Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt
Release date: March 31
“Order ghost in the shell on Tuesdays and get free garlic bread” pops in my head when the title appears (twice, for some reason) onscreen.
Later, Juliette Binoche’s cyber doctor tells Scarlett Johansson’s troubled cyborg cop “It’s not your memories that define you; it’s what you do that defines you.” I turn to a friend in the theater and riff, “Batman told her that.”
For movies like Ghost in the Shell, a remake of the 1995 animated classic, it’s tough to switch off the MST3K side of my brain. It’s hokey, self-serious, and peddles a parade of cliches and expository one-liners. “Initiate hack!” a shadowy guy in a hood grumbles before…he initiates a hack. “I’ll control the Spider-Tank!” the bad guy says before…he controls the Spider-Tank. Not much audience trust. Even before the opening credits, we see Binoche and Obviously Evil Guy plug a brain into a robot body so there’s no doubt in our minds as to the Major’s humanity in this movie. And we already know who the villain is. Alright. Here’s to two hours of zero emotional investment.
And here’s the synopsis: Major Mira Killian (Johansson) works for Section 9, a cybercrime-fighting force. Mira is an amnesiac who, as we immediately learned, received her robot body a year ago and suffers from memory glitches. She keeps seeing fires and temples and temples on fire. Dr. Ouelet (Binoche) says there’s nothing to worry about, though the glitches are clearly linked to Kuze (Michael Pitt), the shadowy hacker Mira’s tracking down. After a series of recreated moments from the ’95 original (the opening credits, the skyscraper dive, the scuba dive, the yacht scene, the hacked sanitation worker, the shallow water fight, the spider-tank fight), Mira finds out the silly truth and the unimaginative movie does nothing with the revelation.
Which is kind of an anomaly. Before this movie, there was the 1989 manga by Shirow Masamune, chock full of interesting concepts and ideas that later adaptations focused and expanded upon. The first one, an animated 1995 movie, is a landmark film that’s been picked apart by everyone from Steven Spielberg to the Wachowskis. The TV series from the early 2000s, Stand Alone Complex, is arguably better thanks to long-form structure that explores a myriad of timeless topics (healthcare, media manipulation, refugees, rising authoritarianism). The 2017 live-action version remixes elements from all previous works and doesn’t know what to do with them besides dutifully remake scenes and match them to an unfortunate story.
The best thing about the flick is its CD-ROM ａｅｓｔｈｅｔｉｃ. But unlike cyberpunk peer Blade Runner, there’s no believable, lived-in grit here. There’s barely a populace, a pulse, or a scene with more than four people in it. The city, the society, is an important part of Ghost in the Shell and here it’s just mid-90s wallpaper. There are no canals—it’s telling they didn’t remake the most important scene from the ’95 original, when the movie stops for a three minute interlude so the Major, and the viewer, can reflect on a city that reflects back on its inhabitants. Nor are there scenes like Chat! Chat! Chat! from Stand Alone Complex, where we see how people use the Internet. Perhaps because the budget was already ballooning.
Music, a vital part of Ghost in the Shell‘s DNA, is your typical doot-doot-doot-doot electronic score. It’s an obvious choice, so there’s no awe. That’s why Kenji Kawai went for bells, drums, and choirs in the original film—sounds of the distant past to contrast the near future. That’s why Yoko Kanno used Every Genre Ever for the eclectic Stand Alone Complex. Clint Mansell does a decent Tangerine Dream impression, but, like most modern movie scores, it doesn’t stick.
Then there’s the casting. It’s embarrassing for the cornball story they decided on. Johansson would be fine if the plot ran in the opposite direction, but that’d require another 2,571 script rewrites. You can tell she’s concerned from her frown and hunched-up posture—okay choices to play a prosthetic being—but that’s all the insight into the Major’s character we get. That, and she’s brash.
In the ’95 original, after Major Motoko Kusanagi fights the guy in the shallow water, she stands over him, resolute. The prey’s been caught. Her partner, a lug named Batou, walks up and covers her naked shoulders with his jacket. The two characters are calm, in control. In Ghost ’17, Major M-name K-name continues to beat the guy and goes into a “Where are they?!” type of tirade like Christian Bale’s Batman. Batou (played by a cartoony Pilou Asbæk) runs up and has to pull her off. Nobody’s in control, and now the scene is one we’ve seen a thousand times before.
The Major lost her nurturing side, too. In the original, she tells Togusa he’s a valuable part of Section 9, an all-cyborg organization, even though he’s mostly organic. She says his humanity is the point, that a system built of components without variety will fail. Togusa then proves his worth, investigating corrupt officials and shooting cars with tracers. Ghost ’17 relegates Togusa (played by a game Chin Han) to exposition, then banishes him to the margins.
There’s not much of a Section 9 to lead at all. We see who I assume is Ishikawa bragging about his new prosthetic liver near the beginning. And sniper Saito shows up right at the end. But, besides a few climactic shots, there’s no real teamwork on display. Aramaki, chief of Section 9, takes a more active role this time around, with a revolver, a body count, and one-liners (“Never send a rabbit to fill a fox”)—probably because they cast yakuza extraordinaire “Beat” Takeshi as a mea culpa to Johansson. Strangely, he speaks only Japanese, which everyone understands, and the editing suggests he’s not on set with the other actors, so there’s not much chemistry between Arakami and his team. There are hints of the fierce, loyal strategist from the Stand Alone Complex series, who can manipulate bureaucracies and out-think his way out of situations without raising voice or fist—but for the most part, here, Aramaki’s a gangster. Pow! Bad guy’s dead.
Which brings us to the story. Basically, it’s a copy of the 2014 RoboCop. In that pointless remake, Murphy turns into a new type of cyborg created by Dr. Norton, a well-meaning dope who works for the corporate bad guy. With the help of some cop buddies, Murphy uncovers a conspiracy behind the company’s involvement with missing weapons. Dr. Norton saves Murphy’s life at a critical point. Then Murphy goes rogue, fights a mech (ED-209), the bad guy’s shot dead, and Murphy gets his body restored and returns to duty.
In Ghost ’17, Mira turns into a new type of cyborg by Dr. Ouelet, a well-meaning dope who works for the corporate bad guy. With the help of Section 9, she uncovers a conspiracy behind the company’s involvement with missing runaways. Dr. Ouelet saves Mira’s life at a critical point. Then Mira goes rogue, fight’s the bad guy’s mech (Spider-Tank), bad guy’s shot dead, and Major gets her body restored and returns to duty.
And there was so much potential. Just look at this Twitter thread from a forward-thinking artist who worked on the film’s pre-production. When Ghost ’17 (coming soon from Blumhouse) was threatened ten years ago, it definitely had me dreaming. I wrote my own live-action synopsis. The plot involved a terrorist against the rise and acceptance of human augmentation. Turns out, the mastermind is the scientist “father of cyborgs.” He regrets his role in it all. The Major, a direct product of his work, would disagree: “You can’t erase progress.” (Or something.) She’d uphold the law, but ultimately question her role enforcing a status quo where immoral corporations continue to profit. Maybe I was onto something? What I wasn’t onto was appropriate casting. My mid-2000s dream cast included Karl Urban as Batou and John Hurt as a whitewashed (whoops) Aramaki. The Major was tough to pin down. How do you cast a character as interesting and multifaceted (often literally) as Major Motoko Kusanagi?
Well, as we learned, you don’t cast a white actress. Especially when, in the third act of your 2017 movie, it’s revealed Mira is actually the brain of a Japanese girl named Motoko, who was kidnapped by the evil robot company, had her mind wiped, and placed in Johansson’s body. Baking whitewashing into the script isn’t exactly the best way to justify a years-long casting controversy. Especially when, after hearing how “beautiful” and “perfect” Mira is, there’s no biting commentary, satire, or any self-awareness about the implications at play. Who thought this was a good idea? Who let Johansson say, in another feat of Paramount cluelessness, her character is identity-less when that’s not the case? Not only is the reveal tone deaf, weird, and unnecessary, it’s belabored. When the Major, having found out the truth, meets Kuze they call each other by their real Japanese names: Hideo and Motoko. It’s cringe-inducing to the point you can almost hear the actors doubt themselves. It doesn’t help Michael Pitt’s Kuze kinda looks and sounds like Xavier: Renegade Angel.
(This article about four Japanese actresses after they saw GitS ’17 cuts to the beating, organic heart of the whole matter.)
It’s a wonder no one in the production stood up and said “Uh, this is weird. And dumb, and hey, ain’t like ScarJo’s gonna give back that $10 million, so, let’s rewrite the whole script. Because the spine of the movie doesn’t work. Why would the Major care about her origin? She isn’t Jason Bourne, she’s a cyborg cop in the future with an artificial body—possibly mind, too. By the way, that’s why we shouldn’t show off her brain in the opening credits because that would kill any question as to whether or not she’s human or artificial intelligence. Clearly, you guys saw the original, but did you watch it? We can’t just graft a superhero origin story onto this character and expect it to work. We can’t just say ‘Well actually, she’s Japanese!’ and have people accept that. That’s absurd. Plus, we’re literally recycling dialogue from Batman Begins, a movie from 2005 that everyone’s seen—wh, what are you guys doing—hey, get off me! H-help!”
Then I get thrown off the set and into a backlot dumpster.
If Ghost in the Shell ’17 is supposed to be about transcending body, memory, identity, race, and what makes a human human, I got none of that. At one point, Dr. Ouelet says of Major/Mira/Motoko, “She’s more human than human!” and I was like, “Huh? How? Why?” Because the movie does no work to convince you of anything.
When the hacked sanitation worker realizes his memories are false he waves around his holographic photo like we’re supposed to care. But there was barely any setup for his involvement in the movie. Then, instead of continuing to live with the harsh truth as in the 1995 original, Kuze hacks him again so he commits suicide. When it’s time for the showdown between Kusanagi and the Spider-Tank, her body faces far less damage than in the bloody, sinewy original. When Major née Kusanagi meets her Japanese mother, she says “You remind me of my daughter” even though they just met.
The dimwitted choices continue all the way to the end. After vanquishing Corporate Bad Guy, Mira-slash-Motoko obediently accepts her role as the Major, repeats the “What you do matters more than your memories” soundbite, and continues to work for Section 9. Oh! Okay! After all that? After learning you have a Japanese mom and your brain was ripped and forced into a robot body? That’s soul-shattering stuff, to find out you were created to serve the police group you’re now commanding. And you’re still gonna lead ’em into the fray? That’s a depressing idea. Yet the movie’s happy ending treats her decision heroically, complete with final shot of Major Kusa-not-gi diving off a skyscraper, activating invisi-camo, and ScarJo, looking satisfied, waving “bye-bye.”