Live-action movie adaptations have become increasingly popular over the past decade, and it’s easy to see why when they are done right. Bringing animated and illustrated characters to literal life is a thrilling and nostalgic experience, and the best live-action updates further this magic by introducing enhanced plot lines and characters. Unfortunately, though visually stunning to behold, “Ghost in the Shell” (2017) proves a rather vapid adaptation, as it is not able to offer anything new to the famed anime and manga proprietary.
The movie is set in the future and features humans that have become largely augmented with machinery that enhances their natural strengths. The plot centers around Scarlett Johansson as Mira Killian, a woman whose brain is incorporated into an entirely mechanical body after her parents are both killed in a devastating attack. Although she works faithfully for Hanka Robotics, the company that transplanted her mind into this mechanical shell, Killian begins to question its motives as she begins experiencing brief and confusing flashbacks to her past. As a sinister threat begins closing in on the company, Killian must choose between loyalty to her creators or to herself and uncovers shocking details about her true nature in the process.
Starting with the movie’s main high point, the graphics are astounding. The film is set in a futuristic, neo-steampunk metropolis, and the location is stunning. Everything from the electronic billboards towering over the cityscape to the mechanical augmentations present in everything from the buildings to the people themselves is stunning. All of location’s details enforce the theme of human enhancement — both with regards to its potential and its dangers. Viewers will certainly not be disappointed with the film’s location and effects, as they are the only thing the movie manages to get totally right.
Unfortunately, this leaves the rest of the film lackluster and problematic. The story itself is not great, and it feels very different from both the source manga and its many anime adaptations. Part of the beauty of the manga lay in its innovative and creative storyline, yet this film decided to throw away much of what made the original material so intriguing. The characters feel as hollow as Killian’s mechanical body, and the plot offers nothing new at all to the genre of science fiction. Both leave the movie feeling, well, robotic and unoriginal. While there is some commentary on the dangers of human enhancement, the manga’s original existential questions are either untouched or needlessly warped, and this live-action adaptation becomes less of a foray into human evolution and more of an action-filled cliché.
Besides the character development and story, however, “Ghost in the Shell” is also mired in (rightful) controversy due to its decision to cast Johansson as the protagonist in a clearly Japanese franchise. Johansson’s character is Japanese in the source manga, which also happens to be very clearly set in Japan, yet the film’s directors blatantly disregard this fact and instead decided to use Johansson, who is absolutely not of Japanese ancestry. This decision remains confusing and does nothing to capture the manga’s incredible Japanese locale — indeed, the whole film seems to embrace some aspects of Japanese culture while simply disregarding the rest, resulting in a confusing experience that ultimately does more harm than good. Part of what made the original material so compelling was the fact that it was about Japan and the impacts of cybernetic progress on Japanese society, and the choice to remove this aspect from the live-action adaptation further enforces Hollywood’s continued problems with whitewashing and lack of representation.
All in all, the movie is solid if viewed simply as an action film with stunning visual effects, but when looked at as a whole, the live-action “Ghost in the Shell” fails to bring significant progress to the established franchise. A hollow and uninteresting story, combined with mediocre acting and problematic whitewashing, leaves this film in the category of mediocre adaptations, which is unfortunate given the potential present in the source material. Hopefully, this film serves as a lesson to future adaptions: Focus on what makes beloved franchises so beloved, and embrace other cultures rather than disregarding them or risk making a controversial, substandard movie.