(This review spoilers both the 1995 and 2017 films.)
Ghost in the Shell comes in several instantiations—the original manga, two movies, two anime series, and now the Hollywood movie. The outstandingly best of these is the first movie, also named Ghost in the Shell (1995). The 1995 movie follows an elite Japanese security unit, Section 9, that tracks a mysterious hacker, the Puppetmaster. After a series of dead ends—witnesses who have been “ghost-hacked”, their cyber-brains stripped of their memories and identity—the Puppetmaster presents himself to Section 9 in a cyborg body, claiming to be a computer program that has gained consciousness—a “ghost” in the series’ terminology—on the net, and asks for asylum. The Puppetmaster’s body is whisked away by a competing government agency, Section 6.
Aside from this foreground plot—which, a bit murkily, is interlaced with a larger foreign spying plot—the movie’s focus is really on Section 9’s commander in the field, the “Major”, Motoko Kusanagi. With only a few organic patches of brain tissue remaining, she is fully cyborg. The Major is a competent, no-nonsense leader, but the movie takes its time to show her as brooding and existentially unsettled. What really distinguishes her from a machine? How can she trust her digital memories and sense of self? “Whispers” in her ghost draw Kusanagi to the Puppetmaster. In the film’s climax, she dives into his (or its) consciousness. He suggests that they “merge” to become a new, more complete entity.
The 1995 movie’s main themes, in other words, are self-creation and evolution. There’s the Puppetmaster, the program who claims to have exited Searle’s Chinese Room and gained genuine consciousness in the unconstrained depths of the net; by contrast, there’s the Major’s human ghost trapped in her barren state-of-the-art cyborg body. Kusanagi accepts the Puppetmaster’s offer, and in a coda we find her—or rather, the new hybrid which emerges—in a child’s cyborg body, rebirthed.
2017’s Ghost in the Shell vaguely follows these plot contours, though much of the detail is changed. There again is a mysterious hacker to which the Major—now whitewashed as “Mira Killian”—finds herself mysteriously drawn. But the focus is squarely on the Major’s past, not her future: we are told that the Major is the first of her kind—the first full cyborg with a transplanted human brain. She is trained as an operative and given to Section 9, but the intentions of her makers, the Hanka company, remain dodgy. The Major suffers from sudden flashbacks, explained away to her by Hanka engineers as glitches.
The plot is not hard to predict for the genre-savvy from here: the Major’s past of course involves deception, false memories, and conspiracy. Killian will slowly unravel her past, and when she comes to close to the truth, she is captured by the bad guys only to escape, which sets her up for the final showdown. Ultimately, of course, she will find her “true” past. So the 2017 movie decides to tell a pretty predictable origins story which follows the playbook of the modern superhero blockbuster closely.
The central question in both movies is the search for individual identity. But by and large, Kusanagi’s searching quest for meaning finds only a shallow echo in Killian’s treasure hunt for lost memories. There is no suggestion that Kusanagi lacks childhood memories, or that she is unclear about her past. She is also not one of a kind—she is not even the only full cyborg in her own unit. What animates Kusanagi are genuine existential worries about her own identity; the 2017 film’s makers are obviously worried that this will be too abstract for their audience, and decide to throw in a conspiracy plot.
Another theme in both movies is body alienation. The 1995 movie shows Kusanagi a lot in the nude, though this is subtle misdirection. In one of the final scenes, we see the Major’s perfect body ripped and shredded apart, its joints breaking and its limbs falling away—but of course she remains alive: it’s not naked flesh with which we have been titillated throughout the movie, but a human-shaped tangle of wires and metal. The Major’s body at its core it’s a highly designed fighting machine, owned (so she says) by the government; that she appears in the body of a woman, or a recognisably human body at all, is only a matter of convenience or nostalgia.
Some of the 2017 movie’s strongest scenes centre around the same issue—the strangeness of the Major’s cyborg body. The film does not shy away from showing Killian nude—or more precisely, unclothed—and the CGI conveys her body’s steely (a)sexuality well. The movie also takes greater time than the 1995 iteration to show the Major’s uncomfortableness with her own body (if this is a theme in the 1995 movie at all).
Connected to the question of the Major’s body is the issue of reproduction—the 1995 Puppetmaster’s claim to being a lifeform comes from its ability to reproduce, which the Major lacks. This turns out to be one of the major themes of the movie, delivered through awkward monologues on DNA. The American adaptation skirts around this issue—the issue is perhaps too awkward for Hollywood. The sexual tension between the Major and a fellow cyborg is similarly downplayed. (However, the film hints at the Major’s interest in other women, something that the manga source material depicted explicitly.)
The main theme of the 1995 movie, the evolution of consciousness, is also largely cut from the new movie, though there are some weird remnants. There is a throw-away line in the middle of the movie that the antagonist hacker, Kuze, has set up a decentralised “network of brains”; and the climactic scene of the original movie—Kuze’s/the Puppetmaster’s offer to merge with the Major—remains. She says no this time; but—in addition to the nature of his offer being somewhat unexplained—it would be nonsensical for Killian to accept. After all, she has just resolved the mysteries regarding her past, and those where the main mysteries regarding her identity that plagued her. The offer which was crucial for 1995’s Kusanagi is meaningless to 2017’s Killian.
2017’s Ghost in the Shell combines 1995’s Puppet Master with features of one of the main protagonists/antagonists of the anime series, Hideo Kuze, the messianic leader of a post-world war III refugee emancipation fighter front, who also has mysterious links to the Major’s past. That short description should hint at how much potential the figure had for interesting story-telling. But again, the Hollywood adaptation wastes many opportunities, as it shies away from the refugee angle, or the post-war angle, or even the political emancipation angle. What remains of Kuze is a link to the Major’s past.
Overall, the 2017 movie can’t really decide on a theme, so it decides to include them all. The disturbing possibilities of “ghost-hacking”? Check. Search for a lost past? Check. Wondering about the difference between man and machine? Check. Rebelling against one’s makers? Check.—The list continues. Each of these questions, however, remain underdeveloped. Worse, it’s clear that the movie doesn’t trust its audience’s intelligence—the “ghost in the shell” metaphor, for example, is explained to us in an excruciating scene unless anyone had problems with it.
That’s a shame, because the 1995 movie is best seen as a rough diamond. While the 2017 movie decides to remain intellectually superficial, the philosophical messages in the 1995 movie are normally delivered through clunky monologues which have the self-important tone of high school. There was an opportunity here for a slicker, more subtle re-interpretation, one that was missed. Blade Runner remains much superior in this respect to both.
Ghost in the Shell is also well-known for its distinctive style. (It was an important influence, for example, on The Matrix.) The 2017 movie pays close homage to that style. Many of the most famous scenes are recreated impressively, and the original’s sci-fi noir visuals are captured excellently. Both in content and style, then, it is clear that the new movie takes its source material seriously, though it lacks the audacity to really live up to its promising themes. Instead, it handles the philosophical themes inconsistently in a tame and predictable plot. It seems unlikely that this new re-imagination of Ghost in the Shell will be as influential as the original.