Film: Ghost in the Shell

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It’s been awhile since I’ve felt this torn about a movie.

The original Ghost in the Shell (1995) ranks among my favorite movies of all time, and I’m an equally huge fan of the anime series; the first season of Stand Alone Complex, the series that followed the movie 7 years later, is a masterpiece of thoughtful science fiction and sharp visuals. I must admit that it was with my fond memories very much in mind that I sat down a few days ago to watch Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders’ highly publicized live-action adaptation.

My first thought: the film looks great. It is stylistically and visually spectacular, at once capturing the clean precision of futuristic technology and the unruly growth of the metropolis. I’m given to understand that the artists took inspiration from, of all things, the reams of Ghost in the Shell fan art onlineand the result is magnificent. The flickering lights, giant holograms and ground-level sprawl of the futuristic city merge perfectly to create a palpably realistic environment that sets the stage beautifully for the action-packed plot. The shootouts, chases and death-defying leaps are well-choreographed and artistic, blending the human and the mechanical in exactly the right way. When combined with Scarlett Johansson’s grace and technically masterful acting, the effect is visually breathtaking.

My second thought: The story is nothing like the Ghost in the Shell I once knew.

The original Ghost in the Shell was enthralling not only for its fantastic animation but also for a deep, ever-present philosophy inspired by The Ghost in the Machine, Koestler’s treatise on the duality of mind and body. The animated series explored the interaction of the mental and physical with the environment and society, touching on Cartesian dualism, cognitive science, memetics and solipsism. It was thoughtful, and at times intellectually dark: the ending to the original movie, wherein the survival of Motoko Kusanagi’s “ghost” (the universe’s slang for distinct human consciousness) is left ambiguous to the extreme, asked more questions than it truly answered—and that was a good thing. The new movie instead opts for a plot that, sans a few clever touches, is standard Hollywood fare, with an ending deliberately far more optimistic and formulaic than that of the original. The chases and gunfights are excellently shot, but far too numerous and far too Americanized; there is very little left of the overarching philosophical questions that the original explored. That Mokoto Kusanagi is being played by Scarlett Johansson rather than any one of a number of talented Japanese actresses, for example the excellent Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Norwegian Wood) is emblematic of the extent to which the movie has lost touch with its source material.

Despite Ghost in the Shell’s impressive visuals, I can’t help but feel that the series that inspired The Matrix deserved better. Perhaps it is unfair to search for the philosophical excellence of the original in the remake, but without its broad, very human questions, the movie reverts to a standard Hollywood sci-fi thriller. Watch it if you enjoy technology, gunfights, and spider-tanks—but if you wanted something with the depth and detail of the original, you’re  better off just re-reading the original 1989 manga.

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