The producers of this week’s new Ghost in the Shell film must really believe nobody has seen its source material. That’s the only way to enjoy this live-action reboot: oblivious to 1995’s original anime film or its manga comic-book precursor. Scarlett Johansson runs around futuristic, CGI-filled worlds in a skin-tight outfit. She shoots guns, kicks faces, and beats the bad guys. Not bad.
But this pedestrian action movie looks nigh unbearable through the lens of the original series. Every bit of social commentary and science-fiction mystique that made the Japanese film and books so stunning has been wrung dry. Respect for the viewer goes into the garbage, replaced by an obnoxious, paint-by-numbers plot of good versus evil. And while I went into my screening ready to laugh off rumors of cast white-washing, I left the theater aghast at how blatantly that issue figured in the final product.
When Ghost in the Shell reached theaters in 1995, it was one of the sci-fi film genre’s only iconic combinations of high-action setpieces and “how tech influences our lives” plots. That, of course, changed once The Matrix entered the film lexicon, but Ghost in the Shell really nailed it first—and as an anime, it never quite reached the heights of popularity it deserved.
A live-action reboot seems like a solid way to right that wrong, and the film’s decades-old template still feels topical: humans toy with robotic upgrades; governments and major companies embrace the robotic future a little too much and get burnt as a result; characters mull the impact of how life is changed by a fully connected world. But this live-action reboot doesn’t just miss the subtle interactions, buried beneath the basic-plot surface, that made the original such a remarkable film. It also nukes the entire plot structure.
Johansson stars as Major, an almost entirely robotic human. Roughly one year before the start of the film, set in a vaguely East Asian city smothered in neon lights and holograms, Major’s brain was salvaged from a major accident and transplanted into an otherwise synthetic form. Now she’s an elite member of a law enforcement agency known as Section 9, and this film starts much like the 1995 anime: with our star jumping from the top of a building to infiltrate a skyscraper and disrupt an assassination attempt.
Director Rupert Sanders wastes no time yanking the plot in a different direction. Instead of Major jumping into this skyscraper to disrupt a diplomatic negotiation—which sent interesting ripples throughout the anime’s plot—she pops into a sales meeting between a robotics company executive and a generic African-nation leader. (This possible plot thread about the spread of human-robotic augmentation across the globe, and “messing with the soul,” is immediately dropped.) The exec is killed anyway, and his robotic parts are hacked by a gang of robotic geishas, including one admittedly awesome-looking robo-spider-human. Other major members of this augmentation company have been taken out, Major and her team come to learn, and a whodunnit begins.
The mastermind behind these killings resembles the “Puppetmaster” hive-mind concept from the original film, though in this reboot, he appears as Hideo Kuze, a character from the Stand-Alone Complex follow-up anime series. Sanders decides to toss details and ideas from both characters into a juicer, then ditches the healthy pulp to reveal a more boring character instead. The subtlety and philosophical ruminations of 1995’s Puppetmaster have been replaced with a sullen, emo-band crybaby who complains about his human-to-robot experiment gone awry. When he eventually meets Major, all he talks about is getting revenge.
That’s a standard action-movie plot driver, sure, but this follows a different character origin story for Major. The original film cast her as a stoic, matter-of-fact examiner of the world around her, and this, combined with her conversations with other Section 9 cops, explored the very science-fiction issue of a soul, and the script never beat viewers over the head with its concept of “ghosts” as souls, as well. But Johansson’s character spends far more energy battling with and talking to herself (which, among other things, leaves the supporting cast in the shadows). She takes medication to stamp down “glitch” hallucinations, which we later learn contain her real origin story. Her handlers overtly and clumsily remind her about her “ghost,” the soul-like concept that was only hinted at in the first film. She complains about feeling lonely and disconnected. She is angrier.
The original film saw Major and the Puppetmaster taking their sweet time, chasing and building respect for each other until they came to agree upon a final, trippy conclusion of uniting as a virus of sorts—not good, not evil, but an exploration of the “human” drive to survive that we may very well be baking into our increasingly automated systems. But Sanders can’t wait that long. He instead sets a “single evil man in an otherwise good government” plot into motion, and Major and Kuze become too jacked up on one-dimensional revenge motivations to do anything other than chase the bad guy down and kill, kill, kill.
I regret consenting to this film
Nevermind that Major glosses over the dozens of people whom Kuze kidnaps and tortures as part of his revenge “network,” nor that one of the major plot threads now revolves around government bureaucrats suddenly, and conveniently, changing their minds to enable Major’s eventual revenge plot. The entire film takes a dump on every cool, intriguing, and subtle concept in the 1995 film. Sanders inserts a few obvious throwbacks, including a zillion-fingers typing android and a couple of guys driving around town in a garbage truck. But these are so bizarrely disconnected from Sanders’ version of the story that they look like they were filmed solely for the sake of this movie’s trailers—to assure worried fans that they’re in good hands. They’re not.
Major also repeats a bizarre catchphrase while completing work-related tasks of naming herself and saying “I consent,” which is only weird because the original series played with and asked questions about concepts of free will and human autonomy. Not here. Characters never pause to reflect on the nature of their humanity, nor do they ponder how network connectivity and robotic augmentation mask the terrifying notion that we’re all just automated machines, doing as we’re told. Consent as a concept is wasted as a catch phrase, and it only pays off as a cheesy exclamation point to a kill at the film’s climax.Bizarrely, this new Ghost in the Shell slams head-long into questions about Johansson’s casting. We come to find out that her character’s original source brain came from a 20-something East Asian woman named Motoko Kusanagi, which is revealed when Kusanagi’s fuzzy flashback form runs smack into Major. Yet even after this revelation, Major continues repeating the film’s mantra: that our actions define us, not our past. To drive this point home, Major has the nerve to go to Kusanagi’s grave at the film’s end, where her mother is standing and crying, and tells her, “You don’t have to come here anymore.” Culture? Tradition? Mourning? Pfft. Your new, improved white daughter is here with no pesky memories of her old life!
The original film isn’t an untouchable anime opus. Its sleepily slow pacing could have been tightened, and the script has its potholes. A live-action reboot may never have lived up to some of the original film’s concepts, such as the maelstrom that is East Asian politics, but it could have kicked a lot of ass by at least retreading the basic plot details. Even today, the original feels like a topical, modern commentary on an Internet-of-things world—and that could have been easily reheated. Plus, this reboot deserves credit for a few cool CGI and action moments, along with perfectly solid action-movie acting performances. Johansson makes the most of the script and motivations she’s given, and Pilou Asbæk (Johannson’s co-star in Lucy) is a pitch-perfect choice to play her police sidekick Batou. (Plus, that character’s implanted, robotic eyes look killer in this live-action version.)But in this reboot, new, compelling plot threads are left to languish, and the original, genre-defining plot is carved up in the service of one of the more fine-but-forgettable action films in recent memory. It’s like someone turned Gone with the Wind into a buddy-cop comedy starring Scarlett and Mammy. This reboot couldn’t have missed the point harder.