Thoughts on the Ghost in the Shell Movie

I finally got around to watching the Ghost in the Shell movie… and I’ve got some things to say about it. TL;DR: The movie is perfectly mediocre. What they got wrong comes down to their creative liberties. What they got right was capturing the look of the anime (mostly).

Before clicking Read More, do note: I’m gonna get a bit spoiler-y for the movie, the anime, etc. If you care about not knowing anything about these, don’t read on.

Are we Gonna Talk About… You Know? That?

I don’t want to dwell on the white washing in the movie. It’s been talked about enough. One thing I do want to echo is that the only believable excuse for why white washing happens besides racism, making a movie more bankable, is proving to be less and less true as time marches on. The decision to recast ethnic characters with white actors is at the tipping point where you will not make as much money. At least right now, for how much you’re spending on expensive white actors, you can spend less on an actor of the “right” ethnicity and put the savings towards making the rest of the movie better. You should be paying actors of different ethnicities the same as white actors, but you won’t. Yet.

Anyways, lets talk about Intellectual Property and what Hollywood doesn’t understand about transitioning properties to the big screen.

Messing with an Origin Story

When you’re transitioning a property from one format (in this case manga and anime) to another (blockbuster movie), there are two decisions you need to make up front: Be authentic to the story/plot/characters from the original format, or change things for your new format. You can walk the line and try to do both, and we’ve seen success with that in comic book movies. I would argue that it’s much easier for comic book movies to do that, though.

Lets use Superman as an example. We literally don’t even need to acknowledge his origin story anymore, you know it. Every new Superman story still includes the origin, though. That said, we’re also at a point where every new Superman story changes things a bit. The basics are still there but some elements change. On the flip side of that we have stories like Superman: Red Sun. For those that don’t know, basically it asks the question, “What if instead of crash landing in Kansas, Kal’El crash landed in Soviet Russia?” The extreme basics are still there but that one detail has major implications about who Superman becomes. We’re all comfortable with, if not truly happy with, huge changes to a character’s story like this because it’s truly different from the dozens upon dozens of other stories about this character.

So what does this have to do with GitS? The movie follows an iconic (but admittedly not Superman iconic) character, “Major.” Cool, same character we know from all the anime. The thing is… it’s not The Major as we know her. GitS as a property has effectively 3 versions of the Major: The manga, the anime movies, and the anime shows. I’m not enough of a GitS fan to dive into the subreddits, forums, etc. to see the arguments between fans of if these are truly all the same characters, as in seamless timeline, but I know they happened. Then the GitS Arise prequel series happened a couple years ago and it allows an in-universe chronology to connect them, mostly. The manga, which I’ve never read, apparently is still it’s own thing, but the anime movies and TV shows can mostly fit in the same time line thanks to Arise. At least that’s my understanding of things.

This matters in relation to the Hollywood movie because they’re reinventing a character that fans know very well, but has very few iterations. Changing it feels very superfluous. When you consider how true to the original certain scene recreations were, or how much attention was paid to bringing certain visual aspects to life, it’s even more strange. Why recreate this character’s origin when you’re keeping so much the same?

Time to get a bit Spoiler-y

I really want to try and communicate to you why this bothered me. There was one scene, one particular reveal, that changed my opinion of the film while I watched it. Up until that scene, I wasn’t thrilled with the movie but I wasn’t mad at it. They made some bad artistic liberty choices but it’s a bunch of honky Hollywood suits, what did we expect? Well, I sure as shit didn’t expect them to back pedal on those decisions.

When the movie opens we see Mira, aka Major. Fans of GitS know that her name should be Motoko. She’s “the first” brain to be implanted into a fully synthetic body. Again, fans of GitS will know that the origin of Motoko’s cyborg body is quite different, and she certainly isn’t the first or only by any stretch, but again… Gotta dumb things down because The American Heartland don’t wanna thunk bout it. Then we get a whole bunch of “straight from the anime” scenes, classic side characters are introduce, a few were all the sudden very not-Asian, and there’s this new chick on the Section 9 team that I totally don’t understand who she is supposed to be. FINE. Whatever. Seeing ScarJo run around like a badass doing badass shit is worth this up to this point.

The plot is very similar to a mix of the GitS Arise series merging with the original GitS anime movie. That’s what I picked up from the trailers, too, which I thought was a good idea at the time. It would provide a good origin story type movie to turn this into a franchise. There’s a lot of implanted memories because cyber-brains stuff, what do I believe is true, what is real type stuff happening that allows for rapid character development and excuses otherwise very direct exposition. They could have capitalized on this better than they did, but fine. Whatever.

The problem is… As we’re learning that Mira’s memories are fake, and she’s tracking down her true past, she finds this old lady in an apartment. Her daughter disappeared blah blah blah. Clearly you understand this is Mira’s real mom before they drag it out for another few minutes and they might as well be screaming, “DO YOU GET IT? WHAT A TWIST!” What legitimately threw me off… This woman says her daughter’s name was Motoko.

Mira actually is “the real” Major. The way how she became the Major is the only thing “that’s wrong.” It’s as if the studio knew fans would be mad about it but still wanted to dance the line as some opportunity to be edgy or something. What a fucking weird decision. On top of everything else you’ve got going against you, you’re going to setup another thing for fans to be displeased with?

Why That was Really Dumb

There are fans that are far more hard core than me that were going to hate the movie no matter what. There are people that don’t actually care about GitS but do care about white washing that you pissed off at casting calls. There are people that love anything that’s shiny and were going to like it no matter what. Then there’s me. I like most movies I see, I rarely hate a movie, and I’m usually pretty accepting of bad decisions if I can see the logic behind them and accept it. I mean shit, I actually kind of liked Batman vs. Superman, and overall I thought Suicide Squad had serious flaws but doesn’t deserve the hate. I can accept things for what they are pretty easily.

That weird decision to make The Major not-her-but-actually-her killed this movie for me. Up until that point I accepted it for what it is: A mediocre attempt at bringing anime to Hollywood. Once that scene wrapped up, I just kept saying to myself, “Wait. Did they really just do that? Why? This is just shitty.” I guess that’s what the bigger comic book nerds than me were doing during Suicide Squad. I get it now? I dunno. Anyways, it tainted an otherwise acceptable movie.

Considering how true to the original so many aspects of the movie are, they really should have just done a Zach Synder-esque shot for shot remake of the anime. Dumb it down for Kansas, sure, but don’t try this half-assed attempt at being original. Why put all the effort in being authentic everywhere else if the story is going to be such a grotesque adaptation?

Any Other Low Points?

The merging of plot lines from previous GitS stories wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. The story I pieced together from the trailers made a lot more sense that what we actually got. I think trying to merge two GitS stories together so they could recreate certain iconic scenes but still attempt to be a new story hurt them a lot.

It’s a little hard for me to fault Scarlett Johansson for her “inaccurate” portrayal of The Major because this isn’t The Major I’m used to seeing. The Major is a cyborg, so her mannerisms are often quite robotic. She also is constantly connected to the GitS version of the internet, researching topics or suspects, hunting for clues, whatever it may be, and that makes her socially distant most of the time. I think ScarJo did a decent job pulling off the look of that, but the movie didn’t get a chance to explain it. I think people that aren’t as familiar with GitS will recognize she’s supposed to be a bit robotic but not understand why she’s so fluid one moment and so stoic the next. On the other hand, there’s a certain delicate softness to ScarJo’s Major that I think is a cheap way to communicate that part of the anime’s Major. The anime dived into The Major’s psyche by showing a quirky sense of humor and focusing on her struggling with the philosophy of the GitS world. When she would appear vulnerable it was because of an extremely traumatic experience having just happened, or other times it was a ploy to get inside someone’s defenses. ScarJo’s was very… Americanized. I’m certain there’s a better way to put this, but ScarJo’s Major is attempting to be lady-like in those moments of vulnerability. It reminded me of women from old black and white films, batting their eyelashes and hoping for someone to come along and make it all OK. The anime’s Major was in the Japanese military for years and possibly a cyborg since childhood (if one particular Stand Alone Complex episode is canon), so when she’s vulnerable it’s more like a trapped animal, expose the neck or turn violent. She’s not waiting for someone to fix it, she does the fixing.

The other characters were … there? I guess? At first I liked Arimaki’s conversion to the big screen but in act 3 it didn’t feel right anymore. Arimaki’s far too much of a diplomat to pull out a revolver and start lighting dudes up. Batou’s cybernetic eyes were a military thing, not a response to a particular incident. There’s a lot more to that character than big dude with weird eyes. Togusa’s a great detective and generally pretty happy. He’s the “heart” of Section 9, not some grizzled ex-cop that snaps at people for cracking wise. There was a chick on the Section 9 team that I couldn’t figure out who she replaced. That probably helped me accept it more, she was mostly fine. I think she was supposed to be Paz maybe? Saito pops up at the very end for like 2 seconds so you can’t really comment on that.

I could have accepted the big reveal if it didn’t feel forced. I don’t know if it was intentional or they did a re-shoot. It wasn’t organic at all, and that in itself isn’t a commentary on cybernetics.

Was Anything Decent?

Sure. Visually the movie is quite stunning. Transferring a comic book or anime that’s set in the “near future” to a Hollywood blockbuster is difficult because you’ll be tempted to change details in how certain things look or work. You might want to further modernize one thing, or utilize a look that came after the original because it’s cooler or more eye catching. GitS makes that temptation almost less appealing because everything that the source material does is already so cool looking. I was worried that they would model certain aspects on The Matrix, which would be a poor choice since The Matrix was heavily inspired by GitS. Luckily they stuck to the source on many of these aspects and it worked for them. The only place that I think they improved on it is utilizing slow-mo. It was used relatively sparingly in the action scenes, but when it was there it was to highlight the speed that The Major functions at. Beyond that I felt like the slo-mo was used just as it was in the anime, to show off the art style.

One of my favorite things was the inclusion of GitS’ weird cars. As a car guy I love trying to identify what the specific car is supposed to be, but they change up the design just enough so they won’t get sued and so it looks more futuristic. They nailed that in the movie.

Walking into the movie I also had one demand. If they didn’t do it, it would be declared utter crap. For whatever reason, every anime movie, every season of the show, during a climatic fight Major will rip something open, or beat something up, or get shot at a whole bunch, and in the process rip off one, or both, of her arms. I don’t know why it does that, I don’t get what it’s supposed to represent besides dedication or something… but it always. happens. It’s not that I want to see someone shred their own body, it’s just such an iconic moment for every GitS story that at this point it has to be there. It’s like a sci-fi movie without the wilhelm scream, or George Lucas not cutting off someone’s hand.

I really appreciated that they didn’t waste time explaining things that can be explained with “because future” or “because anime.” I don’t need you to explain thermal optic camo with words, just show the Major turning invisible in a way that looks technological and we’re good (which is what they did).

How Many Stars?

I give a 2.5 out of 5 stars. The most perfectly average, mediocre adaptation we could expect. One metric unit of anime to big screen movie. The good stuff exists but it’s not good enough to mask the glaring flaws.

Posted by JP Powers