The first half, minus a few minor quibbles (like the hacking into the mind sequence, which is laughable in it’s execution), was actually solid. Fantastic cinematography, great special effects, tremendous atmosphere (even though I think they overdid it with the holograms around the city), and it’s refreshing to experience a film that knows how to handle pacing again (take note 2017’s Beauty and the Beast). And even though I had recently watched the original 1995 anime film, I was willing to overlook some of the inferior thematic/metaphorical/plot qualities this film had compared to the original. It was a solid 3 star film, minimum, and I started to get my hopes up.
But then the halfway point comes and fucks everything up.
So first thing. I’m aware of this arguing about the whitewashed elements of this film, in the casting of white actors in a place that takes place in Japan. I wasn’t going to bother myself with that aspect, and was hoping to overlook it, considering it’s the future and one could theorize that there’s a lot more international mingling in various countries of the world, including Japan. So I was going to ignore the whole “Scarlett Johansson cast in a Japanese role” thing. The key word being “was”. But it becomes impossible to ignore when in a flashback it indicates that she was Asian, she has the Japanese name Makoto, and shows that she has an Asian mother. At that point, I kinda had to get frustrated. If you’re going to whitewash a movie Hollywood, don’t half-ass it. It just gets weird, and makes it more obvious how bullshit it all really is.
On top of that, I’m not even sure if her mother was Japanese or Chinese, considering that the opening credits highlights that this film is produced in part by the Shanghai Film Group.
It also got a little weird when it mentions what ultimately ends up becoming a red herring backstory with terrorists attacking a refugee boat. If I’m going to watch a film that has a refugee boat and terrorists killing people on it in the introduction, I’d be watching Invasion USA.
Where the actual review begins
So like I said, I previously watched the 1995 anime, only once, after over a decade of having previously seen it. I didn’t remember much from it back in the day, and I had a very different mindset back then. After having rewatched it in preparation for this film, I can now see why it’s so highly revered. But it’s a film that demands more than one watch to soak everything in, and a lot of pondering and analysis over what is shown. For the sake of fairness to this film, I didn’t do that. I just watched it once, and didn’t want to watch it again until after seeing this so I won’t be too harsh on it. Otherwise, I would get a lot more bitchy about missed opportunities and inferior messages here/there/everywhere.
That being said, this film is clearly just a shell (yes, that’s a pun) of it’s former anime self. Hell, even the anime had remakes/reboots in anime forms prior to this film ever being in production. So remaking Ghost in the Shell isn’t anything new, except for America doing their own take of a foreign film to make it more appealing to dumbass American audiences who don’t want to read subtitles, listen to shitty dubs, and/or experience another culture’s style of film-making.
So the film pretty much begins as the original anime does (except for the pre-introduction, if that’s even a thing, in the anime), with the creation of “General”, showing how the cybernetic is made. There’s some differences, the main one being that in the anime they create an artificial brain based on the design/intricacies of the human brain and use that for the General, while the live action film just goes Robocop on us and puts in a real human brain. ‘Cause nothing wrong ever happened because of that.
But anyway, it’s a very cool sequence, highly atmospheric, very gorgeous to look at. It got me absorbed into the film and I forgot about most of my worries. A perfect demonstration of the human minds becoming welded and reliant on machines. Soon after the major awakens in her state, we get hit with the obvious messages that I knew were coming before the film even started. Brief conversations about robotic enhancements being a risk to humanity, and a risk to the soul. How casually some accept these enhancements, while others prefer to only do them if absolutely necessary. The film also briefly goes into the concept of memories, how they can be created/hacked/altered in one individual, and how that can affect the concept of reality.
The problem with that last sentence is the word “briefly”. This concept is better executed and more further discussed in the 1995 anime, which for the record is 23 minutes shorter than this film, and suffers in no way from that runtime in regards to pacing and execution. This live action film doesn’t explore this concept enough. This is linked to how the film states straight up, right away, that the Major has a soul, while in the anime that concept is questioned since she’s 100% artificially created. Here that makes sense, because she’s not entirely 100% artificial. There’s a reason for this, a mandate that prevents the film from going in-depth with the idea of memories and reality, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.
While making the Major more human can be considered an early sign of this film being inferior to the anime, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. The first real chink in the armor came with major going on with the line, “I’m different from everyone else.” So is practically every fucking Disney princess who has ever existed! Belle didn’t fit in with her local village, Ariel wanted to be part of the non-fish world, Mulan didn’t want to work in rice paddies her entire peasant-like life, etc. This theme has been around for so long I think we can get the message without it being told bluntly to us. But in each of those Disney films, the princess’ did something about their situation (even if it was because of events beyond their control pushing them in that direction) and ultimately got their wish of fitting in somewhere they belong. In this film, it doesn’t really go anywhere with it, other than more will come that are just like her, eventually. It just never seemed like a significant theme, even for one that is commonplace. Though it did lead to an interesting scene with Major feeling up some hooker’s face (I’m assuming it’s a hooker, it might be some person on the street who was waiting for some person to feel her face for free because she’s into that, in which case I’m all for that type of society).
One could argue that the Puppetmaster/Kuze (that character is basically an amalgamation of 2 different characters from the 1995 film and the show Stand Alone Complex from what I understand) is also someone who wants to belong, and that he and Major represent a group of individuals who want to belong because they had their lives taken. Which is why they feel they don’t belong. But that is a perfect example of what I mean by trading out concepts like this that are explored much better in much greater depth in the anime for something much more generic is this Americanized HollyPeckered adaptation. You don’t need to have this as a generic, “I was taken from my family” plot to push forth the theme of not belonging. There are people all over the world who don’t feel they were born in the right place and/or time for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with being taken from their family due to accidents, crimes, or Social Services assholes. For instance, I feel conflicted about the time I was born. On the one hand, I firmly believe the 90s was the best time to be a kid in relation to the entertainment industry at that time, with the films, shows, commercials, games, and general attitudes. But on the other hand I think the 80s was the best decade to be an adult for the same reasons. I kinda wish I was born and raised in Japan, but then there’s the whole nuclear radiation and mercury in your seafood thing. Pros and cons. Gotta focus on the pros of the life you’re currently in.
Back to memories. Major sees similarities between her artificial memories and those of the garbage man. All the more similar since in this film both their memories have been artificially hacked. In her case, the company Hanka made her memories. In the garbage man’s case, he was hacked by Kuze to do his bidding, and in the process had his memories messed up. It’s a bit sloppy with how it’s handled, but I decided to not worry about that. The real problem is that later on we’re supposed to feel sympathy for Kuze, which Major eventually does, when he apparently has no problem ruining the lives of civilians who had no part in any of this.
Oh yeah, another thing. Kuze made this speech about wanting to live forever with help from this network made by literal human minds. This never goes anywhere. I’m not kidding. It begins and ends with the scene that subject is brought up in. Also a bit strange that he’s willing to put his life in Major’s hands because he doesn’t want to be lonely anymore, which seems to contradict that whole “I want to live forever!” message. It’s all a callback to that sort of message being brought up in the 1995 anime, except the Puppetmaster didn’t want eternal life, he wanted to live and die, and have offspring (that’s a complicated topic that goes beyond the scope of this review). But in all fairness, that could be more of a relation to the Kuze character in the SAC (Stand Alone Complex) anime series, which I’ll admit I haven’t watched yet. But either way, it’s execution in this film is severely flawed, as I’ve pointed out.
As stated earlier, the first half of this film is solid enough. The turning point where it goes from solid to diarrhea is when General meets Kuze in-person (or in-machine). That’s when the whole “lost family” and “my memories are false” theme comes up. The concept of memories and reality. It goes from “Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep” to, “But I’m human! You can’t treat humans this way!”. It’s no longer about an exploration of themes that can be applied generally. It becomes a revenge tale specifically for the Major character (I guess that’s a pun too) that has to do with her memories, how past events only affected her, that are unique to her, that doesn’t apply in general to others. It’s disappointing considering that the anime was more general in it’s appliance of the themes, and because of the promising start the movie had.
These flaws become hilariously bad by the end. The film preaches this theme, verbally, that “Memories don’t make us who we are. Our actions do.” And yet everything the Major does during the second half of the film is driven by events of the past that she has begun to remember. I was unable to stifle a chuckle during the last 3 minutes because of that.
Two more things I feel like mentioning:
1.) The film has a villain, while the anime didn’t exactly have a perfectly defined villain per-se. And the villain is like the second half of the film: generic, predictable, and uninteresting.
2.) When the Major goes rogue and goes off the grid, everyone is all, “Where is she? Where can we find her?” while Batman is yelling, “Wur ur vey!” And her partner Batou says he knows where she is. And, like several other scenes in the film, transition to her underwater like in the anime. What’s problematic about this is that the film doesn’t establish earlier on that he knows her this well, or that this would be one of her hobbies. Plus the whole underwater thing just exists to replicate what is done in the anime, which makes no sense in this live action film. In the anime, being underwater reminded her of being created, of metaphorically being in the mother’s womb, or of being in a state of pre-life, however you want to interpret it. It made her “feel” something. That doesn’t work in this film when it’s going for the angle of having a past life that she wants back.
Overall, the film isn’t entirely terrible, but it’s shameful that it took something special and thought-provoking and formed it into something that winds up being so generic. It’s insulting to fans of the original, and it ultimately won’t be as memorable. It’s a pity too, considering how damn good looking this movie is.
PS: Oh yeah, and the dog from the 1995 anime shows up in this too. I’ve seen a few anime and live-action adaptations that prefer this breed of dog for some reason.
PPS: There’s other bits in the film that are just wrong, like a guy being able to hang himself in that cell (guess the designers in this futuristic cyberpunk world didn’t think of that), or Major jumping off the side of the building without a rope and somehow being able to crash through a window into that same building (at least the anime gave her a rope), among other little tidbits. But those are the least of this film’s problems.
Update: Notes on something I overlooked in the review
Right, I’ll admit I didn’t think one aspect through. In the Minor Quibbles section, I noted the awkwardness of the whitewashing, but failed to grasp something that should’ve been obvious to explain things, which actually ties into another theme in the film that I hadn’t explored in the review up until now. The Major may have been Japanese in a previous life (unless we’re dealing with Chinese immigrants here), but the company that took her mind and built the shell around it is an American corporation. An American corporation that has setup shop in Japan to make advancements in cybernetics. So they determined it fitting to make her shell American, though that brings into question the (admittedly false) refugee ship backstory. This doesn’t exactly explain the presence of a bunch of other white actors around, but whatever, it was never that big of a deal to me. What makes it worth mentioning is the theme this injects into the film that was absent (and altogether unnecessary) in the 1995 anime. Americans coming into a foreign land, trying to do things their way via corruption/power/control, and having it ultimately backfire and causing the big bad corporate Americans to be defeated and driven out of the land.
This brings up another concept that some have found questionable, as it’s been done in some films in the past. The white savior in a foreign land aspect. Sure the Major sets in motion the events that cause the destruction of the American corporation, but it’s ultimately the head of the Japanese corporation played by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (the Robert DeNiro of Japan) that offs the American CEO. The theme being pushed here is that a foreign power (in this case America) shouldn’t attempt to force things to go their way, especially when it means operating against the wishes of the local power (Japan).
This isn’t a theme that is rare. In fact, it occurs quite often in American movies that take place in America. Not in some government/corporate power invading foreign territory, but invading local territory. Imposing its will on the locals. But the thing about this theme is that it’s very shallow. Big evil corporations are bad. That’s the extent of this theme. The only way it’s expanded here is that big evil corporations on foreign soil are also bad, if not more bad, that American’s shouldn’t impose their will on other non-Americans. There isn’t much to think about because, with how it’s presented here and in most films, it’s a very black and white topic with very little middle ground and very little food for thought.
That is all.