I didn’t hate everything about the 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake. If I weren’t a huge fan of the 1995 anime film, I maybe even would’ve liked it a lot. But alas, the remake falls as flat as anyone who stands in the Major’s way.
I debated for a long time whether I even wanted to see the remake. There’s of course the whitewashing issue of having most of the main characters played by white actors (more on that later). There’s also my general fatigue with Hollywood remakes and sequels (although I’d be lying if I said I weren’t as excited as I am apprehensive about the upcoming Alien and Bladerunner sequels).
Why, Hollywood, Why?
But this particular remake didn’t seem like it needed to happen. I don’t watch a lot of anime, but Momoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film is nothing short of a masterpiece of philosophical science fiction (see my post: "Buddhist Philosophy and Ghost in the Shell: Studying the Ghost to Forget the Ghost"). One does not simply remake a masterpiece.
The analogy on my mind the last few months is that it would be like if someone told me they were remaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even in the hands of skilled writers, cast, and filmmakers, this is a bad idea on the face of it. Even a perfect remake would fail to stand up to the original. And the Ghost in the Shell remake is far from perfect.
This analogy was apparently also on the mind of Beth Accomando, who writes in her review:
Imagine if someone remade "2001: A Space Odyssey" and inserted characters who continually spouted plot exposition to make sure you did not exercise any brain cells to consider for yourself what was happening on screen.
I decided to see the remake, but I told myself I would go in with my expectations set appropriately low for a typical $100 million action-driven Hollywood sci-fi spectacle – something more in Michael Bay territory.
I don’t regret seeing it. I can report that the remake steered clear of Michael Bay territory. It is a beautiful and visually intriguing film that does capture, and in some ways expands, the look of the anime. I was glad I saw it in IMAX 3D. The hundreds of people who contributed to creating the rich textures of this unnamed Hong Kong-inspired cyberpunk megalopolis deserve a lot of credit. I’m tempted to see it again just to behold their work.
I enjoyed the score, which is like a mash up of the original score and retro-synthy goodness à la Stranger Things (although I really miss the meditative city scenes that accompanied a lot of the original score).
I even thought most of the actors, including Scarlett Johansson, did a great job. Johansson is a bit understated, but she’s a weaponized cyborg with identity issues, so what do you expect?
My main criticism is philosophical: namely, there’s hardly any of it. Instead of the original's deep meditation on personal identity and what it means to be human, we are told explicitly what it means. Twice. (More on that in the spoilery section). Instead of delving into questions of the ethics and metaphysics of artificial intelligence, we are supposed to assume without complication that the Major’s human brain gives her a “soul” or “ghost” that mere machines lack (an assumption that is artfully and carefully undermined in the original, at least if you pay attention).
The plot of the original anime is labyrinthine and involves at least two shadowy government agencies and even shadowier corporations; viewers are led into this labyrinth but never entirely emerge. We are left with more questions than answers.
The plot of the remake turns out to be the ho-hum revenge-against-an-evil-greedy-organization-for-the-sake-of-individual-freedom plot that you’ve seen a thousand times. There’s even a bizarre sort of love story (but not the one fans of the original would expect). By the time the credits roll, answers have been neatly packaged for mass consumption.
So, should you see this movie? If you want plenty of candy for the eye without nourishment for the mind, then: yes. That’s not a bad thing per se: I’m one of the few people who had nice things to say about Jupiter Ascending, after all! But Jupiter Ascending was not an attempt to remake a masterpiece. This is, and it predictably fails to live up to the original.
Spoilery Bits: Whitewashing and Personal Identity
You are now entering spoiler zone. SPOILER ALERT!
I can’t fully discuss the whitewashing issue without some major spoilers. So get ready. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
When I heard the Major would be played by Scarlett Johansson, I didn’t know what to think. The Major is a cyborg with a human brain and robot body. The original takes place in a city that was inspired by Hong Kong, but everybody speaks Japanese. The story obviously has roots in Japanese manga and anime, but it’s not supposed to be specifically Japanese as far as I can tell. Apparently Oshii himself thought Johansson was a great choice.
But on the other hand, it would be good to see more diversity in Hollywood movies, especially in leading roles. There may be no particular reason the Major has to be Japanese, but there’s no particular reason she has to be white, either. I liked Pitou Asbaek’s Batou alright (I guess the animated Batou looks a bit Danish). The other major character, Aramaki, is played by Japanese actor/director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who speaks Japanese throughout and is understood by and understands the English speaking cast as if this were a Star Wars movie.
Singaporean actor Chin Han plays Togusa, whose part is sadly downplayed in the remake (he’s one of my favorites in the original). Famed French actor Juliette Binoche is fine, but seems about as confused to be in this movie as I was to see her in a science fiction film. The "villain" Kuze is played by Michael Pitt, who is okay, but nowhere near as interesting as the original's Puppet Master (the fact that there's no Puppet Master in the remake would alone ruin it for me). The rest of the cast is fairly diverse, which makes sense as this is apparently a non-specific East Asian multi-ethnic megalopolis with a past of substantial international immigration.
So is this movie whitewashed? Yeah, kind of, but maybe not as straightforwardly as it appears. We eventually learn that the Major’s current appearance is different than her original human body. In fact - major spoiler here! - her name used to be … wait for it! Motoko Kusanagi, which fans of the original will recognize as the Major’s name in the anime. But in the remake we learn that she was a runaway who was kidnapped and we meet her grieving mom (Kaori Momoi), who she doesn’t quite remember, but who somewhat recognizes her in the body of Scarlett Johansson (her cat, of course, knows it’s her immediately). It also turns out that a similar thing happened to Kuze, who used to be a (presumably Japanese) guy named Hideo (and unfortunately not, like the Puppet Master, an AI who came to exist in the seas of information).
When all this was revealed, I initially thought it was kind of lame (I did like the cat). I may have audibly sighed in the theater. But upon further reflection I can’t decide. It’s probably supposed to be simultaneously an homage to the original and an explanation for why the Major looks like Scarlett Johansson. Scar Jo even tells her Japanese mother that she doesn’t have to visit her daughter’s grave any more, because she’s still alive. Is this clever? Lame? Even more offensive, as this article claims? All of the above? Maybe this is the philosophical depth the remake has to offer…
There’s little philosophical depth, however, when it comes to the major questions of the original concerning personal identity. We are told twice in no uncertain terms that identity is a matter of what you do, rather than your memories.
I have little idea what this means. Apparently we should reject psychological continuity criteria like John Locke’s, according to which memory is the main criterion of identity over time, and reductionist views like that of Buddhist philosophers, according to which a “person” is a convenient designator that ultimately reduces to impersonal causal continuity (unless maybe “I-making” is one of the actions that counts?).
I guess the remake theory is supposed to be the idea that your past doesn’t determine who you are, like a riff on Sartrean existentialism or some sort of blank slate metaphysical libertarianism, but the kind that a pretentious guy BSing at a coffee shop would misinterpret from a Wikipedia entry. Sartre says you should freely choose your past, which I always took to mean something more like taking ownership of it rather than deliberately forgetting it. While I admit to finding the type of causeless cause required by some forms of metaphysical libertarianism to be mysterious (I’m a compatiblist if you press me on it), I find it hard to imagine constructing an identity with little to no regard for memory. Why would you even need a sense of identity over time if memory was unimportant?
Maybe the idea is a sort of Aristotelian or Confucian virtue ethic according to which ethics is about developing good habits in order to act virtuously (hence, the emphasis on action). But the baldly stated remake theory seems to indicate that a people who do random things for random reasons with no connection to their past or future would be the best kinds of people to be. Aristotelianism and Confucianism on the other hand require careful attention to your moral education, which of course requires memory and the ability to learn from moral exemplars.
Maybe there’s more depth to whatever the remake theory is, but I’m having trouble finding it.
Besides, there’s something weird about asserting that memory doesn’t matter when the whole thing driving the plot is a search for missing memories wrapped in a crimson cloak of vengeance.
Now I feel like I’m trying to dig deeply into shallow ground. But why do that when there are as of yet unmined riches in the original anime?