What an execrable mess. It’s so embarrassing when a well-respected piece of storytelling is remade under the Hollywood banner and thoroughly butchered. You would think with so much access to talent and resources, a Hollywood film would take the work to the next level. Instead, it shoves it to the depths. This film is not worth anyone’s money.
When going into a film like this, you shouldn’t expect much, but it’s rare to receive less. I wish I could have just been there when the film was being made. I just wish I could have witnessed the astounding lack of artistic integrity the filmmakers must have had. The story in this movie was so lazily created that they actually lifted whole scenes and moments from the 1990s anime, its sequel and, just maybe, the subsequent TV series. The rest of the film was a stereotypical science fiction “evil corporation” story line bolted onto these moments. There is literally an evil corporation with an evil CEO and a well-meaning but complicit scientist. About halfway through the film I literally thought I was watching Robocop for the mentally disabled with maybe some brain-dead Bladerunner thrown in “just because”.
The ripped-off scenes and moments warrant some more attention. The filmmakers behind this mess very clearly watched both anime films and said to themselves, “Yep. Let’s do that.”. There were actual shot-for-shot recreations in some parts of the film. This wouldn’t be so bad if the filmmakers actually had respect for the original work, but they didn’t. None of these sections of the film have even close to the same kind of resonance as in the anime. In the original work, they were important to the overall discussion of identity and reality. In this film, they’re just there. Everything is completely neutered of value.
The writing in this film was garbage, but the actors themselves were in top form. I know this because they delivered their lines with a straight face. I just wonder how many takes were necessary. A couple examples really stand out. One is Batou’s monologue about memories and reality. It’s easy to see where the writers got this idea from, but it’s difficult to see why they thought it would work in this particular film. In the original anime films such a monologue would not need to be so ham-fisted or so awkwardly worked into the story. The original anime was a deep meditation on the ideas of identity, self and evolution. The concepts permeated the work and were alluded to verbally and visually. Here’s it’s just something the writers vomited up and it shows.
Another example of bad writing is Togusa, who in this film is apparently some kind of anti-cyborg bigot. He lectures his teammates on why he will never be “enhanced”. Keep in mind, of course, that the film begins with a statement that the line between human and machine is already blurred. Plus he’s in a high-tech government special ops team. A team where everyone is fitted with communication devices in their bodies to pass information without talking. He’s already enhanced. Everyone is. This attitude of Togusa’s wouldn’t be so bad if it was somehow attached to the story. It isn’t. Like Batou’s faux-intellectual monologue, it’s thrown in there and never brought up again. There’s no background discussion on the social trend of “enhancement” or some overt discussion on Togusa’s reluctance to be enhanced. He just says his thing and then the rest of the movie goes on.
This type of “say a bunch of stuff and forget it” permeates the entire film. When the Major finds a bunch of people wired together in a basement, she notes the person she’s chasing must be able to evade Section 9 by using these people to create his own network. That’s nice, but why? Why would it be necessary to abduct people and turn them into living computer nodes in a network? How does this help him evade anything when he still needs to use the regular network to hack into people’s brains and computers? Did these living computer nodes do this willingly? Do they eat? What happens if one of them dies off? None of this is explored in any way. The Major makes her statement and the film just kind of goes on as if she never said it.
Speaking of the Major, I feel particularly bad for Scarlett Johansson. I feel she’s a fine actor who was criminally constrained in this film. First, her very movement was distracting. It’s as if the director told her to watch that Monty Python sketch on funny walking and then said “Don’t go as far as they did. You want come to the edge of ridiculous, but don’t quite cross it”. I exaggerate slightly, but there is definitely a strangeness to how she is walking. It seems like this was done to emphasize her difference from the others, but it just felt like someone in costuming gave her very bad shoes to wear.
Walking aside, Johansson doesn’t seem to have been allowed to have much in the way of character. This is again some kind of misreading of the original anime. The Major in the anime was conflicted and having a crisis of identity and self. She was reserved, but clearly had personality. In this bastardization, the Major is just completely vacant. There’s a difference between having detached intellect and just being bland and for whatever reason the filmmakers couldn’t quite make the difference. Scarlett Johansson felt like she wasn’t allowed to really make the character her own and that in turn made her look vaguely uncomfortable in the role.
The writers of the film completely butchered the concept of a ghost and of ghost-diving. The word “ghost” is said multiple times, but I never once felt there was anything behind it. In the original manga and anime, the word “ghost” meant a person’s consciousness; their sense of self and identity and the thing that separates a person from a machine. Here’s it’s a word that seems to be used because it was found in the original work. It’s as if the writers were hoping that if certain words and phrases were used enough it would give this movie some kind of legitimacy it didn’t actually earn. In fact, the writing was so bad and so on the nose that at one point a character says “The virus has spread”. For a moment I literally thought I missed something about a virus being used before realizing that the character was speaking metaphorically. That’s how bad the writing was. I was primed to think that no one would speak in an advanced manner.
The idea of ghost-diving was given a certain kind of technical treatment in the anime and manga that is only superficially touched on here. When the Major decides to dive into a geisha android, there is immediate talk of the dangers of an unencrypted dive or that Batou should be there in case “bad code comes my way”. This is all nonsense. It’s painfully obvious that the writers threw this in to sound technical and futuristic. It’s also obvious they didn’t have any idea what they were writing. The subsequent dive scene looks slick, but is otherwise the same stereotypical stuff we’ve seen in other science fiction films. I don’t even have to describe it. Just think about the visuals you’ve seen when one person “enters cyberspace” or “looks inside someone’s mind”. I’m pretty sure the sequence in your imagination will match closely to what was in this movie.
The Hanka Robotics CEO, the man who controls the program that created the Major, could not be more of a cliché. Believe me, I’m not spoiling anything when I say that he kidnaps innocent people to experiment on, only sees the result as a weaponized product (because the resulting medical technology from something like this would never be worth anything…), threatens people, sends faceless evil henchmen after them and kills employees who defy him. There is nothing here that is not a a two-dimensional attempt at writing. Why would the filmmakers do this? Why did the they think this would pass for quality? The whole purpose of this character is to provide enough plot points to wrap all the scenes the filmmakers stole from previous works. There is no depth and no value beyond that.
Let’s turn our attention to the other antagonist. You’ve seen him in the trailers telling the Major that “they didn’t save your life, they stole it”. This character seems to have been lifted from the series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I think it was the second season. In that episode a highly skilled hacker (in a hoodie, no less) causes some havoc with politicians and such. The filmmakers have taken that idea and worked in some kind of nonsense about the Major being the last in a line of prototypes, lost memories and so on.
I was so disgusted with this film I walked out as soon as the credits started rolling. Because of this I didn’t see the name of the actor who portrayed this character. I will say that I think it was an actor from the show Boardwalk Empire. He did a commendable job with the character; I think he was quite good with his mannerisms and speech patterns. That said, the entire existence of this character is a detriment to the film. The Major and this uber-hacker have ridiculous discussions that pay lip service to the anime’s ideas on man-machine evolution while perpetuating the standard movie trope of the betrayed hero discovering that things are not what they seem.
Finally, the existence of this character allows the filmmakers to side-step one of the most important moments of the original anime. In the anime, the Major merges her mind with an artificial intelligence and subsequently ascends to a higher state of being. Here, the uber-hacker is already on the cusp of this. He’s ready to go, but she doesn’t want to go with him. So he goes. Then he dies. But it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t need his body anymore, so it’s okay. What? Where’s the enlightenment and the deep philosophical statement of the original story? It’s just gone.
I’m not spoiling much when I point out that the film ends with the Major on a rooftop overlooking the city like a dark angel. There’s some monologue about how memories don’t define us, but actions do. Then she jumps off the building and disappears thanks to her camouflage outfit. There are some problems with this. First, the Major is not a superhero and this is not a superhero movie. It looks to me like someone remembered that Johansson plays the Black Widow in Marvel’s films and wanted to take advantage. The problem with this is that no one is going to care. The writing of the entire movie so superficially covers these ideas that the filmmakers should have just cut out that whole monologue. What purpose did it serve anyway? The Major doesn’t go through enough of a story arc to warrant anything like this.
The final shot is the Major jumping off the building and doing her camouflage thing. This one shot demonstrates that no one driving this film understood the source material. In the original anime film, this shot appears at the very beginning of the story. It’s there for an important reason. It foreshadows the major theme of identity in the film by visually saying “What you’re looking at is an illusion. You don’t see the real me.” That’s why it’s at the beginning of the film and not the end. Putting this shot at the end completely neuters it of meaning. It’s fan service at best. There’s just no purpose for it, like so much of the rest of the film.
Yes, this has been more of a rant than a review, but I would like to point out something. I saw this movie in an IMAX 3D theater on a Sunday afternoon at the Universal Citywalk in Los Angeles. In the entire theater there were maybe ten people, including myself. That is saying a huge amount about this movie. You should not see this it. If you do, do not pay for it. This movie is badly made and poorly conceptualized and does not deserve your hard-earned money. Go rent the original anime Ghost in the Shell and its sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. They are so much better than what you would see in this live-action debacle.