GHOST IN THE SHELL Movie Review: Capitalism in Movie Form

Ghost in the Shell is gateway anime.  Which is saying something, considering for nearly the entirety of the original movie, the strong female lead protagonist is naked.

(But she fights robots, and is a robot (or is she???), and there’s philosophy!)

Notwithstanding how ~problematic~ GITS as a franchise may be, it has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first animes that I watched.  And there are cool robot battles.  And the main protagonists are cybernetically enhanced humans.  And there is a fair amount of interesting-but-still-rambling philosophical content.  That is to say, I’m willing to forgive GITS a lot because of where it stands historically, and because I thought it was the bee’s knees when I was a teenager.

Much of this forgiveness is difficult to extend to a remake in this year of our lord two thousand seventeen.

When I first heard they were going to remake Ghost in the Shell, I was worried for all of the usual reasons.  The original manga first came about in 1989, only 5 years after its cultural grandfather Neuromancer was published.  The original feature length anime released in 1995.  The updated re-release of the anime came out in 2008.  The third, rebooted animated series ran from 2013 to 2016.  Plainly, cyberpunk fiction is old.  Visual depictions of cyberpunk fiction are old.  The fictional trope of “cyber human struggles with identity” is so old that there have been enough movies made on that premise in the 2010s alone that some of those movies are even good.

All that said, the remake of Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning.  The fight scenes are super rad.  It’s a fantastical depiction of a cybernetics-saturated world.  And the plot even parses on a first glance (if you asked me to explain the plot of the various GITS animes without consulting Wikipedia, I would not be able to).  

But it’s nonetheless disappointing.

There’s only really two ways it could have worked.  It could have been entirely fan service, in which case it would have never gotten the budget it needed to be as visually stunning as it is, or it could have been completely reimagined, bearing almost no resemblance to the original story, but nonetheless inspired by it—in which case, it wouldn’t be a GITS movie anymore.  The entirely fanservice remake was exactly the aforementioned movie from 2008.  And the inspired-by-reimagining is a little movie called The Matrix which came out eighteen years ago in 1999.  

Instead, what was delivered was something that evokes many of the iconic visual cues of the original—Batou’s eyes, the major’s knife-and-pistol stance, the spider tank fight, a titillating skin-tight optical camouflage body suit—baubles for hungry fans—but the delivery is flat.  Scarlett Johansson walks around with stiff, robot-like arms.  The audience is told, repeatedly, that she is not just her Shell, but that her Ghost is still in there—somewhere.  What was originally an anime about a world struggling with the geopolitics and class stratification of cybernetics-as-a-subversive-technology becomes a movie about a cartoonishly evil corporation screwing the little guy.

What I respected about GITS-the-franchise is that it doesn’t treat its audience like idiots.  Even to a fault.  What I don’t respect about GITS-this-movie is its profound laziness.

There’s probably some deeper commentary-to-be-said about what happens to a beloved franchise when it “goes mainstream”.  Unforgivable losses-in-translation between original and Hollywood reimagining are exactly as numerous and varied as there are die-hard fans to be disappointed.  There’s a calculus here: how many fans is it worth disappointing in the hopes that enough new eyes learn about the franchise—new fans that may not have otherwise ever seen it?  What rough edges of the original need be sanded down to make the reimagining digestible enough to reach that new market of viewers?  Pessimistically, how many more Motoko toys do we think we can sell if she’s played by ScarJo rather than a Japanese actress?  

Realistically, it is brutally capitalist.  And that’s what this movie is.  A beautiful, flashy, hollow calculation.  Expected return positive.  It’s even fun to look at.  And it’s got robots fighting.  Maybe even philosophy if you squeeze it hard enough.  Reason enough to watch it, but not to respect it.


Rating:  [A lukewarm beer, hints of long-since-evaporated beads of condensation forming an off-white ring on the bar napkin—a good brand, but the label peeling and torn] out of 5.

Elevator Pitch: 

Favorite moment:  When the robots fight.

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