Adapting this Japanese cyber-punk classic may have been too tall a task, but they definitely gave it a good shot.
This movie’s story is a new spin on the classic anime. In a futuristic world, human beings have taken to upgrading themselves with cybernetic enhancements. The next step in this style of human evolution is Major (yes, Major not “The Major”). Major (Scarlett Johansson), is a human mind (or “ghost”) inside a completely artificial body. Major was a girl named “Mira Killian” before an accident took her parents and left her in critical condition. The Hanka corporation created and oversaw the process that turned Mira into the Major before sending her off to Section 9, an anti-terrorism squad that reports to the Prime Minister of Japan. Hanka’s CEO, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and the Major’s designer, Dr. Ouelet (Julliete Binoche) are the ones who are primarily concerned with monitoring and maintaining the Major as she is both a government asset and a company asset.
In Section 9 Major works alongside her partner, Batou (Pilou Asbaek) and a bunch of other people that aren’t really on screen enough to bother mentioning. They report to the Section Chief, Daisuke Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano). While listening in on a meeting between Hanka reps and an African ambassador, Major hears some of the facility’s geisha-bots start to attack. Going against orders, Major springs into action and takes out the Geisha bots. Before she does, one of the bots utters a warning that those who ally themselves with Hanka will be killed. After the attack, they learn that the bots had been hacked. In order to find the hacker, Major decides to “deep-dive” into the bot’s AI in order to get more information. While inside the geisha-bot, Major is attacked. This forces Batou to pull her out, but not before she gets a lead on where the hacker is. Major and Batou follow the lead to a Yakuza club. After fighting off a bunch of goons, they head to the location that Major got. When they get to the room, they discover it’s a trap with a bomb. Major throws herself in front of Batou to absorb most of the damage. Batou survives the explosion, but his eyes are damages, forcing him to get cybernetic replacements.
The Major’s reckless behavior is a great concern to Cutter and Ouelet, who don’t want Major taking any unnecessary risks. Major has already been coming in more frequently with “glitches”, which manifest in the form of Major seeing distorted images that she has no memory of. On top of all of that, the Major has a serious case of existential crisis because of her fake body and missing memories. She’s constantly trying to find a place for her existence, but it’s hard when she’s the only being of her kind.
The hacker, who’s name is learned to be Kuze, attacks another doctor. When Batou and Major investigate, they discover that he’s targeting Hanka scientists and that Dr. Ouelet is his next target. Kuze hacks into two sanitation workers and tries to have them kill Ouelet. Major and Batou arrive in time to save her, killing one of the would-be-assassins. The other tries to escape, but Major is able to chase him down. She almost beats him to death before Batou pulls her off the guy. When they get him back to Section 9, they discover that his mind was hacked and false memories were implanted in order to motivate him to kill Ouelet. During the interrogation, Kuze speaks through the assassin and threatens Section 9 before forcing the man to kill himself. The hack allows Section 9 to trace Kuze and Major goes after him.
When she finds Kuze he reveals that he was a test subject of Hanka. They ran tests on him, and many others, in order to complete the project that created Major. He also tells the Major that Hanka didn’t save her life, they took her just like they took him and the others. When Major confronts Ouelet about this accusation, she reveals that there were 98 failed experiments before Major. When Cutter finds out that Major knows too much, he orders Ouelet to terminate her. Instead, Ouelet sacrifices her own life to allow Major to escape. Major follows some information that Ouelet gave her to the home of Motoko Kusanagi, Major’s real identity. Major finds her mother, who helps fill in the last bit of the puzzle for her. Motoko was a troubled child who ran away from home. She ended up with Kuze, who’s real name was Hideo, and some other runaways in a bad area of town. Motoko and the other runaways were found and abducted by Hanka so that they could run experiments on them. When the experiment was successful, Hanka wiped Motoko’s memories and replaced them with the story of Mira Killian.
As Major is learning about her past, Cutter has framed her for the murder of Ouelet. Aramaki contacts Major, who tells her what Cutter’s been up to despite both of them knowing that Cutter is listening in on their conversation. Cutter then tries to burn all of Section 9, Order 66 style. After Cutter’s agents fail to take out Aramaki the rest of the Section members are warned and are able to defend themselves. Major meets up with Kuze back at their old hideout. They are ambushed by a spider tank, sent by Cutter. The tank badly damages Kuze, who escapes into his network. Instead of fleeing her body with Kuze, Major fights back. Ultimately, she jumps on the back of the tank and destroys it; using so much strength that she rips one of her own arms off. Major is left vulnerable, but the other members of Section 9 arrive and back her up. With Major safe, Aramaki confronts Cutter after speaking to the Prime Minister. He contacts Major to get her consent to execute Cutter. When Major gives her consent, Aramaki doesn’t hesitate to take Cutter out.
In the epilogue, Major reconnects with her mother at her own grave and lets her know that she doesn’t have to come to the grave anymore. She also reveals that she’s come to accept her unique existence and doesn’t feel that her enhancements define her. As the movie ends, Major leaps off of a building and turns invisible.
What did I think?
I guess I should start off by saying that I didn’t hate this movie. I also didn’t love it. By the time I left the theater, I didn’t feel like this movie left much of an impression on me. It does evoke my memory of the 1995 movie but it doesn’t really surpass it or many other movies that I’ve seen. It’s not terrible by any means, but not terribly special.
I did watch the 1995 anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, but I’m not such a hardcore fan that I can say I’ve read the manga or even seen all of the related material. So, I wasn’t really looking for a movie that was going to be a perfect retelling of the original story. I feel like this movie did a very good job of paying visual homage to the ’95 film. While comparing live action to anime is an apples to oranges comparison, I think both versions do a great job of creating some visually stunning and memorable sequences and environments. I would say that I was even more impressed by some of this movie’s visuals as a whole. Even though certain moments, like the arm ripping scene or the fight in the water, were more impactful in the anime, I think the movie did a better job building an environment and showing sequences like the Major’s body construction. Again, both version are very strong visually.
The biggest change between the two version is the themes that they tackle. I completely get that they wouldn’t rehash the original’s exploration of what constitutes a human and how to define existence. Instead this movie focuses on more of the related idea of the role that your memories and agency play in your own identity. It’s more of a classic “who/what am I?” situation that focuses on the importance of Major’s memories more than her unique being. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, although I don’t think that the movie does a very good job of promoting that question as a though exercise. They really just use it as a plot device and the question ends up getting tied up very neatly for the audience at the end of the movie. In contrast, the original film purposely left questions about how the Major defined herself with no real answers. The Major herself ended the ’95 movie by stating that she didn’t really know what she was anymore. This version of the Major focuses more on accepting her own uniqueness.
As far as characters go, I actually liked the three leads of Section 9: Aramaki, Batou and Major. I thought that this version of Batou was very personable and added a dimension of humanity that the character had previously lacked in some iterations. Aramaki was easily the most “badass” character in the way that an older man who doesn’t suffer fools can be. I also liked the way that Scar Jo played Major. There was an interesting balance of trying to make her both forceful and fiery, while remaining robotic in some ways. I’m sure that some people will probably find some of her behavioral affectations strange, but I enjoyed them. I thought they actually distinguished the Major as an artificial construct where the anime really hardly treated her as being anything other than human when she wasn’t using her abilities. Regrettably, no one else in Section 9 was really paid any attention to, making them almost unnecessary to the movie outside of situations were extra bodies are needed.
The bad guys were also bland and predictable. The Hanka CEO was your stereotypical cold-hearted, power hungry businessman who was willing to kill anything to make a buck. Dr. Ouelet was the traditional scientist who pushed science too far only to suffer regret and consequences. The only stand out bad-guy was Kuze. His story: the bad guy who’s really just a monster created by the real bad guys, is pretty standard but Michale Pitt tries to make this character stand out. His look and behavior does definitely stand out. Like with Johansson’s choices, I’m sure that some people will find some of his behavior distracting, but I think that it really works for what the movie was trying to portray.
I do think that it’s unfortunate that this movie got so much negative attention for casting Scar Jo, which I talk about in another post. This movie isn’t worth making that big of a fuss about one way or another. I do think that it’s going to be an interesting litmus test to see if anime/manga adaptations can make it in America the way that other comic book properties have. If this movie is truly going to be the gateway for other adaptations, I have a feeling it’s going to be a long time (if ever) before we really see that become a trend.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
- Great visuals that simultaneously pay respect to the source material while expanding on it
- Strong performances by Johansson and Pitt
- Presents a story that's actually a little easier to follow than the original
- Movie has odd pacing, especially towards the end.
- Feels more like it's just throwing out bullet points of a story instead of presenting a fully fleshed out story
- While Pitt and Johnansson give strong performances, their characters are fairly odd and can be off-putting or hard to understand