SPOILER WARNING: Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)
Remakes and reinterpretations are always tricky, and Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017) is no exception. Attempting to adapt the 1995 anime classic of the same name, (directed by Mamoru Oshii), to a live-action format is not an easy task, but the film does try. However, where this venture falls short is that while Ghost in the Shell mostly succeeds in recreating some of the most iconic scenes and characters, it does not come anywhere close to exploring the themes and messages that pervaded the original film. Even the set pieces that have been converted to a live-action setting are not immune from misfire, for as the messages and themes are changed, the settings for these scenes begin to feel more and more forced. The end result is a visually lush film full of interesting-looking characters that simply do not have any substance within them. Not even the Major (Scarlett Johansson) is immune from this, as her initial wonderings about whether or not she is still a human come off more as moody complaining rather than meditation. Ghost in the Shell never dares to dig as deep into the questions of humanity as the 1995 original did, and as a result this effort becomes nothing more than a middle-of-the-road science fiction thriller.
Chief among the issues plaguing the 2017 film is its interest in the background and personal story of the Major. While it is important that the main character be one that is interesting to the audience, the preoccupation that the film has with her frequently stalls and derails the overall potential that Ghost in the Shell has. The 1995 film managed, by way of the thoughts and meditations of the Major (voiced by Atsuko Tanaka) give insight into what she is and what she believes she is. The live-action version does not have this confidence and as a result the Major’s past becomes a core and centrally-featured issue of the film, so much so that it fundamentally derails the film’s third act. The confidence of the film is a key issue when it comes to almost every aspect of the Major’s behavior. The 1995 Major, who was certainly something of an exception in the film world as she was almost entirely synthetic, was not ever shown panicking or even truly worried about her status. This subtlety kept her emotions, of which were few and muted, from clouding the overall concept that the Major was meant to represent: the next step of human evolution. Instead of the moodiness and sadness of the 2017 Major, the audience was given a character that carefully considered what she was and what she would become. This curiosity about what truly defined a human led to the conclusion of the film, where the Major willingly fused with an AI and became the “next-step.”
But none of this nuance is present in the 2017 film. This is not primarily due to the performance of Scarlett Johansson though, as the main factor is that the film does not care to think any larger than the characters it is portraying on-screen. Ghost in the Shell is primarily concerned with what its humans and synthetic humans are doing and not what they are. Even when the audience is presented with Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) few questions are raised outside of why he exists. This answer is dull as well; as Kuze is not simply a different name for the Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi) of the 1995 film, but instead a synthetic-human hybrid that is simply seeking revenge on those who made him. And while it may be unfair to judge the 2017 solely against the 1995 one, the twists and turns that the live-action outing takes are nothing new or different to the action scene. Ghost in the Shell casts aside an interesting and thought-provoking premise in exchange for what becomes a standard Jason Bourne plot, and it is the worse for it. Partially to blame for how poorly this plot execution is conveyed is how long the film takes to fully decide what it wishes to be. The Major does not fully determine what she must do until well into predictable third act of the film, and because of this her decision feels less like a character-defining moment and more like simply someone doing what they are doing because they must.
In the end, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell is nothing more than a generic action film placed in an eccentric and beautiful science fiction setting. By neglecting to explore any of the core issues that define the characters and provoke them, the film denies itself any chance to move past the standard action film plot that it finds itself stuck in. But the fate of Ghost in the Shell is not sealed until it decides to prioritize its action set pieces over the fundamental questions that a film about a human-turned-cyborg can and should raise. The iconic scenes form the original film that have been adapted into the 2017 one, namely the skyscraper window shooting by the Major, her fight in the water with a hitman, and the spider-tank finale, all come across as clunky and forced in terms of their placement in the film. This is mainly due to the fact that much of the other plot points of the film have been so dramatically changed in service of the live-action version’s different plot that they make little sense when they occur. Once this becomes apparent, it is clear that the film is more interested in simply emulating the look of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell, rather than exploring what truly made the film iconic. This mistake prevents the 2017 effort from ever reaching the same status as its source material, and as a result it becomes nothing more than a mediocre science fiction diversion.