RECAP: Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell (2017): Rupert Sanders
A famous anime film from the 1990s, Ghost in the Shell got a live-action adaptation in 2017. It starred several white actors, despite taking place in Asia. Is this fact enough to sink the film? The controversy probably hurt the box office intake, but did it hurt the movie?
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The first human brain-robot body hybrid fights domestic terrorists in Asia and seeks to remember her past.
Ghost in the Shell opens with a gurney carrying a woman down a hospital corridor. Her nurses have red holograms covering their faces. They also wear red. Strange times, we can tell, for nurses to dress such.
A montage follows as a human woman dies. Her brain, encased in plastic, enters a robotic humanoid form. The robot-human hybrid (android?) enters a long tube reminiscent of a fallopian tube, emerges through white goo, and is born.
Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the new robotic human. Or is it human robot? Whatever she is, she begins her new life inside a body bag, unzipped, to allow her to breathe and be born. Most folk end their lives inside a body bag.
Before we learn how Major feels, we see what she can do. An early sequence involves her attacking and killing a bevy of assassins armed with machine guns. Major leaps from a tower roof and enters the beseiged room as if by magic. She runs along the wall. Her body shimmers when it’s not cloaked. She beats and kills the assassins in seconds.
And so, with great power comes great…loneliness. Major is the first human brain in a robot body. Her doctor, a woman named Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), believes Major is a special person, emphasis on person, and many like her will follow. Major, however, answers such calls with “You don’t know how alone that makes me feel.”
Couple her loneliness with an overpowering need (read: programming) to catch the bad guys, and you won’t begrudge the memories flickering into her daily existence. There’s a pagoda popping onto an intersection, or here’s a cat where a cat is not.
Major often asks herself and her doctor which of her memories are real. The doctor won’t say, but Major believes her cover story: she arrived in the country after terrorists attacked a boat she and her parents rode on to immigrate to their new home. Major’s parents died, and Major barely survived.
That perception changes after she meets Kuze (Michael Pitt), a tech wizard/serial murderer hunting scientists working for Hanka Robotics, Major’s maker. Major meets Kuze in a moldy underground lair, and he tells her that those memories of her parents aren’t real. Later, Major asks Ouelet about it, and the good doctor gives Major a drive of her real memories. Major pursues them and meets her real mother. The two bond instantly. Also, there’s the cat.
So what’s with the recurring pagoda, sometimes on fire? Major gets part of the story from her real mother (who is very much alive) and another from Kuze. After learning new facts, she switches sides and tries to kill her maker, because she remembers that, as a full-bodied human, she ran away to live at that pagoda inside the city’s lawless zone. She and other runaways, Kuze included, were arrested and removed from their chosen home by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the CEO of Hanka Robotics, only because no one would miss them.
After Major learns her true past and her place in the world, she chooses to accept Dr. Ouelet’s vision of her. She no longer feels alone. Her friends and coworkers are behind her. “I’m the first of my kind,” she says, “but I won’t be the last.”
ScarJo is a fine action actor. She can do an action scene as well as anyone. Her role is difficult to parse. One time the character makes a joke and Johansson struggles to crack a smile. Johansson plays Major robotically, a mistake, I think, because Major is certainly not a robot. She’s sad about not being fully human, but it’s a human mind in there.
Ghost in the Shell‘s true villain hides behind others for most of the film. The CEO of Hanka Robotics Corporation is Cutter, a man with brain enhancement and a desire to ready his company for the future.
It takes a while, but we learn that Cutter authorized Project 2571, the insertion of a human brain into a robot body. We believe Major is the first person to succeed in becoming “the future of Hanka,” and she is, but it’s later that we learn about the 98 unsuccessful attempts that preceded her.
Cutter disbelieves in Major’s humanity from the start. “She’s a weapon,” he says moments after watching her birth. Immediately she’s sent to join Section 9, an elite force inside the Department of Defense.
Cutter disappears for some time, surfacing once to threaten Major’s boss for compromising Major’s cerebral circuitry. As a CEO he likes to throw his weight around, but the Section 9 chief is not intimidated.
Later, Cutter realizes the danger he’s in. Kuze is killing all the scientists who worked on Project 2571. Cutter doesn’t believe Kuze will come after him (though he should), instead believing that Major’s investigation will lead to Kuze’s arrest. Major learns that her memories are fabrications, that Cutter ordered them invented to motivate her to fight terrorists. Big mistake, Cutter.
That was the least of Cutter’s crimes. Cutter used the police to round up nearly 100 young runaways living in the city’s lawless zone. Runaways, they would not be missed. Hanka Robotics experimented on them, and most failed, until Major worked. The fates of those others is unknown, but we can assume the worst. Cutter states that Major is Hanka’s property, and property not working can be disposed of without consequence. “She’s no longer a viable asset,” he says, demanding Ouelet to “delete” her.
Cutter’s true colors show after Ouelet releases Major. “That’s the problem with the human heart,” he says before murdering the doctor. The CEO finds no qualms with sending assassins to murder members of the government in broad daylight. Money is power, and Cutter tries to use them both to the max.
Villainous in appearance and action, Cutter ruthlessly pursues his goals. He believes he’s above the law, or at least can create the law. Unfortunately he was not an active enough character to warrant a high score.
Ghost in the Shell wastes little time kicking off the action. After Major’s rebirth comes a scene a year later. Major stands atop a tower eavesdropping on a business meeting inside between a Hanka big wig and the president of the African Federation.
Pretty soon the scene is joined by a band of cracked-face assassins carrying machine guns inside their briefcase. By cracked-face I mean the men have scars on their skin as if they’ve suffered skin grafts gone wrong. These assassins break into the dinner meeting after geisha robots attack the Hanka employees at the table.
Major realizes something’s gone wrong. She removes her coat and reveals a flesh-tone suit. She dives from the roof through floating hologram ads as the assassins breach the dinner room and kill many people. This is some kind of industrial sabotage. One of the geisha bots injects wires into the brain stem of the Hanka big wig, stealing his knowledge. The man’s eyes cloud and face darkens in a chilling effect. The assassins patrol the room.
Suddenly two assassins drop from bullets penetrating the window. No one can see the shooter, because the window is obscured with three-dimensional oversized fish. A geisha bot is also shot, its face exploding. The geisha bot sucking the Hanka guy’s brain stem assesses the danger and shifts into a four-legged spider, dragging its quarry up a wall.
Major crashes through the glass after killing more bots and assassins. Her exosuit glows with beams of blue current that flow across her like electric waves. She blows in guns blazing, running up a wall, shooting bad guys, kicking them in the back. Her body shimmers like a badly buffered movie. Major stalks the room and destroys the bot sucking information from the Hanka guy. Start the investigation.
How about another action sequence? Major learns that her doctor, Ouelet, is in danger, regarding her work in something called Project 2571. Cut to two white Yakuza guys munching chow in the cab of a garbage truck parked on a street. Suddenly they have a mission downloaded into their brains, indicated by the lights flickering on sides of their faces.
A few moments later the garbage truck smashes into Ouelet’s car, flipping it. The Yakuza thugs exit the vehicle, weapons drawn, and walk to the upside down car. One guy shoots the driver and walks around to a crawling, shaken doctor. “Are you prepared to die for Project 2571?” he screams at Ouelet. I doubt that she is, though she doesn’t answer.
An Section 9 armored truck enters the road and the other goon shoots at it. Major’s partner skids his 1980s-style sports car onto the road and stops. Major steps out and fires three loud rounds at the primary bad guy, who returns fire with his yellow machine gun. The other guy stands there and takes fire, his face soulless, his brain washed.
Ouelet is protected, so Major can sprint after the first guy, who has run away wearing a cloaking rain slick. Doesn’t matter how fast he runs, though, Major follows him.
The goon wanders into a shallow pool overlooking the city. He removes his cloak. Major waits a beat before attacking. She’s invisible, and strikes the bad guy. Several different angles and distances capture the beating, as it’s all one-sided. A flickering body sends the goon flipping and sliding and splashing and pleading for mercy.
About the effects: I loved them. Inventive and seamless, the fake images blend into the screen. Holograms are prominent communication techniques. The actors stand in the scene, but a shimmer on their backs indicates they aren’t there. The holograms shut down like crumbling ash cubes.
Major engages in a deep dive inside the hard drive of one of the geisha bots. She scrolls through the bots memory by walking through still images. The humans present are pictured in deep blue, with parts of the images flaking off, as if decaying.
Stellar effects, stuffed in every scene, made the movie.
Major is the prime weapon of Section 9, an elite and diverse arm of the Department of Defense. Her partner is Batou (Pilou Asbæk), a white-haired white man with eyes for Major. Eyes, that is, until he loses them in a gun battle and has them replaced with lenses that can see x-ray and night vision.
Batou is a can’t-miss shooter who loves a street fight. He dislikes humans, but he loves feeding local stray dogs. Feels a kinship to them. Screwed over every day by his memories, Batou is jealous that Major can’t recall much. What those memories are we don’t learn.
Major’s boss, Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), quietly oversees Section 9. His face and hair like a trapezoid, Aramaki is not afraid of anything, be it criticism about his hair or the murderous CEO of Hanka Robotics. Aramaki knows the right time to draw out his ancient revolver, carrying it with him when Cutter sends three assassins to shoot up his car one evening after work.
Aramaki is swift enough to alert his entire force moments before the attack, play possum after the gunfire ceases, and kill his three would-be, body-armored assassins. I liked the way Aramaki lurched around as if the intrigue and assassination attempts bored him like a child’s game.
The most important sidekick is Dr. Ouelet, the woman who birthed Major, so to speak. Ouelet is the last survivor of Project 2571, the one person who labored hardest to bring Major into the world. The doctor treats Major like her child, which is half true. “She’s a miracle,” the doctor says on the day of Major’s creation.
Ouelet acts as if the other 98 unsuccessful experiments were worth the trouble for resulting in Major, who Ouelet lovingly describes as unique. “You are what everyone will become one day,” she says.
Ouelet didn’t mind Cutter bringing her people to experiment on and didn’t ask questions. When Major asks questions, however, Ouelet can’t keep from answering. After Cutter demands Ouelet “delete” Major, the doctor gives Major her real memories, trading her life for Major’s, like a real mother might.
The first half of Ghost in the Shell pits Kuze as the villain. A hooded, voice-modulated figure, Kuze lurks behind assassinations of Hanka’s top scientists. He orchestrates the opening attack on the dinner party led by a Hanka executive.
Kuze appears to be the world’s greatest hacker, capable of hacking the white-faced geisha bots serving the human members of the party. He also recrutis acolytes to serve as gun-toting assassins, men with craggy faces.
Midway through Ghost in the Shell, Major and her squad visit Kuze’s supposed location. They find an underground (possibly illegal) enhancement facility. Also, there’s piles of white powder. Could be a drug den. Major stumbles into a room of bald men hooked up to thick cables that ascend through a hole in the ceiling. Kuze, we learn, has built a private network using the minds of the bald people. Creepy.
Kuze murders Hanka scientists because Cutter kidnapped and experimented on him. Kuze was once a regular human, but Hanka made him a robot like Major, only his experiment failed. Major has a pristine body that can cloak itself; Kuze can only wear cloaks. His inside wires are visible, his face incomplete. His voice doesn’t even work, sounding as if he lost his larynx: more Stephen Hawking than Scarlett Johansson.
Kuze reveals his past and Major’s after a tense meeting. Major never questions Kuze’s story, though she does shoot him; it’s her programming. She follows his suggestion to stop taking the Hanka-provided medicines, and her memory improves quickly. She remembers that Kuze and Major were both snatched by Hanka, and what was done to them they cannot forgive.
Kuze’s twist surprised me. Villains do not often becomes mentors in a single film, but the movie executes the change superbly. Major does her job without feeling like it’s a passion. She abandons her team easily and believably. Major almost follows Kuze into his private network, but she’s not ready to leave the earthly plane yet.
Another early scene has Major infiltrate a Yakuza club for some information. Before entering she activates subvocal communications with her partners. Long a trope of futuristic fiction, this was the first time I’d seen it tried on the big screen.
Major easily enters the club. She invents a story and gains entry to a private room with a sweaty Yakuza goon inspired by 1970s American suits. Pretty soon Major is handcuffed to a pole and electrocuted for his amusement.
Batou enters the club as well after an x-ray body scanner reveals that he is not packing heat, except in the literal sense of his body giving off heat. He enters the restroom, where another agent hands him a rifle through an unlocked window. Security is always lax in restrooms.
Batou orders a beer as he fails to contact Major, who is cuffed inside a room that blocks communications. However, the door is unlocked, so when Major gets mad she enacts communication the old-fashioned way–kicking a guy through a door. Still attached to the pole, Major flips backward to kick the man behind her holding the electroshock weapon and another guy. She punches a laughing Mr. Sweat through the door.
Two gangsters stand beside Batou. He sees the guy falling through the door and attacks, head butting one and smashing a bottle on the other. Batou grabs a drawn pistol to shoot a gangster and turn the gun on the bartender. He kills three more men with the pilfered handgun.
Major fights off the men in the private room, running around the wall to dodge and kick a guy shooting at her. Batou draws his rifle and kills more as he takes fire from several men but is not hit once. The fight ends in less than a minute.
This might be the only sequence with actual stunt work. Major, wearing a shimmering body suit, could be CGI from the neck down. The action sequences are terrific, but it’s mostly on computer.
Major keeps catching flickers of a flaming pagoda, a snatch of memory. You know that pagoda will come into play later, and it does.
Major drives to the lawless zone, a sector of town long left to the city’s forgotten and ignored. She finds that pagoda, a ruin now, and recalls what happened to her. A memory flashes on the screen. Cutter’s there, overseeing a police raid on the pagoda, which is on fire. Young people, including the child Major once was, are dragged out, separated from their only friends.
Major enters the ruin and traces her hand over the keys and handprints on the wall. Enter Kuze, in the flesh-and-metal. Major remembers everything. She remembers that Kuze was also taken from their home of runaways, arrested for being expendable. Cutter, aptly named, had Project 2571 experiment on at least 98 individuals before succeeding with Major.
Kuze offers Major a place by his side in the network he’s created, run on human minds. He approaches her and they almost kiss, but an explosion blasts them into the street.
Cutter controls a spider tank that crawls over rubble and rusted cars. With red eyes (three dots forming triangles), the tank sports dual guns that blast away at Major. She finds a rifle and fires at the tank, drawing its gaze from the defenseless Kuze. Major knows her bullets will not harm the tank, but she also knows that Cutter would rather kill her first.
Major hides behind a concrete column supporting a raised road. The tank makes quick work of her cover, toppling the road in sections that form steps, which Major leaps up like she’s a cricket. She hides on a platform encircling the pagoda and reloads. The tank, meanwhile, points a gun at Kuze, who returns fire, so to speak, with a finger gun.
Major pops out and finally hits what she wanted, the tank’s targeting camera. The tank responds with missiles, two of which are enough to bring down the platform. The tank’s computer confirms to Cutter “target eliminated.”
Not so fast. Cutter forgot, or didn’t know, about Major’s cloaking technique. A rippling ghost runs through shallow water to leap atop the tank. Major is weaponless, unless you consider her robotic body a weapon, and you better, because she’s using her arms to beat a hole in the tank.
Major’s found an important part of the tank, and she breaks it open. The strength required tears off her arm and separates much of her body’s cohesion, as if she chose the rack as a torture method. The tank explodes, sending Major flying to land beside Kuze.
Cutter is not finished. Kuze and Major lie beside each other, their bodies broken. Cutter calls in a sniper drone. Kuze offers Major a final chance to flee into his network, but she’s not ready to leave this world. The sniper drone kills Kuze’s robotic form. Why not shoot Major first?
Major appears finished, but never count out a fox. A Section 9 sniper shoots the drone before Batou reaches Major’s broken body. He asks for her real name. Motoko. She remembers.
Cutter, meanwhile, receives a visit from Aramaki inside the former’s lily pad garden. Aramaki has just come from the prime minister, and Cutter’s been charged with murder and crimes against the state. The reaper always gets what’s sown. Aramaki shoots Cutter, who won’t go quietly. Cutter, cowardly, begs for mercy. Did his 99 subjects receive mercy? Aramaki kills Cutter, but only after Major gives her consent.
Later, Major visits the false grave of Motoko. She speaks with her mother and tells her, “You don’t have to come here anymore.”
Major’s back at work and has accepted her position in life. “I’m the first of my kind,” she says, hunting new bad guys, “but I won’t be the last.”
There’s one joke in this movie. Major lives a tough life and has little time for comedy.
I’d love to tells you that Ghost in the Shell was set in Tokyo, but I can’t. I can’t even say it was set in Japan. The movie avoids naming its place for reasons I didn’t understand. In an early scene, Major mentions that her parents died trying to emigrate to “this country.” Section 9 is a part of a generic Department of Defense, and the nation is led by a nameless, unseen prime minister.
Never mind the placelessness, because Ghost in the Shell could only exist in this world. Towering holograms project not only on buildings, but roads, walls, the air, and inside rooms. Images are everywhere, and not all are ads. Digital fish the size of cars float throughout several locations and scenes. This is a future I can get behind, one without ubiquitous ads.
The skyline is often present. Major stands atop skyscrapers and falls down them. She fights a villain in a pool overlooking the city. Later, she soaks in the harbor and sits in a boat with a perfect skyline view. Overhead shots often re-establish the city. You won’t wait long for a skyline shot.
On-the-ground locations make Major’s city grimy and grim. Kuze hangs out in an illegal networking area that drips water amongst the highest brain networking tech. The lawless zone is nothing but urban ruins, Sarajevo in 1994 or Aleppo in 2016. The color invading every surface in the living city is missing from the lawless zone.
Dr. Ouelet believes that Major is the first of many human-robot hybrids. Characters already modify themselves with tech. One of Major’s team members fixes his liver to drink more. “Last call every night,” he says. Kuze controls his own mafia and can download his consciousness into living human brains.
Is that our future? I believe it is. Major worries that she is not human, that she can’t remember her past. Other characters tell her she still has a ghost in the shell, though for some time she doesn’t believe them. Turns out Hanka was blocking her memories.
The days of biotech-enhanced humans are not far off. Synthetic limbs and organs are already used today. Ghost in the Shell is a movie based on a another movie 20 years older, when these ideas seemed more radical. One point awarded for the live-action version.
Ghost in the Shell became reality in 1995 as an anime film of the same name. Based in a fictional Japanese city, the movie was very Japanese.
The live-action update whitewashes the hell out the characters. If you like you Asian settings filled with primarily white actors, have I got the movie for you!
The Magnificent Seven famously updates a Japanese classic made several years prior. That film had the sense to transport the action to the North American West (Mexico near the US border) before throwing white folk into the mix.
Ghost in the Shell wants to have its cake and eat it too. Producers, without doubt, demanded a world-renowned face to play Major, all the better to sell tickets with. Problem is, Asian women aren’t world-renowned faces. Darn. So sad. Next time, maybe, actors of noticeable Asian decent will get their shot.
The lead, two primary sidekicks, and two villains are all white people. This is a strange, if not shocking, action. I think the filmmakers sought to portray this Asian state as more ethnically diverse, but they went too far.
- One of the ad holograms appears to be a dog delivering the news.
- Major’s city is large and vibrant, but has little car traffic.
Summary (34/68): 50%
Based on the original anime is a genre not often probed by Hollywood. Perhaps it should try more often. Despite the obscene whitewashing, Ghost in the Shell is a good movie! The effects are terrific and well imagined. The action barely relents in the 90-minute runtime.
Ghost in the Shell didn’t set the box office on fire, so I question if Hollywood will dip into that well again.