[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
In the last review, we discussed Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. That got me thinking of another movie starring Scarlett Johansson, the 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell. The original Ghost in the Shell is arguably one of the more influential sci-fi movies in the genre. The dramatic visuals found in The Matrix have been attributed to the 1995 anime, and given the culture’s increasing fascination with AI, the concepts discussed in the original and the remake are more relevant now than when the anime was first released.
Sadly, the 2017 remake was bogged down in a trite controversy regarding race-swapping which is when a character’s race is changed to appeal to American audiences. Frankly, this has happened countless times in movies, and race-swapping continues to this day, so I consider the timing of this controversy to be suspect. To be blunt, I suspect the true reason for the contrived drama was because Ghost in the Shell actually affirms the existence of the soul, and the remake took the idea a step further by allowing that soul to break through the human programming forced onto the protagonist’s mind by the nefarious doctors. Well, our communist overlords in Hollywood couldn’t sit well with that. How can the government be god if an intangible soul can escape their programming? I think they stirred up some controversy to scare audiences away from the movie, and I’m sorry to say, it worked. I don’t think this movie got near the attention it deserved. Really, it’s a wonder this remake was made at all.
Comparing the Remake and the Original
Lastly, I should point out that there are several key differences between the remake and the original, and it’s important to mention this because as I was watching the remake and the original in preparation for this review, I made a startling discovery. I actually enjoyed the remake more than the original. That’s not to say the original is bad by any stretch. The anime is amazing in its own right, but I would argue that the remake actually has a tighter script.
The movie starts with the iconic sequence of the construction of the Major’s body. Then Major wakes up, and Dr. Ouelet tells her that she nearly drowned during a terrorist attack, but the doctors had managed to save her brain and constructed for her an experimental body. Major’s parents however were killed. So, when Cutter, the businessman who funded the construction of her body, orders her to join Section 9, a squad of soldiers who fight terrorists, she doesn’t ask questions.
The next scene shows the Major standing on top of a building and leaping off the edge before disappearing. In the original, there is a haunting scene where the Major assassinates an official, and as the bodyguards look out the shattered window, they see a woman with a near-transparent hand waving to them, and as the hand crosses over her face, she vanishes. The remake holds off on this shot—saving it for the end—and focuses on the Major’s mission instead. Before jumping from the skyscraper, Major was listening to a representative from Hanka who was trying to land a robotics deal with an African delegate. Then armed men charge into the building and capture the Hanka representative. Major takes her leap and crashes into the building, attempting to save the representative, and while she kills her opponents and destroys all the robots, she’s unable to save the man. She and Section 9 later find out that the representative was not only killed but had also been hacked by a terrorist named Kuze. The question is why.
As they look for Kuze, the Major begins having what she calls “glitches,” mostly of a small, abandoned building which appears to her at random times. She tells Dr. Ouelet about these glitches, but the doctor makes little of them, and deletes them from the Major’s hard drive.
At the same time, Major often confides in her partner, Batou, about her misgivings regarding what she is, often considering herself more of a tool, rather than a human, but Batou as well as her boss, Armaki, assure her that she is human, her ghost is in the shell.
The existential crisis is well done in both versions of the movie. Usually, the question of whether or not the protagonist is still their original selves is left open-ended, but the supporting characters in Ghost in the Shell make every effort to reassure the Major of her humanity. And what I found personally refreshing is that they didn’t opt for some ambiguous or even nihilistic response like, “Your brain, you, what’s the difference?” They all affirm a transcendental quality to her humanity and insist that the real her is inside the “shell” regardless of what she’s made of. It’s a different take from the usual dribble about there being nothing outside of matter.
Eventually, Major decides to do what they call a “deep dive” into another robot which was hacked during the attack on the Hanka representative. The idea is that she will explore the robot’s hard drive, trying to find Kuze through a residual signal he’s left behind when he invaded the robot’s code. The Major does this hack, and here was probably the only real weak part of the movie. During the deep dive, Kuze tries to hack into her mind as well, and this is represented by a horde of humans covered in black cloaks trying to pull the Major to the floor. It was a little confusing. And the bad visual also weakens the film because this moment serves as the reason why Kuze takes an interest in the Major to begin with. He says he recognizes something about her code during this deep dive, but because of this strange horror-like scene representing his attempt to hack her, the viewer doesn’t really see him recognize something. So, when Kuze mentions this recognition of her later in the film, the moment feels forced because it wasn’t properly set up. It feels like a cliché “You and I Aren’t So Different” moment rather than foreshadowing. The Major escapes Kuze’s attempt to hack her mind and finds his location. She, Batou, and another team member from Section 9 rush to catch Kuze, and we’ll cover what happens then in the next review.