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Image credit: Paramount Pictures

'Ghost in the Shell' is more cyberposeur than cyberpunk

The American adaptation is a pretty, but ultimately soulless, film.
Paramount Pictures

Spoilers ahead for the Ghost in the Shell anime and US remake.

The original Ghost in the Shell anime feature is a cultural landmark. It was a neo-noir story set in a startlingly fresh vision of a connected world, and it was particularly timely in 1995 since the internet was just finding its legs in the real world. The film's lead was a badass cyborg woman privy to bouts of existentialism. And, like the best cyberpunk science fiction, Ghost in the Shell (and its original manga) asked deep questions about our relationship with technology. There was little chance a Hollywood remake could successfully grasp what was special about its source material. And, unfortunately, the Scarlett Johansson vehicle is just as disappointing as we expected. It completely misses the point of cyberpunk.

If you're not a sci-fi aficionado, it's worth clarifying what cyberpunk actually is. In broad terms, it describes near-future stories that explore tech's impact on society, and often with a cynical view about progress. They're the modern equivalent of noir detective stories, with hard-boiled characters and all. The term was popularized during the 1980's following works like William Gibson's Neuromancer and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, but it could also be applied to science fiction from previous decades. Most notably, the term encompasses the work of Philip K. Dick, whose 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? serves as the source material for Blade Runner. While most people would consider The Matrix the de facto 1990's example of cyberpunk, it was also heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell.

The exploration of identity is a common occurrence in cyberpunk, and indeed it's core to the original Mamoru Oshii-directed film. If we can upgrade ourselves to be smarter and stronger, at what point do we become more machine than human? And with the rise of artificial intelligence, how do we even define life? Ghost in the Shell's main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, spends much of the film pondering who and what she is. She knows that she has a human brain encased in a cybernetic body (the film's iconic opening sequence shows her "birth" and should be familiar to Westworld viewers). But does that make her a person, or just a unique machine?

"Everyone who's entirely made of cybernetic parts like me wonders if I died a long time ago, and the current me is just a pseudo-person made of cyberbrain and body parts," she says at one point. "Or maybe 'I' didn't even exist in the first place." And after her colleague Bato reminds her that she has a real brain, she counters with a bit of philosophical jiu-jitsu: "No one ever sees one's own brain. We just determine from our surroundings that someone like us exists."

In the Rupert Sanders-directed remake, Johansson's character Major also wonders who she is, but she's far less thoughtful about expressing it. And, typical of an American retelling of an Asian story, her ultimate answer is unsatisfyingly concrete. She eventually discovers that she was the victim of an evil corporate plan to kidnap people, steal their brains and plug them into cyborgs. But after successfully vanquishing the villains, she doesn't question her fate -- or anything, really. She just accepts her role as an intelligence agent. Simple. Existential dilemma solved!

There are, of course, deeper questions about identity where the American film completely fails. Cultural critics have been arguing for months that casting Johansson in the lead role was a form of whitewashing. Major Kusanagi, a Japanese character, was an ideal role for an Asian actress in Hollywood. Instead, she became just another action role for Johansson. Rather than figuring out a way to counteract the criticism, the film somehow manages to make it worse by revealing that Johansson's character also has the brain of an actual Japanese girl. (There's no shortage of think pieces online about why the casting was problematic.)

Beyond the gunplay and set pieces, the Ghost in the Shell anime also set itself apart by throwing you into the deep end of a world where technology is completely integrated with humans. Most people have cyberbrains -- metal cases for their organic brains that allow them to "jack in" to computers and networks. The film doesn't slow down much to explain the concept of a cyberbrain to you, but you eventually grasp it by how characters use them. At one point, you see an official's hands expand into a multitude of robotic digits, which is clearly a big help for typing faster. While the remake echoes this imagery, it doesn't do anything thoughtful with it.

Take the character of Togusa, for example. In the anime, he's established as the least augmented member of Section 9, the intelligence group led by Major Kusanagi. He uses a traditional revolver, and his lack of cybernetic implants seems like a detriment when he's surrounded by literal supersoldiers. But as he starts to question why he's even on the team, Kusanagi makes an intriguing point: A system with standardized components will inevitably fail. If every member of her team was cybernetically enhanced in the same way, that leaves them open to an attack that could take them all out.

Togusa's mere presence is a check against that design flaw. The entire exchange is something we see often in cyberpunk: Technology doesn't always mean progress. In the remake, they point out that Togusa uses an old gun and that's it.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the American version of Ghost in the Shell is that it simply doesn't do anything new. Whereas the original brought plenty of innovative ideas to the table -- it was one of the few science fiction films to actually build on the Blade Runner aesthetic -- the adaptation is perfectly content with copying surface-level style while dumbing down deeper concepts. While the film has been praised for its style, ultimately it's basically just the original Ghost in the Shell aesthetic mashed together with Blade Runner and a boatload of CGI. The remake's vision of New Port City is also oddly sterile. There's none of the lived-in sense of grit you'd find in most cyberpunk stories.

Even the villain is far less interesting. In the remake, it ends up being yet another evil corporate plot. But in the anime, the "Puppet Master" is a completely synthetic life form "born out of the sea of information." He's not inherently evil, he's just trying to figure out who he is.

"It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself," the Puppet Master says when someone claims he's just a computer program. "Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory... and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization."

Cyberpunk stories have rarely been about easy answers, and that's yet another concept the Ghost in the Shell adaptation fails to grasp. Every conflict ends up having a distinct conclusion, be it the villain or Major's place in the world. At the end of the anime however, Major Kusanagi doesn't defeat the antagonist in the traditional sense. She joins with him to create an entirely new being -- a union of a human soul and brain together with a purely cybernetic being.

After being transplanted into a new body, she looks out over the cityscape and simply asks: "And where do I go from here? The network is vast and infinite."

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