What more could the Scarlett Johansson remake hope to say after films like ‘The Matrix’ already built on the anime classic’s themes?
Over twenty years ago, director Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell was a ground-breaking animated adaptation of the popular manga series and a post-cyber punk, existentialist projection of a possible future, one dominated by the use of artificial intelligence, terrorism, cyber-criminals, and cyborgs. In 1995, these ideas weren’t just innovative, they were bold speculations of the future, creating a compelling, fully fleshed out world jam-packed with complicated philosophical and cultural implications. Ghost in the Shell embraced these ideas, tackling them head on, but despite its innovation the film had trouble finding an audience of theater-goers, DVD customers, and critics alike.
But, Oshii’s cult-masterpiece did capture the eyes of a very specific audience, other innovative filmmakers from the Wachowskis to Steven Spielberg. Those who have seen Ghost in the Shell know that all of its distinctions would eventually find a way into some of the most popular work of science fiction over the past two decades.
But with so many imitators and with its influence already reflected writ large across Western science fiction, can the Ghost in the Shell remake still pack the same genre-busting punch its original did so many years ago?
In the early days of The Matrix’s birth, the Wachowskis were famously reported to have approached producer Joel Silver saying, “We want to do that [Ghost in the Shell] in live action.” While The Matrix, and its various sequels, turned out not to be a straight adaptation of Oshii’s animated film, they did incorporate a good number of ideas from the film, so much that even the making-of features on The Matrix DVD provided a side-by-side comparison with Ghost in the Shell. Both films use martial arts and speed-ramped action sequences as a launching pad to explore existential questions. In addition, in both films, a virtual/simulated reality plays a important role; the similarities even go so far as to the Wachowskis appropriating Ghost in the Shell’s digital “rain” of green numbers.
Both The Matrix and James Cameron’s Avatar adopted Ghost in the Shell’s idea that people might plug into a larger network or “web” through the back of their heads, even down to the familiar connection sound effect. One of the complexities of Ghost in the Shell is the idea and questions surrounding the possibility for one to transfer one’s consciousness or souls into a new “avatar.” Cameron’s film is built around this idea, even briefly delving into a sort of Buddhist philosophical ideal that one could fully become a part of a greater universal consciousness, one of the key philosophies behind Ghost in the Shell’s complex conclusion.
Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to produce a Ghost in the Shell remake through Dreamworks and ultimately found a way to incorporate some of the ideas from the film into his 2001 Stanley Kubrick collaboration A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There he questioned the social and moral complications of human/robot interfaces and ultimately asked whether or not a robot can have a soul. It’s an idea — and a horrifying conceit — central to Ghost in the Shell, that has continued to resurface in popular science fiction films of the last decade, from 2004’s I, Robot to 2015’s Ex Machina.
Not only was Ghost in the Shell cinematically inspirational, many of its ideas about technology have become prophetic about how we interact with our modern world. While we might not be plugging into the internet through our necks, the idea of a mobile interconnected devices is anything but science fiction. Nor is the idea of alternate digital realities; just in the past year or two virtual reality headsets have found their ways into millions of homes across the globe, ushering in a new age of alternate digital realities.
This is all to say that a straight remake of Ghost in the Shell faces an interesting hurdle the original film never had to mount. Many of its ideas have become so fundamental to modern science fiction and living that they could be seen as borderline cliche, after once being heralded as revolutionary. We’ve seen sequels to 300 and Sin City tank hard after their cinematic ideas and styles were copied by other films, making them less special.
Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell has received mix reviews, though it’s fared a little better than 2014’s 300: Rise of an Empire or Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
Perhaps the one element that Ghost in the Shell should have embraced the most, to make it stand out from its contemporaries, is its Eastern ideas and philosophies. Up until now, the West has viewed the most revolutionary elements of Ghost in the Shell through a Western lens. Embracing its roots could have made the film more interesting to a Western audience that had already familiarized itself with its previously most unique elements. But the film did not go that route — and even failed to embrace its Eastern roots in its casting. As The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer wrote in his review, the film traded substance for style and is “a heavily computer-generated enterprise with more body than brains, more visuals than ideas.”