{Guest Post} [Film: Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders, 2017]

Mostly Shell:

Explaining the Real Problems of the Live-action Ghost in the Shell


Ghost in the Shell movie poster - Rupert Sanders, Scarlett Johansson - white-washing, analysis, anime comparisonIt would be more apt for the new Scarlett Johansson movie, Ghost in the Shell, to go by another name or even another franchise; if so, it would be considered at least a decent sci-fi romp. Unfortunately, the writers of the film fundamentally failed to capture or even understand the spirit of the source material.

This is disappointing because the director and the art department has definitely captured the look and feel of the series even while taking their own interesting visual deviations as well. Nor is it any white-washing that dooms this film, as explained below. It is instead the stilted dialogue, safe plot choices, and horribly forced interpretations which hold this adaptation from being a true Ghost in the Shell adaptation.

Ghost in the Shell and the Accusations of White-washing:

A lot of internet controversy had developed early on, due to the casting decision to have non-Asian actors. This movie was inundated with accusations of white-washing long before its release. This is probably one of the only things that the screenwriters handled surprisingly well relative to the source material (probably unintentionally).

The solution they came up with was to have the Major be a Japanese woman put into a Caucasian cyborg shell. The movie handles it with more care than that sentence implies. This fits the overall Ghost in the Shell world-building structure and narrative style. The disconnect and marginalization of ethnic, racial, and cultural ties due to technology is commented on by the nature of the changeable exterior of the Major’s cyborg shell. If full-body cyborgs exist in the future, what is there to stop someone from changing their ethnicity?

Entire episodes in the anime series were devoted to characters swapping bodies, changing gender, or switching race. It is these musings on technology and humanity that made the Ghost in the Shell series such a classic.

This example, however, also highlights the main problem within the film: that this was the only attempt at acknowledgment of the ramifications of technology on human society and the individual. When you look at the other plot points, especially the ones that are lifted from the previous source material, you can see how the screenwriters really did not understand the series at all or just decided to make the more marketable decisions.

(The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell, and both seasons of the “Stand Alone Complex” TV series, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen those media. – The Gemsbok)

The Real Problems of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell:

The first problem, especially in the beginning, is the cardinal sin of telling and not showing. The dialog is clunky and at times feels like the writers believe the audience is full of idiots. None of the characters aside from the Major or Batou really have any depth to them and most of Section 9 is relegated to a single line or action. This would be fine if the focus of the movie was handled like the 1995 movie, in unapologetic philosophical manner.

Ghost in the Shell 1995 movie poster - Rupert Sanders, Scarlett Johansson - white-washing, analysis, anime comparisonHowever, the characters here are only used as a means to ram into the audience’s heads that we are in a future with cybernetic enhancements; they lack any nuance or real plot relevance whatsoever. The example I would use is early on, during the first meeting with Section 9, when Togusa (with his mullet of glory) comments on Ishikawa’s new cybernetic liver. From that moment forward, the only character of import was the Major. Even Batou and the antagonist Kuze really don’t get the screen time they deserve.

This is due to the second problem of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell: an increased focus on the Major and her origin as the fundamental structure of the plot. This leads to various changes in the world-building, such as that the Major is supposedly the first full-body cyborg of her kind—that human-brain-and-full-body-cyberization is not rampant. It is even just outright stated in the beginning and at the end that the human brain has special intangible qualities that fundamentally separate it from the androids and AI.

These changes are at odds with the anime series, which used the Tachikoma spider tank AIs and various other androids to blur the lines between humanity and machine; between what is alive and what is just a facsimile that appears to be alive.

As such, the original source material often plays around with our conceptions of the soul, consciousness, or “ghost”—which this film does not. At the very least, the new Ghost in the Shell could have made the central conflict in the series a little more morally gray. For example, if Batou had to be fully encased into a cyborg body to save his life after the explosion instead of just eye implants, this would have shown how the technology had measurably advanced because of the unethical research experiments. As it is, there really is no redeeming factor to the main villain in the movie. Even if it isn’t the same as the human/technology blurring themes, there needed to be a larger ethical conflict in the movie.

Third, many scenes are almost directly lifted from different points in the original movies and anime series, just to be jumbled together into something resembling a plot. This often leads to many questions and plot points that are never really explored.

For example . . . What was the human network that Kuze was building? What was its purpose? Was it really just to be able to not be tracked? Was it going to be part of his plan to upload himself to the net? Why does he have so many henchmen willing to die for him or be a part of this net? Are they all hacked? But if brain cyberization is not a concept in the film’s world, how exactly did the garbage truck drivers get hacked?

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex box art - Rupert Sanders, Scarlett Johansson - white-washing, analysis, anime comparisonAside from the multitude of plot holes, the real tragedy is that Kuze’s character is reduced to almost nothing more than just a revenge-filled husk. All the nuance within the character that made him captivating and charismatic is lost. Additionally, the film never explores this concept of a human interconnected network or the implications of what Kuze meant by uploading himself to the net. With the original series, these concepts were the focus of the story, not just throw-away lines that were not explored.

When watching the final fight scene of the film, it is very reminiscent of the ending of the 1995 movie. You have a spider tank that meets its demise from the Major ripping off a hatch to her own detriment. Kuze gets his head sniped very similarly to the puppet master. What stands out as different is the choice that Scarlett Johannson’s character makes at the end. Her rendition of the character makes an opposing choice to the Major in the original 1995 film; she decides to not join Kuze to be uploaded to the network.

This is very important because it highlights the writers’ fundamental misunderstandings of the original material. The Major in the animated movies had made the decision to be reborn and merge with this other AI entity. This actually led to a hugely anti-climatic ending. Sure, it isn’t the safe choice when it comes to writing a plot, but the infatuation with and exploration of these concepts is what made the anime such a cult classic. Scarlett Johannson’s Major takes the safe option.


The 2017 Ghost in the Shell movie is a decent film, but as expected it falls short of the heights the source material has reached. The internet still seems to be primarily focusing on the casting controversy of the movie, but that is not what damns it to the halls of mediocrity.

The source material had asked questions about technology, the future, and the soul; it didn’t force answers that it didn’t have. The audience was left wondering and guessing themselves. This is partly why the series has garnered so much acclaim. This is also why the adaptation fails: it doesn’t ask any meaningful or interesting questions; it instead forces upon the viewer explanations and justifications that don’t quite hold up from the evidence that it provides. We don’t leave the movie theater wondering about the future or the implications of technology.

However, I still did leave the movie theater generally satisfied, knowing at least that the 2017 Ghost in the Shell was not as horrid as most live-action anime adaptations. Hopefully in the future Hollywood can spend more time making adaptations in the spirit of the originals, rather than either copy-pasting or ironing out all the interest by making such safe choices.


{Guest Post} [Film: Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders, 2017]

Mostly Shell:

Explaining the Real Problems of the Live-action Ghost in the Shell

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Alec Brouillette
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