Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

By Kyle Friedrich

Recently, a live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson was released in theaters. The film is set in a future in which much of the world’s population has taken to enhancing themselves with cybernetic and mechanical parts and computerizing their brains. The main character of the film is a character known as the Major, a member of Public Security Section 9 who has an artificial body designed to make her the ultimate soldier. Along with the other members of her unit, she is tasked with tracking down a terrorist who has been hacking into people’s minds to commit a series of murders.

For those not familiar with the series, Ghost in the Shell was originally a Japanese manga series that has been adapted into various anime films and TV series since 1995. I’ll admit that when a live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell was first announced, I was a little skeptic. Hollywood doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to these kind of things.

However, after watching the film, I feel that this adaptation did a good job. Scarlett Johansson was able to capture the character of the Major and show the existential crisis she feels as a machine with a human mind. The rest of the cast, particularly the other members of Section 9, were also good fits for their characters. In terms of design, the movie did an amazing job of keeping the visual look and overall environment of the world of Ghost in the Shell faithful to the series.

For those who are fans of the series, the plot of the film has its pros and cons. Much of the story is drawn from the original 1995 movie, and in fact there are at least two scenes, as well as several other visual references, that are entirely copied from this film. On the one hand, it was pretty cool to see a tribute to the original film, and seeing things like the memorable fight with the spider tank played out in a live action film was very rewarding as a fan of the series. On the other hand, the original film was based on the manga, and rather than have a second adaption of the same story, it might have been better to develop a new story in the same way that the Stand Alone Complex series did, for example. Additionally, the only members of Section 9 who are featured much are the Major, Batou, and Aramaki, and it would have been nice to see Togusa get the character development he has in the rest of the franchise.

One area in which I feel that the film was lacking when compared its anime counterparts, however, is the bigger themes which it explores. Ghost in the Shell is famous for not only being a great action series, but also for highlighting and theorizing the role that the increasing presence of technology in our lives plays. The Stand Alone Complex series, for example, uses the theme of how people constantly being connected to each other via the Internet affects identify as an individual and as a group. For a show that aired between 2002 and 2005, still in the relatively early days of the internet and before social media really became a thing, Stand Alone Complex was able to highlight social phenomena that one began to see become very relevant about a decade later in the age of the smartphone and people’s constant access to the Internet, an age when major social change could be brought about by individuals working toward a common goal online. The only technological question that this film really explores in much detail is how a person who is a machine but who still has a human mind tries to find an identity. While not a bad theme, and certainly one that other Ghost in the Shell works have used, I think this film missed an opportunity to use the way technology affects the society of its world as a way to show how cyberization could very well affect ours and in fact is doing so today.

Overall, it’s a film worth watching. It’s true that it does do somewhat of a Hollywood sellout by focusing more on the action and less on those more complex ideas, but at the same time I think that makes it more accessible to a wider audience. So if you’ve never seen Ghost in the Shell before and you like good science fiction, I’d recommend checking it out and then watching the anime if you want to really appreciate the franchise. And if you’re a fan of the series, I’d also recommend it; just be prepared for it to be a little different thematically.