The original anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is filled with iconic moments. From Major Kusanagi doffing her clothes to dive off a skyscraper to her climactic showdown with a formidable ‘spider tank’, the film has many memorable moments that linger for years after watching it. But what endures from my viewings of the original film is a smaller moment, a haunting encapsulation of the film’s themes of identity, independence and loneliness.
I’m referring to a photograph. The photo, of a man staring blankly into the camera, alone except for his dog, isn’t an integral component of the storyline. It appears roughly midway through the film, after Kusanagi has captured a garbage man serving the wishes of the film’s antagonist, the Puppet Master. It quickly becomes apparent that this garbage man has been “ghost-hacked” – essentially electronically brainwashed – but the real tragedy is his inability to understand this. Earlier, we’d seen him proudly talk of his daughter to this co-worker, and reach to show him a photograph of his family. Now, we see that his family is a fiction, a cruel lie concocted by the Puppet Master to ensure compliance. In the age of social media, where our online selves are fabricated exaggerations of our mundane realities, the moment is granted additional poignancy.
Rupert Sanders’ live action Hollywood remake of the film reimagines this moment, but retains only a faint echo of its sadness. There’s the same revelation, the same fictional daughter, but its robbed of its resonance by the absence of a backstory: rather than being tricked into believing he’s assisting the Puppet Master to keep tabs on his wife and support his daughter, here the garbage man (played by Australian actor Daniel Henshall) just seems to be an ordinary dude with the misfortune of falling under the antagonist’s control. (There’s no Puppet Master here, but we’ll get to that.) When Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson) shows the garbage man a hologram of himself and asks “Is this your daughter?” there’s a glimmer of the original film’s tragedy, but it’s smothered by incoherency. Why would she ask him that? Why would he have a fictional daughter if he hasn’t been groomed for service as he was in the original film?
There’s an explanation of sorts offered within Sanders’ film. We’re told that the hacking left a vacuum to be filled by false memories. It’s not an especially satisfactory explanation, especially for a film with three credited screenwriters – why was Henshall talking about his daughter before the hack then? – but it does serve as an inadvertent metaphor for the artistic anaemia motivating this remake. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell is a hollowed-out husk of the original film; fragmented, fragile memories of the original film floating through an insipid simulacrum of their inspiration. The iconic moments are reimagined but they’re crudely fastened to an intellectually-vacant iteration of the worst features of Hollywood science fiction.
Take the scene of the garbage man’s interview. In the original film, it plays out in a non-descript, featureless interrogation room. 22 years later, it’s restaged with Henshall’s character confined within a glass cube surrounded by unexplained gadgets and Section 9 employees. If that sounds familiar – like a scene from, say, The Avengers, or Star Trek: Into Darkness, or Spectre – well, you’re not alone. Even the texture of the scene resembles those films, with our antagonist – named Kuze and played by Michael (Carmen?) Pitt – briefly hacking his way back into the garbage man’s body and mocking his captors. Rather than try to evoke the existential loss of the source material, Sanders opts for mimicking popular Hollywood films of recent years.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell guts Oshii’s atmospheric philosophy in favour of a brutish story of vengeance and violence. The kind of story where institutions aren’t to be trusted, but their corruption is located entirely within one individual rather than a decaying system. The kind of story where exposition is blunt and ugly, where themes are explained rather than explored, where action is more important than anything else. It’s Ghost in the Shell, I suppose, but only in that those moments – the dive, the spider tank, the optical camouflage fight scene, Kusanagi’s creation – are recreated as though they’re half remembered by a writer who saw the film once over a decade ago and remembers – and understands – nothing else.
The way these features are crowbarred into the narrative is often egregiously unimaginative. Do we really need a diegetic explanation for Batou’s cyborg eyes? Surely we’re happy to accept this as a feature of this cybernetic world. Yet the screenplay has no faith in the intelligence of its audience. Some such deviations are understandable. Johansson’s bodysuit is probably a necessary modification; expecting an actress to perform these scenes in the nude is likely a bridge too far (though one wonders what the box office would have looked like in this instance). Yet that sense of the liminal space between technology and the organic is lost when Johansson merely looks like she’s wearing a shiny body suit; maybe she’s a robot, but she doesn’t read as a cyborg.
It didn’t have to be this way. I don’t subscribe to the belief that adaptations must be faithful, that deviations are treachery. To go in a different direction in interpreting Oshii’s film is a good idea – it’s a different era, and it’s made in a different country. Before seeing the film, I was agnostic about the whitewashing charges directed at Johansson’s casting; after all, if this had been a truly intelligent reinterpretation, she could have been the perfect fit. (Coincidentally, I noted in my review of the original film a couple of years ago two films inspired by Ghost in the Shell: Her and Under the Skin.)
But much like the garbage man hollowed out and left with broken shards of a past life, this Ghost in the Shell is a vacuum filled with rubbish. It offers nothing new, just cobbled-together pieces of superior films. The only notable thing about it is its visuals: its special effects, its design, its cinematography. They extrapolate on the original film, and offer enough that, in the moments when no-one’s talking, you can almost fool yourself into thinking you’re watching a good film.
Where’s the atmosphere, though? Where’s that sense of loneliness in a metropolis, the idea of being an expendable soldier in a hive of homogeneity? The hologram ads that tower over Sanders’ city are imposing, but flashy without signifying anything. They pay homage to Blade Runner, but without capturing the anxious claustrophobia that film evoked. Sanders recreates the scene from the original film where Kusanagi meditates in the depths of the ocean, but instead of the suffocating blackness he fills the screen with oversized, glowing CGI jellyfish. It’s technically impressive but utterly soulless; there’s no ghost in this shell.