Adaptation. Remix. Retelling. In the creative world, nothing is new. Every story, every song, and every film is built upon what came before. The parts are as old as antiquity, but they are arranged in new ways. Sometimes it works out, but for every Jurassic Park, you’ll get Spawn, or Mortal Kombat Annihilation, or Ghost in the Shell. I just watched the latter:
It was shit.
The first Ghost in the Shell movie, released in 1995, was an adaptation itself. It was based on Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga, but was eventually turned into a film by visionary Mamoru Oshii. It was a beautiful film lovingly animated down to the frame much like Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA. Ghost in the Shell. Scenes in this film inspired many well afterwards including the Wachowskis who went on to make The Matrix.
I saw the anime film when I was a kid and it blew away my mind. It’s philosophical themes on existence and what it meant to be a person was fascinating. Oshii’s film is basically a regurgitation of Kant and other philosophers, but it presents these ideas in interesting ways. It made me question reality, people, and even myself: was it all truly real? If we are based on memories, what happens when these memories are edited or manufactured wholesale? At what point does a human cease to be human if they replace their body parts with cybernetics? What is life? Oshii’s film asks these questions, but never really answers them. It is up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
Where the the 95 film and its sequest Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence focuses more on the individual, the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series produced by Kenji Kamiyama focuses on the societal impact of cyberization and internet communities. The first season revolves around the mystery of The Laughing Man and the concept of a stand alone complex. This phenomenon is copycat behavior without an original resulting in a group of disconnected people acting on their own, but in similar ways. It’s the perfect explanation for Anonymous, a decentralized organization based on memes and lulz, at least back then. In the second season, the stand alone complex is weaponized for nefarious reasons, of course, but the phenomena is elaborated upon.
With Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell film, I don’t see the message. There is no philosophical or sociological theme, at least not a true one or one that can be debated. This film posits that memories do not make us who we are which is wholly incorrect. Our brains are basically compilers for memories. Strip away our memories and we are nothing. The writers for the film basically looked at the garbageman’s edited memories and took the one message from it. Instead of delving into that trove, they just say that memories do not matter, something that is said twice. First, it is ominous, but the second is more profound. That’s the theme. Except the events of the film don’t agree.
I think it’s best when the audience sympathizes with the main character either positively or negatively. It should never be neutral. In Sanders’ film, there’s a huge disconnect between us and the Major. In the opening moments of the film, we are told about her past, never shown. It’s age old advice: show, don’t tell. The filmmakers should have shown us her past even though it was manufactured wholesale. That way, then the twist hit, it affects us as well. Imagine seeing the Major actually trying to escape from a sinking ship. It would have made for a more exciting opening and played to its dumb theme a lot more than the Major waking up. What if our first moments with Neo were of him waking up in the real world instead of inside of the Matrix? The stakes wouldn’t have been the same and we certainly wouldn’t see his penchant for rebellion.
Anyway, at the end, the Major’s mentor and savior tells her that memories aren’t what makes us who we are. It is our actions. But the Major’s memories are plaguing her throughout the film. She remembers her true past as glitches. At the end of the film, she gets back together with her mother and she knows the truth of her existence. That is the result of memories. The garbageman thinks he has a child, but he doesn’t. Batou opines that the garbageman at least got to think he had one. He’s the result of memories. I know some might think it is clever that the dialogue says one thing, but the events say another, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t think the filmmakers had a grasp on the philosophy and didn’t convey it well enough. There is so much to be done about memory editing, so much to be said that this film could have gone in a different direction. Instead of just being a generic action film, it could have been more profound than The Matrix.
Like I said earlier, The Matrix was inspired by Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. I heard the story that the Wachowskis basically just used Ghost in the Shell as their pitch for The Matrix. You can see elements of it in their film. Sanders’ version does the same, but it lifts entire sequences from the anime film. So much of this film are parts from the anime films and TV show, but stitched together in the worst way. Two in particular–the fight in the water and the fight against the tank–were amazing not just because they were awesome. They were animated beautifully and with such attention to detail. In Sanders’ film, these scenes just fell flat with choppy editing and bad CGI.
The tank scene itself is a bastardization of Oshii’s version. In that version, we go through the highs and lows of the Major’s struggle. She faces it on foot with just a machine gun, then she tries to rip out its CPU and fails, then her head almost gets crushed, but then Batou saves the day with a big ass gun. In Sanders’ version, she shoots at it, gets fake exploded, and then rips the CPU out. To me, the latter is more tepid, and although I appreciate the Major not being saved in this version, I think the former is more exciting.
There’s not much to be said about the characters. The main two, the Major and Batou, are bland and the others barely got any screentime for me to care about them. It was kind of like that in the first film. The Major had a bit more personality in Oshii’s version and a ton more in the TV show which has time to flesh out most of them. Some even had entire episodes just about them. In the TV show, the Major was self-righteous, strong, capable, confident, smart, and a bit arrogant, but she backs that up with her skill. She’s assertive as fuck. They call her the Major for a reason in that show and sometimes Queen Kong.
So I am left with a film that calls itself Ghost in the Shell. It is made from the parts from the rest of the franchise and arranged in a different way. Is it still Ghost in the Shell? It maintains the veneer of an entry into the Ghost in the Shell franchise. It has heightened production values. It looks slick and beautiful, but that’s just a shell. Is there a Ghost inside?
And I’m not even going to touch the film’s stupid whitewashing.