The Untapped Potential of Ghost in the Shell 2017

[This analysis contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell 2017]

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders, is not a great movie. That isn’t to say it is terrible. I feel the need to clarify that in a world where sometimes it feels like things are either great or terrible. No, Ghost in the Shell may not be great, but it is an average, entertaining science fiction action flick.

Many will accuse this film of whitewashing, though I would argue many of those people haven’t seen much of the series. The hardcore fans who have seen the series mainly dislike the film for being a dumbed down, poor adaptation. Is it dumbed down? Certainly. Is it a poor adaptation? Well, that depends on your perspective.

Keep in mind that EVERY version of Ghost in the Shell is significantly different from the other. The characters and lore change enough between them that it is easier to think of them as completely separate universes. Even the original manga creator, Shirow Masamune, said there was no definitive Ghost in the Shell. Hell, the original film was an adaptation of the manga and by all merits, it was nothing like the manga.

So in this analysis, I’m not judging GITS 2017 as an adaptation, but simply a new, flawed take on the series. I want to look at how this film fails to capture the essential elements of the series and even look what makes this film unique and the themes and messages that- if executed properly- could have led to a truly different, but all-together great classic.

I will be referring to every iteration of the Ghost in the Shell series and as such will be referring to them like this:

  • Ghost in the Shell = GITS 1995
  • Ghost in the Shell: Innocence = Innocence
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex = Stand Alone Complex
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig = 2nd Gig
  • Ghost in the Shell: Arise = Arise

For the record, I do like this new film, albeit for very specific reasons. Namely, the performances and the references.  The film is very well acted. Scarlett Johannson’s performance of the Major is decidedly more emotional, but it still captures the robotic nature of Major from GITS 1995 when it is most important. Honestly though, the Major changes every time they make a new series so I’m fine with different. Additionally, Pilou Asbæk (Batou), Juliette Binoche (Dr. Ouelet) and especially Kaori Momoi were exceptional.

I also loved that this film relentlessly references the previous entries in the series. It is far more accurate to call this an adaptation of the whole series than an adaptation of just the 1995 movies. Watch the video above to get a gander at some of the references. Clearly, the creators are aware of the source material and have an immense respect for it. However, I don’t think they necessarily understand it.

Part I – A Shell of a Story

Before we begin, let’s take some time to summarize the plot of the new film. Feel free to skip this if you have already seen it and have a good memory of it.

The film begins with Major’s body being built by Hanka Robotics, this film’s replacement for Section 6 from the original. Major wakes up in distress and a woman named Dr. Ouelet tells her she was on a refugee boat that was attacked by terrorists. Major’s memories are fuzzy, but she remembers her name is Mira Killian (Funnily enough, the same initials as Motoko Kusanagi).

Hanka’s CEO, Cutter, tells Ouelet to assign Mira to Section 9. Ouelet protests, but Cutter doesn’t see Mira as a human as much as a weapon and “the future” of his company. The film skips ahead one year later, and Mira is now known as the Major. Section 9 is tracking down Kuze, a terrorist who is targeting members of the Hanka corporation.

After finding and confronting Kuze, she suspects that she may have been lied to. She speaks with Ouelet, who confesses that Major was given fake memories of being a victim of terrorism so she would fight terrorists. Kuze was a failed experiment by Hanka so they could eventually create Major.

Major is brought into custody by Hanka’s Security Force. Ouelet is asked to kill her, but instead, she frees her, giving her an address that will lead her to the truth about who she is. Major escapes the building and Cutter shoots Ouelet.

Major discovers that she was a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi and Kuze was a very close friend and most likely her lover, his full name being Hideo Kuze. Major and Kuze meet again and regain their memories, but must fight as Cutter sends a spider tank after them, trying to wipe out them and Section 9 as well. Kuze dies, but major defeats the spider tank sent after her and gives the order to eliminate Cutter, bringing justice to those he killed to advance his company.

Ghost in the Shell typically has three fundamental pillars in its narrative. Philosophy, political drama and police procedural. These three elements are in every version, but usually, one will be focused on more than another depending on which version you are watching.

In the 1995 film and its sequel, Innocence, there was a huge focus on philosophy, especially the line between man and machine in a post singularity world. Innocence raised the stakes in that regard while also giving a heavy dose of a noir police procedural.

Stand Alone Complex was equal parts police procedural and political drama, all the while still presenting a believable future, with conflicts that are particularly relevant today. The most recent iteration, Arise, is arguably the weakest entry in the series, but still managed to be enjoyed through the animation, fight choreography, and the characters.

For more on the whole Ghost in the Shell series, I direct you to a video by YouTuber Digibro on the whole series.

Disappointingly, GITS 2017 has pieces of these elements, but can’t decide which pillar to focus on. It has its own messages and story to tell but it is also trying to put in all those other elements at the same time. None of the themes can reach their full potential.

The philosophical themes are teased in the first half, but they are abandoned in the latter half in favor of concluding a character driven plot surrounding Major’s past. The police work doesn’t go that far, even though the bits of chemistry between the cast would have made for a great ensemble story. Politics plays no role in the plot at all. Not a huge disappointment to me specifically but it bears mentioning.

It could have been salvaged by cool action and a focus on characters, thus granting it the same credence as Arise, but the action never really amazes. The only characters that really matter are the Major and sometimes Batou. You’d think a film lacking the thematic brilliance of its peers would at least try to present some cool fights but the choreography isn’t anything too special and other times the action is too fleeting or is obstructed in some way.

My big problem isn’t just that the film can’t properly focus on the established themes of the series. It is more disappointing because this film’s spin on the original’s themes could very well have made this movie a classic.

Part II – A Shallow Dive

Both GITS 1995 and 2017 films see Major beginning with very little appreciation for her own humanity and thinking of herself as a tool by the government. Both films explain this by her having very little memory of her life before she became a cyborg. Both films build the foundation of her and Batou’s relationship on their different attitudes towards being cyberized. The inherent difference between the two, thematically, is the way her character arc concludes.

In GITS 1995, the villain was the Puppet Master, a living thinking entity born from the net that resulted from an experiment by Section 6 of the government. The climax of the film saw him merging his consciousness with Major. Her way of escaping her fate as the property of the government was to merge with him and become part of the net. This tied into the films larger message about the post-singularity future

In GITS 2017, she is not transcending humanity, but actively searching for it. This new film does what no other Ghost in the Shell has done. It made Major’s past life as a human integral to her development in an arc. The original only mentioned that She had been in her cyborg body so long that she barely remembers when she was human. Stand Alone Complex established that she was in a plane crash when she was very young, requiring her to get a new body. Most radically, Arise said she never even left the womb before her brain waves were transferred into a cyber brain to save her life.

This is why a lot of Ghost in the Shell fans didn’t care when Scarlett Johannson was cast. The series and the creator have always been vague about her race. The original proposed that in a post-singularity future, ethnic groups will become obsolete. But whereas the original film was a philosophical about the world just as much as the characters, GITS 2017 is a film about a character with the world as a backdrop.

All this extra focus on Major’s backstory gives the film its own lesson about identity that allows it to stand alone alongside its peers. I should mention that the original 1995 film was very different from the original manga so it isn’t that big of an issue that the new film differs from GITS 1995. If a new take on an established universe can present new, interesting thematic hooks then I can accept the changes.

When Kuze lies beside Major after the tank is destroyed at the end of GITS 2017, he asks her to upload her consciousness to a network that he mentions earlier in the film. This was the film’s way of giving Motoko the same choice from the end of the original where she has an offer from another character to transcend humanity. Except for this time, she rejects it.

The way GITS 2017 goes, this moment of Motoko rejecting the transcendence doesn’t mean much. After all, the film didn’t really put a lot of focus on philosophy. But imagine if the film had taken the time to engage with the audience about its philosophy and maybe even spend more time with the characters. This conclusion would be absolutely brilliant.

Kuze makes Major more or less the same offer as the Puppet Master from GITS 1995, she says “I’m not ready to leave this world.” Can you imagine what it would have been like if Major chose not to merge with the Puppet Master? What if she made the conscious decision to stay as she is, even if it meant not being truly free?

In GITS 2017, Major is searching for what it means to be human because she doesn’t remember what is like to be human. And when she does regain her memories of the past, she decides to stay in her position as a member of Section 9. Why? Because she finally found her own identity. She isn’t what Hanka made her be but she also isn’t who she was before she was abducted.

At the beginning of the film, she tells Aramaki “I will find him[Kuze], and I will kill him. It’s what I was built for.” But at the end of the film, when Aramaki asks if she has any final words for Cutter, she simply says “This is justice. It’s what I was built for.”

And so the film ends. Not with Major having joined consciousness with a vast and infinite net, but continuing to fight terrorism with Section 9, probably to protect people from being taken advantage of in a world where even our own brains can be hacked into. She has determined that what makes her “human” is her willingness to act of her own free will, regardless of how much of her is flesh.

I’d say that, on paper, this is an equally compelling take on the themes of identity from GITS 1995. The only thing holding this back these things was the execution and possibly it’s PG-13 rating. At the very least, I can look back on this film and appreciate it as a flawed, but a fun spin on the themes of a cult classic. If there is one thing I want people to take away from this post about the film, it is that.

Despite those flaws, however, GITS 2017 had me grinning from ear to ear at the very end. I’ll be honest, this was most likely because there was a bitchin’ hero shot of the whole Section 9 crew and the classic shot of Major falling while turning invisible. Though, I’d be lying if I wasn’t loving the big middle finger Major gave to the antagonist at the end.

There are so many other possibilities given the technological focus of the world. Themes that could be very relevant in today’s political climate. Stand Alone Complex aired in the early 2000’s and it’s themed ranged from manipulation of the media to the memetic nature of the human communication through the internet. All of those messages are even more relevant now.

If by some insane happenstance there is a sequel greenlit with the same cast, a different writer, a different director and a good action choreographer, I really do believe another GITS 2017 film could be really good. Until then though, Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a perfectly average film, and I’m ok with that.

Thank you for reading this incredibly overdue post that was supposed to be finished closer to the release of the Ghost in the Shell 2017 Blu-ray. This film was not nearly as terrible as critics and fans say. It is a collection of missed opportunities but it’s not like the finished product doesn’t still have some charm of its own and I want people to recognize that. Thanks for reading and as always, see you next time.

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