There is a lot of material to choose from if you want to bring Ghost in the Shell to the big screen again. There’s the manga, two anime movies and a TV series, and I may have forgotten one or two other films or series. This 2017 life action movie takes the anime from 1995 as its template. Some other material from the series is mixed in there, but the basic beats of the 1995 story are followed closely, and most of the iconic scenes from 1995 are reproduced in life action. So, to fully understand all the choices made in this year’s film, seeing the anime first is highly recommended.
So yeah, most of this film coasts on a feeling of “hey I recognize this!” The next question is: did they do a good job? I was terrified that this movie would be Lucy 2, a terribly insulting experience of a movie. But thankfully, Ghost in the Shell keeps enough of its predecessor’s thoughtfulness to give a more rewarding experience than Lucy, a shell of a movie.
The greatest difference between the 1995 anime and the 2017 film is that the film lacks a sense of mystery. The 1995 anime retained an ambiguity about any answers. It presented the merging of humans and machines as an unexplored territory where nobody knew what the effects would be. The Major herself was some kind of in-between lifeform where it was unknown to us and to herself how much humanity still remained inside her. The new film doesn’t stress this mystery so much. It simply presents the Major as a human brain inside a robotic body. She still wonders about her human side, but it comes in the form of memories from the past, and not as a directionless feeling of being lost.
Changing the antagonist has the same effect. The puppet master in 1995 was a crucial part of the mystery that the film tried to investigate. But now in 2017 we have an antagonist, Kuze, who is only somewhat similar but is much more connected to the Major’s past and less to the mystery of machine intelligence. In other words, the story of Ghost in the Shell has been turned in its entirety towards a slightly more mundane direction: that of finding out the Major’s past. And that just doesn’t generate the same sense of pathos that the 1995 anime achieves. In typical Hollywood style, the story is now easier to understand with an easier point of departure and easier point of destination, but its impact is diminished.
The visuals get the same treatment. The special effects are stunning beyond doubt, and this futuristic version of Tokyo/Hong Kong is a feast for the eyes. The overall sense is that of a gray city, overlaid by a circus of brightly colored advertisements. It’s not as dour as the 1995 film, although that moody atmosphere served its own goal. But most of the visual metaphors have become lost. The city no longer clearly echoes the inner conflict of the major, but has just become an opportunity for special effects specialists to show off. So too the symbolism is gone of the museum of natural history as a setting for the climax.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a valiant effort and clearly made by people enthusiastic about the story and the world-building of the original. But it ever so slightly misses the point that made the first film so good, while retaining the surface-level entertainments. A typical example of Hollywood dumbing things down again. The sad thing is that a film like Blade Runner did show that deeper level of thoughtfulness and mystery, which was a risk at the time but made it highly appreciated in future years. This film will not gain the same following in the future. That following will stick with the earlier manga and anime.