Make: DreamWorks, Paramount
Model: Anime Adaptation
Popular source material is a double-edged sword. There have been at least 17 adaptations of King Arthur stories and Superman has been turned into movies and TV series. Studios like adaptations because they come with a built in fan base, but fan bases are fickle. Star Wars fans have not been happy since Empire, despite critical praise. Meanwhile, the Twilight series kicked out 5 mediocre (or worse) movies that received fan praise despite being panned. That brings us to today’s build: Ghost in the Shell. What is actually wrong with the movie bears little resemblance with why people actually refused to see it. All those complaints boil down to source material.
What works: Visuals are stunning. Watching Scarlett Johansson dive off a building backwards never gets old. The movie captures the bright neon vaporware aesthetic of the anime, as well as the grimy hyper-networked underground full of milky eyed monks. But stunning visuals don’t tell stories, otherwise people would be spending $10.50 a week to go to the museum.
Storywise, it’s essentially Blade Runner. And it works. Major is a complex cyborg protagonist with a hidden past that drives her deeper into the mystery surrounding Kuze, the criminal, also a cyborg. Major digs for the truth, finds it, and then has to make hard choices.
What doesn’t work: This movie has a bad habit of constantly throwing ethical and philosophical dilemmas in our faces. The characters state out loud that they don’t know where to draw the line between human and cyborg and robot, who should have rights, who should be treated as property, who is more dangerous, man or machine? It’s too on the nose to be compelling. All it does is induce eye rolling. In Inception, for example, Hobbs waits the whole movie before he tells Ariadne that what happened to his wife still haunts him. We don’t need the characters beating us over the head with themes. Tell us a story and the themes will become apparent.
The other thing that doesn’t work is the predictable turn. In the final act, the big greedy corporate types turn out to be big greedy corporate types. The cyborgs with their hearts of actual gold turn out to be poor unfortunate souls just looking for love in all the wrong places. Cliches happen. Tropes are tropes because they work. But the bad part about these tropes is that they take all the pressure off Major. The Trolley Problem is only a problem because the people on the tracks don’t deserve to die. If one guy deserves to die, there’s no dilemma. Major’s tough choices should stay tough. No easy outs.
No opening crawl. Opening crawls are dumb.
In the second scene of the movie, we hear Cutter, the corporate baddie, call Major “A weapon,” instantly labeling him a heartless capitalist. If Major’s choices are going to stay tough, there needs to be ambiguity in who Major can really trust. So, it’s Dr. Ouelet who says she’s a weapon, a masterpiece. Also, no one should ever say the words “ghost” or “shell” at this point.
The next thing that we need to change is Major’s relationship to her team. She needs to be part of Section 9 as a sort of test run to see if a cyborg like her will work out, or if she will need to be retired. In this scenario, she has a compelling need to prove her worth, a need that may drive her to take extra risks if it means she gets to stay alive. In an early scene, she is reprimanded by her commander for taking an unnecessary risk connecting with a corrupted android to find Kuze. This reprimand shows that she is a valued member of the team, which makes the choices easier. There needs to be more suspicion between Major and her comrades. Instead of a reprimand, her commander needs to press her forward to take more risks.
The next time Cutter shows up, after Major was hit with a bomb, instead of yelling at Major’s commander, he calmly requests that the commander show restraint before putting Major at risk. She needs to be handled properly. She’s skilled, but she is special and needs special attention. No more unnecessary risks.
All the while, Major is having visions of her past, trying to piece it together. When she finally meets Kuze, she is so confused by the visions that she believes Kuze enough to investigate his claims. She disappears, and her commander sends a team after her. Batou finds her secretly, tells her about the team after her, and Major decides that she has to come in. Commander is surprised that Major returns. He takes it as a sign of dependability. He gives her leave to investigate on her own.
She gets caught and brought back to Dr. Ouelet for servicing. Ouelet and Cutter argue over her value. Cutter reminds Ouelet about the fact that she called Major a weapon. Ouelet says she was wrong. She is a weapon, but she is also a mind, a soul. Her body may be a shell, but the ghost of who she was keeps resurfacing. Cutter says, if she is human, then they ought to do the humane thing and put her down. If she remembers her old life, then she should be spared the pain of remembering. Cutter places a red vial in Ouelet’s hand. Ouelet sighs and grips the vial in her hand. She places it on the table next to a syringe and a yellow vial. She loads a vial into the syringe and injects it into Major’s neck. Instead of killing Major, it wakes her up. Ouelet tells her to run. She runs. Ouelet looks at Cutter and injects herself with the red vial. Cutter sighs and walks out of his office.
Major finds her mom and her cat. She goes to her old hang out and finds Kuze. Cutter sends in his spider tank to kill Kuze and recapture Major. Major remembers all about her and Kuze’s past, he was insecure and abusive, but they loved each other. Cutter stole them out of their love shack, promising a new life. Major remembers it all now. Cutter is now revealed to be a kidnapper, serial killer, and a mad scientist. He was trying to build a better life for humanity, but he needed people with no life to get there. Major is horrified and confused. She destroys the Spider tank and hunts Cutter.
She finds Cutter. He doesn’t act like a monster. He’s calm. He’s pleasant. He offers to clarify the situation for Major. “I gave you a new life, a purpose.” “But I never gave my consent,” she replies. She turns to run, but a fleet of spider tanks show up. She leads them on a chase. She gets shot, a lot. She ends up climbing Hanka Tower, then diving off and leading the spider tanks with her. The tanks shoot Cutter dead. Major finds her team, and she gets a new mission.
Wrap up: Popular source material can bind filmmakers in a lot of ways, requiring that they stay too faithful hampering their ability to make a good movie. This movie needed to stray from the source material a little to make the choices harder and the ethical dilemmas more difficult.