Much has been said about Rupert Sanders’s American adaptation of the popular cult-favorite, Ghost in the Shell. While the film has been performing reasonably well internationally, in America, it’s been greeted with both poor critical reviews and a lethargic performance at the box-office. However, I found that not only was Sanders’ film a loving tribute to the original, but it also managed to put a fresh spin and perspective on some of the ideas and themes.
Sanders version revolves around Major Mira Killian, an agent who works for the anti-terrorism organization “Section 9.” When we first see Major Mira Killian we see her “brain” or her “ghost,” which is what is identified as the self, being transferred into a fully cybernetic and artificial body. Some of the film’s first dialogue has Mira Killian expressing her inability to “feel”. Since her brain has been placed in a shell, she has lost the sensation of touch. This manages to be a core thematic element of Sanders film. Whereas the original film mostly centered on the philosophical question “what constitutes a human,” Sanders instead focuses on the question of what constitutes “identity” or “the self.” Rather than immersing itself in the larger metaphysical aspects of its society, Sanders’ film is a more personal one as it deals with Mira Killian struggling to figure out who she is, instead of what she is. This is accomplished in multiple ways, namely in the false memories implanted in Killian by the Hanka corporation, but also in robbing her physical senses. The sensation of “touch,” in Sanders’ view, is an integral part of what makes one’s identity; It is through one’s physical sensations that one comes to understand the world and reality. While a person can see or hear something, it is the sense of touch in particular that gives true sensation. Because Mira Killian can only see and hear the world around her, she feels as though she is merely observing it, instead of actively being integrated into it. This begins her disassociation.
This idea is mirrored in the film’s production design. It is never directly stated in Sanders’ film exactly where it takes place, but it appears the director was heavily inspired by Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. The city, like in Blade Runner, is heavily multi-ethnic with heavy Japanese cultural influences entangled with American ones. In Ghost in the Shell, we have a city with similar demographics and influences. Much like Blade Runner, the city here is adorned with holographic posters and advertisements that float “in space.” In addition to all the body enhancements enjoyed by its people, the city itself physically looks synthetic. This element further adds to the distortion of reality around which the film revolves.
When Killian gets injured on a mission, she further begins to disassociate with the world and lose her identity as the damage done to her “shell” never comes with any “feeling.” She does not experience any pain, or on that note, any pleasure. As a result, she carelessly throws her body into harm’s way – as the consequences are no longer real to her. As she continually undergoes repairs to her shell, she realizes how much of her is manufactured; she begins to suspect her identity is manufactured, as well. This further cements the film’s thesis that the body is not merely a shell for an identity but an extension of who we are; to lose our body robs us of our means of interacting with the world around us.
Killian, becomes fascinated with this idea and begins to recognize what she is missing. This is perfectly illustrated in the scene where she hires a prostitute to help her realize what she lacks. In this scene, Killian feels and caresses the prostitute’s lips. She asks her curiously, and almost longingly, “What does it feel like?” inviting an explanation. The Prostitute tells her that it, “feels different.” The scene is remarkable as Sanders manages to keep it from being too sensual (as that would betray Killian’s experience) while still injecting the film with a sense of emotional longing and curiosity, which defines Killian. The scene is also fascinating for introducing the pretense of sex, but subverting our expectations. It illustrates that Killian lacks physical urges, which is often another vital aspect of our identity.
I won’t shy away from the biggest controversy of Ghost in the Shell, the casting of Scarlett Johansson. While the decision certainly underlines a systemic problem with diversity in Hollywood, it is not without reason or merit in this instance. We later learn in the film that Mira Killian is Japanese and that her past has been fabricated by the Hanka Corporation in order to make her a more effective tool of the government. It is no coincidence in the film that the corporation is primarily white. When we learn of Mira Killian’s true identity, (and name which is Motoko Kusanagi) the implication is clear that the corporation made a “shell” in their own image, which is white, rather than who she was originally. She is, essentially, a character who has not only been robbed of her past but who has also been robbed of her cultural and racial identity, right down to her name. These themes, while only lightly touched on in the film, are immediately relevant and necessary to consider when examining the piece. Also, somewhat ironically, this could be seen as a meta reference to the film’s own predicament.
Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell is at times flawed, particularly in its conclusion which, in my opinion, is handled somewhat clumsily, but that it is not to say it is, by any means, a dismissible film. I think that if audiences and critics gave it an honest look and were willing to be receptive to what Sanders was trying to accomplish, they may find the film to be not only entertaining, but also truly subversive. This is not to ignore the other amazing parts of this movie: from the majestic cinematography by Jess Hall, to the mesmerizing score, which mirrors the film’s subtext by merging both conventional and more modern flourishes. Not to mention it also features a supporting role by the always excellent filmmaker/actor Takeshi Kitano. In the end, make sure to check out Ghost in the Shell, and give it the open mind that this film deserves.