At the turn of the century, Cartoon Network introduced me and other cartoon-loving aficionados to anime. Having become bored with routine Saturday morning cartoons, I found this new, bizarre art form to be exhilarating. The show that captured my repeated attention was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I was attracted to the hyperkinetic style of anime and cyberpunk philosophy about a future world when technology challenges, if not supersedes, humanity. The Ghost in the Shell series had the depth and pathos for which I yearned as my intellect matured.
My interest in this television series motivated me to obtain and view the 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell. I grew to appreciate how well this franchise incorporated philosophical dilemmas into rich, morally ambiguous crime stories. Superman this was not. Rumors started circulating in 2006 that a live action Ghost in the Shell film would be created. I was very excited about this prospect, including speculation that perhaps it would star Lucy Liu. Then, in 2016, I learned that Scarlett Johansson would play Major Motoko Kusanagi in the film adaptation to be distributed by Paramount Pictures. I was looking forward to its 2017 release. What I recently viewed, however, was disappointingly cyberFLUNK.
One of the hallmarks of good cyberpunk is the exploration of humanity in a post-modern world where technology is the dominant force. This philosophical probe falls short in Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. Technology, in this film, is largely a weapon, instrumental in suppressing the cyborgs’ recollection of their past, and providing a “killer” body. The mantra of the 2017 Ghost in the Shell is that one’s past and memories do not define one, rather it is one’s prospective actions. This repeated advice by the Hanka Robotics leaders is propaganda, serving to motivate the cyborgs not to strain to remember their past identity, but to focus on their anti-terrorist assignments at hand. This guiding principle also serves to hide the evil truth that the Code 2501 cyborgs were captured and transformed into killing machines against their will.
William Wheeler, the screenplay writer, deserves credit for attempting to provide the “real” story of Motoko’s past, which is absent in the 1995 film. Motoko learns she was a runaway teen who was captured by Hanka Robotics and transformed into a cyborg with a human brain and mechanical body, programmed with the false knowledge that she had survived a terrible accident in which her parents were killed. The problem is that Wheeler only scratches the surface of this revelation, frustrating the film audience with incomplete character development. There is no sharing of childhood photos between Motoko and her discovered mother, as is so vitally incorporated into the Blade Runner (1982) plot. Nor is the audience treated to flashback footage of Motoko’s youth and her past relationship with Kuze, a technique which was expertly employed by Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins (2004).
Further limiting the 2017 character development is that Motoko, even after learning the “truth” of her past, reverts to continuing as a Section 9 squad leader. I question whether it makes sense that an anti-technological rebel would voluntarily choose to perpetuate being a technological killing machine. In contrast, the 1995 film provides a more progressive ending as Motoko merges with the mystery hacker, Puppet Master, enabling her to obtain knowledge formerly beyond her reach. When the 1995 Motoko is no longer bound by the constraints of Section 9, she is free to explore the vast open net as a new individual. The evolved 1995 Motoko has noteworthy dialogue with rookie Togusa, promoting the importance of individual perspective, warning against the inbred weakness and eventual death that is the product of overspecialization. This avocation of individuality and diversity has socially redeeming value and merits consideration in the context of an increasingly mechanized future. If carried over to the 2017 film, this theme would have added some much needed philosophical meat.
These limitations of character development and weak philosophical content hamper the audience’s emotional connection with the characters, particularly Motoko. Compounding this effect is Johansson’s rather callous portrayal of Motoko. Perhaps Sanders was drawn to Johansson’s depiction of the lead character in Lucy (2014) when choosing her for the starring role. Lucy is captured and manipulated with drugs after which her brain is altered and she develops a more ruthless and emotionless personality. Lucy succeeds in killing her captors, as does Motoko. Upon re-watching Lucy, it is striking to me how similar the line delivery is by Johansson in these two films. Yet, given that the Ghost in the Shell franchise is focused on the human spirit, I contend the 2017 film would have been better served with a more spirited, engaging performance by Johansson or someone else. Given the absence of a compelling fusion between actress and character, the audience’s thirst for an emotionally moving experience is unquenched. Johansson’s acting only comes alive in her combat scenes, which she does perform well in Ghost in the Shell and her entire film repertoire. Yet, that alone does not sufficiently connect the audience with her.
Another unsettling aspect of Ghost in the Shell is the background scenery. The city scenes with large, interspersed neon signs and holograms do not advance the story, rather they are noise that clutters the film. The only use of setting that works particularly well is the reunion of Motoko and Kuze at the lawless zone where they hid as runaway teens. This is also where they battle the scorpion tank and Kuze dies. Yet, even this use of setting and a climax battle pale in comparison to the final conflict between Blade Runner’s Roy Deckard and Batty in the Bradbury Building. There is far more drama and intrigue in Blade Runner as Batty goes up the building’s levels in the final scene, and Roy’s body begins to shut down until he gives his iconic “tears in rain” speech to Deckard and then finally dies.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell pales in comparison to the 1995 film by lacking a cohesive, well developed plot, substantive themes and a captivating pace. Perhaps the theme song of the 2017 film should have been Nine Inch Nails’ “Copy of A,” with the refrain, “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy.” Wheeler and Sanders attempt to copy various, incongruous elements of past Ghost in the Shell television and film features, but fail to dazzle the audience with any new thought-provoking content of merit.
After my disappointment with Ghost in the Shell, I cautiously look forward to Blade Runner 2049 in 2017. I am hoping it is the premium cyberpunk that Sanders failed to deliver.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.