otherwise. Since the Major is basically a robot, ScarJo had good body language. Stiff, didn’t smile a lot, straight to the point with her words. Solid.
Let’s address the elephant in the room – Scarlett Johansson playing an Asian-inspired character. In-story, we learn that the Major is not who she thinks she is. Hanka and associated scientists implanted false memories into her ghost and the glitches she’s been experiencing are her really memories. The twist, though I wouldn’t call it a twist, is that Major Mira Killian is actually Motoko Kusanagi, a rebellious young woman who protested technology and had ran away from home. Motoko’s group was raided in the night and people were used in experiments to create cybernetic weapons – i.e. what the Major has become.
Is this a way around the whitewashing? If so, it’s not a good one. They never explain why she was put into a Caucasian body or given a western name. Strictly from what I saw in the film, I guess I can infer that it was due to the scientists that created her. They were all white and thus, maybe modeled their creations in their image.
Additionally, since Hanka was illegally killing people, stealing their brains, and experimenting on innocent kids, they couldn’t exactly recreate these people in their exact likeness, so I guess being turned white is a form of disguise.
That said, outside of the plot, ScarJo is necessary to the film – for marketing reasons. I like the cast, I think they’re all well chosen, but none have the same star power as Johansson. Regardless of what you hear, about the whitewashing, about it not being fateful to it’s source material, it’s a solid stand alone movie. Without Johansson, it probably would’ve gone unnoticed unless the marketing was super intense.
As an Anime Adaptation
Phew, now I can shed that professionalism and WEEB OUT.
In all honesty, if you’ve seen the 1995 movie, you’ve seen this movie. It’s basically the same plot, just modeled to western audiences. Here’s a list of iconic scenes from the 1995 movie as seen in the 2017 movie.
- The Major falling from the roof, going camouflage, and repelling into a building, shooting people.
- The sequence of the Major’s body being made, including when it gets coated in white goo which is immediately flaked off.
- The scene of the Major waking up in her room, dark against the window.
- The garbage man being remotely hacked by the main villain and the subsequent chase through the puddle-ridden alley.
- The fight between the Major and the hacked garbage man in a watery setting.
- The interrogation scene where we learn the garbage man had false memories implanted.
- A character typing on a keyboard which enhanced fingers.
- The scene where the Major is scuba diving.
- The spider tank shooting at the Major.
- The Major, in camouflage, jumping onto the spider tank.
- The Major subsequently breaking the spider tank, tearing apart her back muscles and ripping off her arm.
- The main villain lying next to the Major, both incapacitated, getting sniped and his head basically explodes.
- The Major jumping from a building in camouflage swipes her hand across her face to complete the look.
Some people speculated that this film was a mix between the 1995 movie and Stand Alone Complex, strictly because of the geisha scene which is the first episode of the latter. All and all, it’s mostly the 1995 movie with the geisha scene strictly used as an action sequence. There is no mention of the laughing man.
The main villain, Kuze, is basically the Puppet Master. Doing research, I’m seeing an Easter egg. In the 2017 movie, Kuze is referred to as Experiment/Project (can’t remember which) 2517. The Puppet Master is Project 2501. Haha, very observant Hollywood, I’ll give you that one.
Honestly, I thought they adapted the 1995 movie extremely well into live action – visually speaking. The sequence when the Major’s body is being made is really good. Though I was really hoping for those iconic credits and the course, but it was a subdued version of that music (another Easter egg, that choir track gets played during the end credits).
The end when the Major rips her back muscles pulling shit out of the spider tank, oof that was good shit. It’s not as visceral as the original, but it hit a sweet spot for me.
I liked Batou’s portrayal. You can’t beat the iconic voice work of Richard Epcar, but Pilou Asbaek was solid. Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki was also really great. Maybe even better than his anime form because he was more badass. Also, he spoke Japanese the whole time. You don’t see people online talking about THAT, but whatever. His hair also had that triangle thing going on which I found fun.
Apparently Saito was in this and I saw him for like 10 seconds not even at the end when he shoots down a helicopter. If he was in earlier scenes he did not stand out and even if you’re a mega fan, you would have no idea that’s him.
Let’s talk about the under appreciated mullet Togusa. Togusa, IMO, is the humour of Ghost in the Shell. He’s the everyman and he makes jokes. HE WAS ROBBED OF SCENE TIME. He’s portrayed by Chin Han, AKA the CEO Lau from The Dark Knight. Every time he was on scene I was like, damn I know I recognize him. I think he buffed up a bit, but it’s also been nine years since The Dark Knight.
Anyway, it’s hard to tell because they don’t really show the back of his head, but Togusa does sport his mullet. It looks so out of place on Chin Han, but it works! I love it! Like seriously, if there’s ever a sequel there need to be more Togusa because even though he had little scene time, he was well acted! I think I heard some of the snark, but with so few lines it’s hard to tell.
Outside of the visuals, however, things were not as well adapted.
If I’m being honest, ScarJo’s portrayal as the Major is not great. Firstly, on a physical level only (not including race) ScarJo is really short! Like, strangely short, especially when we see her and Batou side-by-side. In anime, she’s about a head shorter, but in this I swear it was two heads shorter.
Second, although ScarJo get’s that cool-girl robotic-monotone attitude, she’s emotionally vulnerable. In this movie, the Major does a lot of brooding, self-introspection stuff. She hires an escort to touch their face and understand how it feels. Note – in Stand Alone complex, Major has girlfriends (at least, women who frequent her apartment), so this isn’t unusual to me. It’s the emotional reasoning behind it that’s out of character.
Even though in the 1995 film the Major is very concerned about her ghost, her memories, and whether or not she’s human, she never shows it. Her face is always neutral. This’s why I really like Mimi Woods’ voice work versus Mary Elizabeth McGlynn – for this specific scenario.
The 1995 film is about the ghost philosophy and being human. Mimi Woods is very monotone and stoic in this role. The 2004 television series of Stand Alone Complex, is less about the Major and more about Section 9. In this series, the Major is more playful and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn brings good voice and personality to the characer. There’s no deep introspection about the soul, it’s a series about corrupt politicians and foiling a cybercriminal.
Because the 2017 film is basically the 1995 film, the Mimi Woods version is, IMO, the way to go. Emotionless. Cool.
ScarJo, unfortunately, brings too many feelings to the role. Sure, she doesn’t smile, but she’s vulnerable. There’s the scene in the bar where, in plot, she acts scared when really she’s in control. Sure, okay, I’ll give that one a pass. But then there’s the rest of the movie – her first interaction with Kuze in person, meeting her mother, just before she’s about to be killed in Hanka, to name a few.
I understand you can’t totally adapt the major’s personality and mannerisms from the 1995 movie, but I find it takes away from her character in 2017. The Major is supposed to be strong. I mean, jesus she takes down a spider tank single-handedly! I’d rather she had a ‘fuck you’ attitude instead of what we got.
Honestly, that’s probably my biggest complaint of the film, but here are a few smaller ones.
Section 9 is this huge building by the harbour. Section 9 is supposed to be a secret department that investigates public security shit. They often operate 1) outside of the law and 2) outside of the government’s interests (which is why they deal with so many corrupt politicians). In anime, they aren’t in some modern looking building in a lucrative area of the city. It’s an inconspicuous tower in the middle of other sky-scrapers.
I also don’t like how Section 9 is taking orders from Hanka. Section 9 is like it’s own thing, only really reporting to the Prime Minister (as seen by the numerous times in Stand Alone Complex when Aramaki references the Prime Minister). So, I find it weird they included this, but I understand since they have to link the Major’s shell to Hanka.
Also, they mention Section 6 in the credits, but I don’t think they ever say Section 6 aloud in movie. If I followed the plot correctly, Hanka had some control over Section 6, which is why they attacked Section 9. I think, I’m not super sure on that. But, I’ll give them props for that one, since it means they did their homework.
They really shoe-horned in the garbage man chase. Like, I guess it was executed okay, but it wasn’t organic, that’s for sure.
No mentions of Tachikomas. I guess it wasn’t in the budget but there’s one particular scene, where the Major and Batou pass by a security robot, that IMO would have been the perfect place for a Tachikoma.
Batou was a little too romantic for my tastes. I think it’s mostly because he and the Major were a little too close at points. Like, from the 1995 film and Stand Alone Complex, I do personally think he has some feelings for her, but he doesn’t act on them. It’s feels like senpai-kouhai in those versions. Here, it’s a little too weird. So I’m glad it didn’t go anywhere.
I also really didn’t like the suggested romance between the Major and Kuze. I’m REALLY glad that didn’t go anywhere.
They didn’t do the iconic, hand-over-face camouflage shot well. IMO it was really bad, like goofy bad.
As a Whole, is Ghost in the Shell (2017) good?
As a movie adaptation? Yes. If you liked the 1995 film, you can enjoy this one. You’ll see recognize the iconic imagery, know the characters, and be familiar with the story. If you’re like me, you may find the 2017 Major much less likeable versus the 1995 version. But, I think we can agree that it’s a Hollywood adaptation thing.
As a stand-alone film? It’s just above average. If you don’t know anything about Ghost in the Shell, it is a watchable movie. There is a lot to see in the background, so I think it’s worth one or two rewatches. I think because it’s ‘new’ (thanks to the source material) it’s refreshing. Something to use to cleanse the palette after so many superhero movies.
Is the plot a subversion to the whitewashing? Maybe, I don’t have the authority to say. I think people are too focused on Scarlett Johansson and not the movie itself. This is a seriously diverse cast; Section 9 especially.
Let’s be honest, this isn’t a movie for everyone. My mother is a testament to that. Baby Boomers aren’t going to like it that much. Gen X and beyond? More or less. In an obtuse way, it does speak to the problems of being technology dependent, but it’s still just an adaptation. The source material will always be miles ahead in regards to the hard-hitting philosophy.
Final Rating: 7/10