Ghost in the Shell Kinda Sucks, but Still Beats the Original

Monday , 16, October 2017 13 Comments

It’s Halloween, which means it’s the season for unpopular opinions: The Ghost in the Shell live action was better than the anime.

(Yeah, I said it. COME AT ME, BRO!)

I saw GitS way back in 1996, shortly after it was released in the States (remember Blockbuster?), and again Saturday, for this post. My reaction, both times, was that it had some cool action scenes, but was overly talky in way too many places. Spectacular animation, terrible pacing. The plot was opaque, and the ending… murky to say the least. (Basically no real resolution to the central conflict, and no answer to the one question the audience most wanted answered: Did they merge?)

The 2017 live action version, starring Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi, was faster paced and had different, and shorter, talky bits. The CGI and cinematography were gorgeous and the action nicely choreographed and shot. More, the plot was far more comprehensible and had a definite (and satisfying) climax. In most ways, it was simply a better movie.

The two movies are difficult to directly compare, however, as—aside from a couple of scenes—”2017″ completely ignores the 1995 original. The director literally took scenes from each of the several GiTS animated productions (including “1995”, its sequel, and the two seasons of the TV series), put them on cards, and shuffled them about to assemble a completely new narrative. As a result, “1995” and “2017” are separate, almost wholly unrelated movies.

(Ironically enough, after this was posted I found out that Ghost in the Shell (1995) was a mashup of a few unrelated storylines from the GitS manga, meaning “2017” was, in this way at least, following in the tradition established by the original.)

Fans of the original went to it expecting a remake, or close adaptation, and were bitterly disappointed (justifiably so). The problem is, so were mainstream viewers (the “remake’s” ostensible audience). As delivered, the movie had deep flaws, flaws which—despite its potential—prevented the movie from achieving broad appeal and mainstream success:

  • Johansson’s Major was a cold and distant character, with very little emotion and a flat affect. It’s not due to bad acting, necessarily, but made it hard for the audience to be drawn in. Compare that to Beat Takeshi’s character, Aramaki, who was stolid and impassive, but still EMOTIONAL. He grounded every scene he was in, and provided a human take. “That’s the point of her character.” Yes, and that’s why the audience didn’t connect with her.
  • The dialogue is serviceable, not anything surprising or superlative. It moves the plot forward, but doesn’t sparkle or draw the audience in on its own. (It also suffers from an overabundance of clunky jargon, like “ghost” instead of “mind” or “spirit”.) There are simply no quotable lines. (Compare that to, for example, Die Hard, The Princess Bride, or The Matrix.)
  • The movie was cerebral and distant, inspired by abstract philosophical questions and not visceral emotion and reactions. To appeal to a mass audience, they needed a main character people could empathize with, and a story they could be drawn into. Philosophical speculations and ruminations are just not appealing to the vast majority of people. The Matrix succeeded DESPITE its tedious philosophizing, not because of it. (More, its philosophical treatises were delivered in a highly entertaining way—”What’ll really bake your noodle…”—which if you simply MUST lecture the audience, is absolutely the only way to do it.) Philosophy appeals to a tiny slice of the audience, and that just ain’t enough theater-goers to carry a would-be blockbuster.
  • The terrorist is a pale, spindly, strange-looking dude, a repulsive weirdo. He needed to be a masculine man with charisma, so Major’s dilemma and later decision would make sense. The audience needed to be attracted to them as a couple—needed to WANT to see them together—otherwise it’s an uber-hottie hooking up with a repulsive weirdo, which almost always falls flat.
  • The movie was muddled in its appeal. It couldn’t decide what it wanted to be: sci fi actioner or a relationship-focused drama. For maximum impact, the movie needed to focus on one of these, not wander indeterminately from one to the other depending on the scene.

Movies like GitS need to decide which sex they’re appealing to, picking either a masculine focus on action, momentum, and direct conflict, or a feminine focus on interpersonal relationships, social status signifiers, and indirect conflict. A muddled mix of both of these, thinly overlaid on top of abstract, distant intellectualisms, appeals to neither sex. (This holds for most such fiction works: the author should identify the sex his work is primarily intended to appeal to, and craft it accordingly. A razor sharp focus on what the audience wants pays great dividends in audience satisfaction.) “2017” couldn’t decide who it wanted to satisfy, and ended up satisfying nobody. (The irony is, a completely faithful adaptation would ALSO have ended up satisfying nobody, except passionate fans of the original.)

Mass appeal requires crafting a movie that’s appealing. (Almost by definition, as it were.) The fewer people you appeal to, the less successful you’ll be.

The cast and crew of the 2017 movie were more interested in crafting a deep, “relevant” cyberpunk movie than in reaching or entertaining the audience. (Really. Watch the making of videos. It’s almost all they talk about.) “Exploring issues relevant to today” through abstract philosophical discussions is pretty much always going to be less successful than a thrill-a-minute cyberpunk action movie or a futuristic sci-fi romance focusing on a love triangle between the Major, the bad-ass and dependable (but boring) cop who loves her, and the irresistible bad boy criminal ex-boyfriend from out of her mysterious past. PICK A LANE, GUYS.

2017 Ghost in the Shell appealed to neither fans of the original nor mainstream audiences, dooming it to flash-in-the-pan status. It had great promise as an action-oriented cyberpunk film (in the vein of the popular GitS TV series), promise the movie unfortunately squandered.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

13 Comments
  • Taarkoth says:

    The Major was only an engaging, personable character in the original manga (where she actually had visible emotions), and in SAC 2nd GIG (which is what they were cribbing from for the terrorist guy in 2017).

    The sad thing is, if they hadn’t been intent on making a bad GitS adaptation, they probably could have made a pretty good cyberpunk cop movie using the guy playing Batou as the lead with Takeshi as the chief.

    If they absolutely had to adapt an anime, given what they made, they’d have been better off remaking Armitage III instead.

  • Dan Wolfgang says:

    But how does it compare with the original comic?

    • Jasyn Jones says:

      Never read the Manga, nor seen the other movies / TV series. Hear good things about SAC, though, and I plan on seeing it.

  • deuce says:

    Never a fan of the anime. Haven’t seen the live action or read the manga.

  • boxty says:

    The CGI got in the way of the movie, IMO, like the Star Wars prequels.

    The one decent fight scene with the garbage truck driver was ruined in the end. He starts off bullet proof like he’s wearing body armor or hyped up on drugs. Then when he’s served his purpose he’s taken out a simple shot or two to the chest.

    The fight with the giant spider robot at the end was stupid. Did the guy who was linked into all the government communications not see that one coming and prepare? Did she really think her bullets would penetrate what was essentially an armored tank? I thought she was baiting the spider robot to get the building/overpass to collapse on it. THAT would have been awesome. Then she could have dropped down and torn out the heart of the wounded spider robot.

  • Victor says:

    The original 1995 animation was not suppossed to explain everything, it was focused on the 2501 case alone for audiences who had just read the manga, where the “unexplained” stuff was extensively explained. The “success” in america was not exactly planned, so it was not made with gettig american audiences into the franchise in mind (think the cgi final fantasy movies, cgi resident evil movies, or Gantz:O, for fans that is). But still doesn’t take a lot of brain to get a grip of how that world works, considering how well the director depicted it. Needing someone to actually explain every little detail is like for children, wich is i guess what the live action was made for. Incredible how animation is for mature audiences, live action for retards.

  • Vlad James says:

    Heh, I’ve had the original film on my laptop for a few years but never bothered watching it yet. I’m looking forward to it a lot, though.

    “Movies like GitS need to decide which sex they’re appealing to,”

    This is one of the many creative problems in Hollywood. They want to “hit all four quadrants”, which means every major picture has to appeal to old men, young men, old women, and young women, and in the process, it becomes a cacophonous mash-up that doesn’t satisfy anyone.

    • Victor says:

      Manga has actual genres and demographic targetting. GITS is “seinen”, wich is “males 18+”, and the 1995 animation was very faithful to that. But even in japan it was very popular in all demographics because of the mix of action, sophisticated stories, and portraying of a cool female hero. One big mistake in hollywood was not being able to see there was actually a structure there and tried to force their own. And as you said, it didn’t satisfy anyone.

  • Gaiseric says:

    I find that to be part and parcel of dealing with anime. The characters frequently AREN’T very relateable and the plot structure is alien to us of Western Civilization, so we almost always feel like it’s roll-out is murky and its denouement is uncertain and… what exactly happened again?

    Ghost In The Shell was where I was forced to recognize it and come to grips with that fact that although lots of my friends were anime fans, I was never going to be, because I saw those issues over, and over, and over, and over again. Even in the anime’s that were billed as the best that Japan had to offer.

    Like Ghost in the Shell itself was.

    • Victor says:

      I also find most of anime not appealing to me, but it’s usually because 90% of it is aimed to underage audiences, shonen and shojo (boys and girls), in most cases you just have to see how old is the protagonist to know the age the story is aimed for, sometimes it’s for adults even when the protagonists are younger. Try “seinen” anime, wich is aimed for adults. Regarding the “alien structure”, usually anime are senselessly extended to fill X number of episodes, wich adds sidestories and stuff to the original story from the manga, wich often gets lost and found again in all of it. In the GITS animated movie it was almost the other way around, the movie focused on the 2501 case alone and left most of the rest unexplained because most of the audience had just read it all in the manga. Also, part of the charm of anime and manga is having cool stories told from a different viewpoint than hollywood (american). Honestly, almost 100% of movies in my country come from hollywood, and their stories are always the same, from the same point of view, with the same endings, it’s almost like a brainwash. Anime is like an alternative hollywood, and by remaking an anime into hollywood style they are basically killing 50% of the coolness in it, and changing the story, well, there’s nothing left.

      • Gaiseric says:

        Hollywood is demonstrably anti-American and has been for years, but I see your point. But check out box office numbers; Americans aren’t very thrilled with Hollywood’s output lately either.

    • maniacprovost says:

      Ghost in the Shell… Evangelion… they made no sense. plenty of anime does make sense, but for some reason “good” and “officially imported into the US” seem to be two different sets with a teensy overlap.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *