It should be incomprehensible that a movie would go to great lengths to duplicate its source material and still get things wrong. It’s a rarity, but believe it or not, it happens. The worst case of this is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, which painstakingly lifted the majority of the film directly from the comics, often creating a panel-for-panel duplication of the book. Watchmen aimed true and still missed the mark. In being a strict recreation effort, the film overfocused on the superheroes and neglected all the side stories which gave the original heart. In the end, Watchmen the film became yet another superhero punchfest, forgetting that the whole story was about the impact of superheroes on an ordinary world.
I bring all this up because the live-action Ghost in the Shell suffers the same problem as Watchmen, in that it tries too hard to duplicating the anime without reflecting on what the source material is all about. Watchmen can at least be credited with jettisoning all the civilian plotlines for the sake of run-time. The Ghost in the Shell anime was a typical 90-minute film and the plot wasn’t that thick. Heavy, to be sure, but not thick. The live-action version, directed by Rupert Sanders (who, gee whiz, only has Snow White and the Huntsman as his other major film credit), thickens up the story considerably, and in doing so, deviates significantly from the purpose of the original. Watchmen at least kept the basic plot and disregarded the giant squid because, obviously, mass audiences wouldn’t understand the giant squid. GITS, in contrast, disregards a substantial plotline that made the original what it was and instead uses a trope that we’ve seen in plenty of other movies.
Let’s recollect, first, what the original film (itself a stripped-down version of an earlier manga) was all about. The essential plot was about two cybernetic beat cops–Motoko Kusanagi and her partner Batou–investigating a series of hacking crimes by a mysterious figure called “The Puppet Master.” What seems like a wild white-collar crime investigation (one which is garnished with considerably impressive action sequences and a whole lot of Kusanagi nudity) ultimately becomes a philosophical musing on the underpinnings of human existence. Throughout the story, Kusanagi brushes up against questions of what her personhood means: being a near-complete cyborg, there’s oddities about how “human” she is given that she’s little more than a consciousness in a shell. The story’s real shocker comes when we learn that (HEY, SPOILERS HERE) the Puppet Master is, in fact, nothing more than a computer program, but one that’s taken on considerable human qualities. The A.I. is convinced that in order to be truly “alive,” he needs to mate, reproduce, and die, and the only way he can do that is to merge his consciousness with Kusanagi’s.
What’s distinct about the original anime is that Motoko Kusanagi isn’t weighted down by self-doubt throughout the story. There’s not much to her backstory (though later films in the franchise reveal that she’s been a cyborg since childhood)–as a cop, she accepts what she is and presses on with her mission. She acknowledges the oddness of her existence–if her body were returned to her corporate owners, there wouldn’t be much left of her–but these are musings, not an existential crisis. Her role as a cop and her deeper obligations aren’t compromised until the story’s climax.
So, here’s where the live-action film deviates: the Puppet Master character is gone from this incarnation. In fairness, the live-action deal follows the same basic, skeletal structure of the anime, although it adds considerable padding to the story. But the A.I. character is replaced with Kuze (Michael Pitt), a similarly mysterious hacker, but one of considerably more body than a false consciousness. Kuze haunts “Mira Killian”–Scarlett Johansson’s anglicized expy for Motoko Kusanagi–much in the same way that the Pupper Master stalked the original heroine–but there’s a considerably different purpose involved.
Instead of musing on whether technology has evolved to the point where humanity can create artificial souls, the live-action GITS detours considerably by musing on the meaning of the human person when the body and the mind can be altered and changed via that same tech. The film certainly raises interesting questions–ones which are touched upon in the anime, certainly–but sort of presents them as oddities without actually making a grand thesis statement about them other than in an overdone narration trope in the film’s final minute.
There are, at least, musings here about whether perfecting humanity through tech cheapens the human person. Batou’s eyes are replaced in the movie, but it makes him fear for the stray dogs that he liked to feed because he now looks less human. People replace their livers with artificial ones to improve their drinking stamina–and maybe drinking without drunkenness sounds great, until you remember that drunkenness is part of the fun. And in a world where tech is pushed everywhere as the next big commodity to have, Mira is one of the few characters who reflects on the great cost to individual personhood when pieces of both body and memory can be stripped away.
Now, the film is by no means ugly or bad. ScarJo is limited to a grand total of two emotions in this movie–being a lost soul, and being a tough-ass warrior woman. OK, that’s all she did in her Avengers roles as well, but darn it, at least she’s capable when she’s in them. And the film is at least pretty to look at. The futuristic Japanese city is a little overbusy at times, with colossal holographic billboards overtaking everything, creating a sensation that Times Square has grown to colossal proportions. It’s a challenge to make cyberpunk and slow-motion fight scenes look original when films like The Matrix are now close to twenty years old, but GITS makes a respectable attempt at looking unique.
And to Sanders’ credit, where he duplicates the anime, he does it respectably. Fans of the original film will know exactly what they’re looking at in various sequences, from the opening “shelling” sequence to the climactic battle at the abandoned zoo. In other words, stuff in this movie looks like what it’s supposed to look like, suggesting that superhero cinema has come full circle from the days where the X-Men movies were afraid to duplicate costumes because yellow spandex looked silly. We’re at a point where ScarJo can run around in the (almost) nude, and it’s actually respectable because this is what the original looked like.
Still, superifical duplication is not accurate duplication, and where Ghost in the Shell fails is in becoming a story about memory which isn’t particularly original. We’ve already seen the overall plot in many other films–Total Recall, Inception, Memento, and plenty of others. If you’re going to duplicate a movie, at least duplicate the original completely instead of overlaying an eastern story onto a western trope. Ghost in the Shell may visually please modern audiences, but they’re ultimately missing out on the intentionally disturbing questions that the original provoked.
Oh, and a Bonus Note About Whitewashing
Of course, we can’t ignore the giant white elephant in the room: that a classic Japanese movie recast its main character with a white woman and anglicized the character as well. Clearly, this is done because Hollywood exploits diversification only where it sees profit in doing so. In the meantime, the bankrollers know that star power brings more money to the box office, so obviously, they’re going to cast a big-name actress known for action roles over a less-known Asian actress, regardless of how capable the latter is. ScarJo brings name recognition, and that’s what we’re stuck with. Viewers who want more minority representation in films like this can vote with their dollars, but Hollywood probably doesn’t care unless there’s a realistic chance of a significant impact to their profit margin.
Anyway, hang onto your hats, because SPOILER ALERT, the live-action film has one other major deviation. So, it turns out that before “Mira Killian” became a cyborg, she used to be…a Japanese woman named “Motoko Kusanagi,” and yes, we see her original body in a very brief flashback. Audiences have two ways to interpret this:
1) Holy fucking shit, they didn’t just symbolically whitewash the character. They actually, literally whitewashed the character.
2) Huh. So it looks like the film’s creators may have engaged in some metatexual reflection on the problem of whitewashing in Hollywood by having “Mira’s” creators whitewash her. Not only did they strip her of her identity, but also of her race. Whitewashing is bad, but this film actually reflects on that by treating her race as another commodity to be disregarded as the company that built her changed her race into an “ideal” image rather than her real one.
I have no idea which of these is correct. As a reviewer, I intentionally avoid reading other reviews and commentaries before seeing a film for myself so that I can reflect on what I watch without someone else’s thoughts getting caught in mine. It’s possible that option #2 was the film’s intention–the producers knew they’d be using a star-powered actress, but they at least found a way to slip in a reference to Motoko’s original incarnation.
Either way, I imagine that filmgoers seeking diversity in casting are going to be pissed that they just didn’t go with an Asian actress–specifically a Japanese one–in the first place. Reference or no, it’s ScarJo who dominates 99% of the story and the Motoko reference is just tacked on at the end.
There’s no fair solution to this other than for fans to vote with their dollars and boycott until Hollywood gets the message that Asian women need more representation in prominent roles. That didn’t happen here and in the case of Ghost in the Shell, we won’t get an Asian-accurate recast until somebody decides that the movie is worth redoing in a decade or two.
That said, I maintain that with or without diversified casting, the script still suffers from the significant departure from the original story. An Asian actress wouldn’t change the film’s structural problems, which again is: they took a great story and then turned it into Total Recall meets Robocop. An altered cast would have eliminated one of the major controversies surrounding the movie, but still: quality storytelling and correct casting are significantly separate problems.
Rating: Two and a half ghosts out of five.
Thanks to The City Vault for supplying the screening passes.