It is entirely unfair to compare most adaptations to their original source material because it is an undeniable fact that things will always be lost in translation and the two products will ultimately be different things entirely, but in the case of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, it is completely necessary to make the comparison so as to best understand what the original film did right and what seems to be missing from its most recent incarnation.
As always, please be advised: we’re about to enter heavy spoiler territory.
It was cold and raining Friday night when I stepped out of the movie theater after my viewing of the recently released Ghost in the Shell. The streets were slick with water, reflecting the light from the fluorescent street lamps and store fronts. I pulled my hood over my head and pulled out my smartphone to take a photo of the film’s poster in its outdoors case in front of the theater, so that I could later post the photo to my Instagram account as a teaser for this article. The parking lot was packed with people, although only a small handful of them, including myself, were there to see the film I had just watched.
Nights like that, for me, are perfect, because to me they come closest to capturing what has been for years the prime aesthetic of the cyberpunk genre, a specific set of sensory input that has been engraved in my mind since my first introduction to the genre through the 1984 film Blade Runner. I’m not ashamed to admit that I even own a Blade Runner-style umbrella, lights and all. There’s something remarkable about a piece of science fiction that can capture something so remarkably human within the boundaries of the fantastical and the imaginative. Blade Runner pulled me into the genre with the grit of its fully-realized world and the beautiful integration between science fiction and film noir. In a story that is centered around themes of humanity and what exactly it is that defines a person as a living being, it is amazing to see how wonderfully it meshes with a genre that focuses on an intelligent, deductive mind attempting to pull back the curtain to reveal the worst aspects of people.
And while Blade Runner shall forever remain in my mind as the penultimate experience in the cyberpunk genre, the 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell shall remain a close second. Although lacking the grit and noir of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell channeled something else that ultimately proved just as important: spirit, both literally and figuratively. Ghost in the Shell, like Blade Runner, displayed a desire to tell a story that forced the audience to question what it is that defines a person as a living being, but it took this a step further by questioning the concept of individuality in an information age. This is something that has continued being present in future incarnations of the franchise, most notably the animated television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but those other incarnations are not the focus of this article.
Throughout the entirety of the 1995 film, the protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi is attempting to investigate a series of terrorist acts delivered by a hacker known only as the Puppet Master. In an age where most individuals possess “cyberbrains” that allow them to access the Internet with a mere thought, the Puppet Master has arrived as a hacker who can flawlessly hack into the minds of others to force them down a road that benefits his own goals. The trick is that he does this not by forcing them to act against their own will, but instead he does this by replacing their memories, thereby manipulating them to willingly do things that they would not otherwise do.
In the case of a female politician, the Puppet Master succeeds in hacking into her mind not by directly hacking into it himself, but instead by replacing the memories of two other individuals. The first, a garbage truck driver who has lived alone for the last ten years, has his memories replaced to believe that he has an ex-wife and daughter, and comes to believe that his ex-wife is refusing to let him see his own child. The other, a thug, has his memories replaced so as to give him an interest in a different type of crime altogether. When these two individuals meet, the thug strikes a deal with the garbage truck driver, promising to provide a method of hacking to the garbage truck driver so as to let him get back at his ex-wife. And while the garbage truck driver uses this method to get back at his ex-wife, he is unknowingly hacking into the mind of a completely unrelated politician, giving the Puppet Master access to her mind.
Outside of the fact that the Puppet Master is using people as proxies for his own illegal activities, we’re shown that the process of replacing their memories is, at that point in time, irreversible. When arrested by the police and confronted with the fact that his memories and, by extension, his entire perception of his life is a completely farce, the garbage truck driver suffers a complete breakdown. He hasn’t only been robbed of his memories; to him, he’s been robbed of his entire sense of identity.
Even the Major struggles with her own perception of her identity and individuality. Being that her entire body is synthetic, she spends much of the film questioning who she really is and whether or not there was ever a Motoko Kusanagi prior to her receiving her synthetic body. Outside of one particular moment in which the Major sees her reflection in the surface of water as she rises up from the depths (which is arguably one of the most iconic and most beautiful images in the entire film), there’s a visual sequence about halfway through the film in which the Major travels through the city and, on multiple occasions, sees herself in other people. It’s a representation of her internal conflict as she calls into question what it is that makes her unique from others in an age where all information is in sync and available to all and, as a result, all are in sync with each other.
Her struggle is made worse by the Puppet Master, who is eventually forced into a new body altogether. We’re told that the American government murdered his original body and forced his mind into a new one altogether, but the Puppet Master himself quickly corrects this lie by stating he never possessed a body prior to that point. The Puppet Master, more correctly known as Project 2571, was never a human being. Rather than claiming to be an artificial intelligence however, he claims to be something altogether different: a living, thinking — albeit digital — entity. Of course, the body he chose to be forced into wasn’t just any body, but was a near-copy of the Major’s.
The film ends much in a similar manner to the way it begins. The opening credit sequence to the film is popularly known as the “Shelling Sequence,” for it’s the sequence in which we watch as a human brain is placed into an entirely synthetic body, thus giving birth to the Major as we know her for the rest of the film. This entire sequence is accompanied by a track titled “Making of Cyborg,” and it’s this haunting piece that sets the grand theme for the entire movie: the marriage of man and machine. While the ancient folk music masterfully meshes and clashes with the futuristic sequence of the Major’s body being created (which serves to highlight the similarities and differences between the synthetic body’s construction and a natural human birth), the chorus itself is, fittingly enough, a traditional wedding song. And by the end of the film, when the Major and Project 2571 merge together to form a new type of entity altogether, this recurring theme of the marriage between man and machine becomes complete. All that is left for the Major now, given her new body and her new spirit, is not one but two great wide worlds before her, one physical for her body and one digital for her mind, for as she says herself in the film’s closing, “The Net is vast and infinite.”
Ghost in the Shell was a hallmark film. It was arguably the first animated film to challenge Western audiences to view animation as something more than a childish form of enjoyment. It was entirely an adult film, not due to any amount of violence or sexuality* but due to the fact that it challenged its viewers with serious, intelligent themes and ideas. It wanted its viewers to continue to discuss the film and its meanings long after the film was over. In many ways, the film can be considered an art house flick, something that challenges the viewers not only with its dialogue but with its music and its imagery.
It is because of the major significance of the original film that we must inevitably compare the recently released live-action adaptation to it, much in the same way that we compare different adaptations of the classic Shakespeare plays. To be clear, let me state that I do not hate 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, nor do I not like it. If I were to describe it accurately, I would say that it is worse than it should have been but far better than it could have been, for the track record of live-action adaptations of Japanese animated stories has not been one of many successes.
I will say many things to the film’s credit. Its world feels realized and lived-in, not entirely sterile or overly-spacious like many worlds presented in science fiction films. Its action sequences are entertaining enough. Its special effects are pleasant. Its cast is diverse and enjoyable, and they all succeed in bringing their characters to life. I’m more than aware of the controversy surrounding the choice to cast an American actress, Scarlett Johansson, in the role of the Major, a character that was very much Japanese in the original film, but I will neither defend nor condemn this decision; it’s not the focus of this article.
Where the film fails, I think, is in its philosophy. Going into the film, it felt very much as if the creators feared that the philosophy of the 1995 film would be too difficult to digest for the modern average movie-goer, and so they decided to cut it up into bite-sized pieces. There is nothing wrong with this, but the problem occurs when it becomes evident that they cut too much out. Much of the plot now revolves around the Major coming to the realization that her memories are entirely false and that Project 2571 (no longer referred to in this film as the Puppet Master, and very much human) was a failed attempt to merge a human mind with a machine body, unraveling a major conspiracy. The garbage-truck driver and the thug from the original film have been merged into the same character and, while the sequence of events plays out quite similarly to before and the character’s memories have still been altered, we are shown that his memories being altered is completely irrelevant because Project 2571 directly controls him and forces him to act against his own will. At the film’s climax, there is no merging between the Major and Project 2571: his body is killed and his mind is uploaded to a separate network where it can continue to survive, while the Major remains entirely herself.
The changes made ultimately transform Ghost in the Shell from a film that challenged its viewers to have a deep and meaningful conversation about identity and individuality to a film that is mostly just an action conspiracy flick. Is it a good film? Sure. It’s nothing special, and it’s certainly not great, but it’s good. Does it stand anywhere near the 1995 film? Absolutely not. Was I at all surprised? Not really, for the result was much what I expected going into the film from the very beginning. You can copy the shell all you want, but you can’t copy the ghost.
*While there is a deal of nudity in the film, it isn’t superfluous or without meaning. In addition to its other themes, the film also possesses many feminist themes. Part of these involve the nonchalant portrayal of the Major’s breasts; this first occurs early on prior to the opening credit sequence, so it is only after this moment that the audience is made aware of the fact that the Major’s entire body is synthetic. It is a purposeful choice that highlights our tendency to sexualize and objectify women’s bodies.
All images are taken from Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) and are the property of Shochiku and Paramount Pictures respectively. They are used for non-profit purposes in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine.