1. Plot Summary
Ghost in the Shell is set “in the near future” according to the opening title card, in a world in which people are cybernetically enhanced. It opens with a young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) waking up inside of a life-like mechanical body. The doctor who performed the operation tells her that she is the survivor of a terrorist attack, and that her body was destroyed but her brain was saved–the first such instance of an entirely mechanical body.
The Hanka Robotics company that funded this miraculous operation then puts Killian to use as anti-terrorist agent in a group called “Section 9”. The Hanka CEO makes it clear that Killian, as the first fully mechanical shell housing a human brain, is a powerful weapon.
The film flashes forward a year to Killian, who is now a Major in Section 9, carrying out counter-terrorism operations. After a gun battle with some hacked robots, Major Killian examines and attempts to hack the remains of one of the robots, the Major gets clues as to the location of the hacker, but also exposes herself to counter-hacks.
Eventually, the Major and her team track down the hacker, but when she finally finds him, he captures her and explains she is not really the first purely mechanical body created by the Hanka corporation. He was a failed attempt they made prior to the Major. He explains that they wiped her memories and gave her false ones. (Throughout the opening act, the Major has experienced odd hallucinations or “glitches” as her brain remembers fragments of her real past, including a burning pagoda-like structure. The hacker has a similar image tattooed on his chest.)
The Major finds the doctor who performed the operation who admits that the hacker’s story is true, and that in truth, there were 98 other test subjects who failed before the successful operation on the Major.
Now that she knows the truth, the Hanka corporation decides the Major is a threat, and the CEO orders the doctor to destroy her. Instead, she gives her the address of her real home and helps her escape, before being killed by the CEO.
The Major goes to the address and finds a woman who she realizes is her mother, and who tells her how her daughter ran away a year before and was reported by the government to have committed suicide after being captured.
She contacts the other members of Section 9, which causes the Hanka CEO to attempt to assassinate all of them, but they manage to defeat his soldiers. The Major then meets the hacker at the ruins of the pagoda-like structure from their visions–it was their hideaway, where they both lived before being captured.
Hanka deploys a massive “Spider Tank” robot to destroy them. The hacker is killed, but the Major destroys the Spider Tank and the Section 9 leader shoots and kills the Hanka CEO after the Major tells him to do so.
In the closing scenes, she meets with her mother and then continues going on missions for Section 9.
That all probably sounds pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the film. In fact, even having seen it, it sounded a little confusing to me just writing it. But it all pretty much worked for me while I was watching the movie.
I went to see it because I like cyber-punk dystopian stories that deal with trans-humanism. This is due to my fondness for the Deus Ex series of video games, which are set in futuristic dystopias and deal with augmented humans and the theme of humanity merging with machines. I saw a few bits and pieces about Ghost in the Shell and thought it looked kind of like that.
And I actually underestimated its resemblance to Deus Ex. For me, it was practically like watching Deus Ex: The Movie. The city in which most of it takes place looked like the cities in Deus Ex, right down to the intermingling of super-futuristic technology with trash-filled alleys and nightclubs. The fighting factions of hackers, mega-corporations and governments was straight out of that series as well.
The Major’s friend Batou reminded me strongly of Gunther from the original game, and the opening credits sequence looked like the start of Human Revolution. Even the guns looked like something J.C. Denton or Adam Jensen might wield.
More than that, even the structure of the plot was similar:
- Augmented human/cyborg protagonist works for counter-terrorism organization.
- Augmented human/cyborg protagonist finds out s/he is being lied to by said organization.
- Augmented human/cyborg protagonist starts to have sympathy for the people s/he was originally fighting.
And to be clear, this didn’t bother me a bit. I’m not saying they just stole all the ideas from Deus Ex. In fact, the Japanese graphic novel on which it is based (which I have not read) was written in the early ’90s, before Deus Ex. So I don’t know which is influencing which. And frankly, it doesn’t matter to me. The fact is, it’s a good concept, so it pretty much works. All these things are common tropes of the cyberpunk genre.
Now, that isn’t to say that there weren’t some rough spots. There definitely were, including a major (no pun intended) one that I’ll get to later. But I want to make clear that if you enjoy dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy this.
At times, it felt like the greatest video game adaptation in history, even though it isn’t one. There was tactical, squad-based combat, there were exciting gun battle scenes, and there was even a boss battle–in fact, the “Spider Tank” almost seemed like a brilliant parody of a typical video game boss fight.
The action sequences were pretty well-done, and most importantly, didn’t drag on too long. In fact, except for one element (again, I’ll get to that later) they were surprisingly good. The only one I really disliked was a scene in a nightclub where the Major is handcuffed to a stripper pole by some thugs who then hit her with some sort of electric prod.
First of all, it seemed like a bit of salaciously sexualized violence needlessly tossed in to titillate immature people. Second, it made no sense whatsoever why the Major would be susceptible to torture–why would anybody build a counter-terrorism cyborg that could feel pain?
Of course, the Major escaped–it wasn’t really clear why she waited–and satisfyingly beat up the thugs, albeit in a rather silly pole-dance-fight sequence. (It’s not as bad as that sounds–but still, not the film’s high point.)
One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the Major hacks into a broken mechanical geisha. I won’t try to describe it, but the visual metaphor they used for the hacking–and subsequent counter-hack–was very cleverly done. It was a good way of dramatizing the process.
Now, there are a lot of nitpicks one could make about the technology in the movie. How can they have these super-sophisticated robots but still be using cartridge-based firearms? Moreover, how come the robots and augmented humans can still be destroyed by bullets? There’s really no good answer, but this is where the concept of “suspension of disbelief” comes into play–if the story is good enough, the audience will accept it.
Except–and here’s that flaw I’ve been alluding to–there was one thing that totally ruined the immersion for me.
At the start of the first big action sequence, the Major is covertly monitoring a meeting that gets attacked by hacked robots. She is standing atop a skyscraper in a black coat, which looks pretty cool. When the attack starts, she leaps into action and… throws off her black coat to reveal the “outfit”–if you can call it that–pictured in the poster above.
Except the poster makes it look way better than it does in the movie. Here’s a still from the movie:
This looks absolutely ridiculous.
For some reason, when particularly intense fights happen, the Major takes off her clothes and fights in what I guess you could call her “underwear”. This allows her to periodically turn invisible, which is a useful tactic.
However, what is not a useful tactic is running around in what appears to be a bright-white naked human body. It’s hard to get any more conspicuous than that.
Images of Scarlett Johansson in this costume have been used heavily in the film’s promotional materials. I guess this is just the marketing people trying to follow the age-old adage that “sex sells”, and figuring that this will appeal to teenage boys. (Although I was once a teenage boy, and I don’t think I would have thought this was hot even then.)
The effect is absurd and stupid. The special effects are generally good, but on this, they really fall down. The impression you get is that the bad guys are being attacked by a naked mannequin with a realistic-looking head superimposed on top of it. It’s slightly creepy but mostly just laughable. It reminded me of the game Mass Effect 3, when the A.I. that pilots the ship takes over a robotic body that looks like–of all things!–a slender human female.
I would be inclined to complain that this is a rather cheap, crass and sexist ploy to get attention, except that it’s so silly-looking it’s kind of hard to imagine anybody thinks it’s sexy. (And if they do, I can’t imagine what their reaction to walking into a clothing store with mannequins must be.)
This is even worse because most of the time, the Major wears perfectly respectable, everyday cyberpunk-heroine outfits that look just fine.
(Side note: I have no idea what’s up with all the knives in this movie. People would have knives and never used them. The utility of a knife as a weapon in a world populated by cybernetically-augmented humans and pure machines seems limited.)
I don’t generally pay much attention to costumes in movies, and I feel slightly sexist myself for even discussing this. (The natural feminist counter-argument would be that a strong, independent anti-terrorism cyborg has every right to wear what she deems best.) I’m just saying it looked so bizarre that the scenes where it happened became unintentionally comical.
But what bothered me most about the suit is the fact that I could see people getting the wrong impression about this movie from how much it’s used in the marketing. I was afraid the movie might be nothing but a flimsy excuse to give callow teenagers something to gawk at between shoot-’em-up scenes, and for the most part, it’s not that. Apart from this relatively small (albeit really stupid) element, it’s actually a surprisingly thoughtful film, as these things go.
With that, enough about costumes. Back to plotting and character–things that really matter.
Juliette Binoche is really good as the doctor who saves the Major and gives her the new body. Hers was probably the most complex character–she is driven by a passion for science, and a genuine desire to help, but makes a Faustian bargain with the less-than-noble Hanka corporation to do so.
Her death scene, however, was poorly-handled. It was clear enough when she helps the Major escape that she would be killed unless the Major saved her. That she simply left her there made her seem a little cold. Also, there is a logic problem in that the doctor is shot through a window looking into the room where the Major was held in captivity–you would expect that to be bulletproof glass.
There are no great feats of acting in this movie, but it’s not really the sort of movie that allows for or needs it. All the actors delivered very solid, competent performances. And the characters, while mostly stock figures of the genre, are reasonably well-written and consistent. The script has only one memorable line and no masterful plot twists, but it is well-paced and workmanlike, with no serious flaws.
I would have ended the movie about two minutes earlier than it actually ends. The last two scenes–of the Major reuniting with her mother and then going on a mission for Section 9–raise more questions at the worst time. Who is the Major fighting now? Is she still working for the government that collaborated with Hanka to kidnap her in the first place? It seemed strange, and made the film a little less satisfying than it could have been.
All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ghost in the Shell. It is not a great film, but after the modern science-fiction films I have seen–Prometheus, The Force Awakens–even basic storytelling competence was really a treat. If you like cyberpunk or science-fiction in general, I recommend it.
Now if only Section 9 would issue the Major a less-ridiculous stealth uniform…