Though I feel like I may be painting a target on my own back for saying so, I enjoyed Ghost in the Shell. This Guardian article expresses a similarly positive view.
Parts of the movie reminded me of the 1995 version, which I vaguely remember as flawed, bogged down by abstruse exposition. If people don’t like the 2017 version, it seems to be because it feels too personal, emotional, and actiony in comparison. The “problem”, in essence, is that a mainstream American movie doesn’t match the tone of a foreign cult classic. I’m not sure I understand why anyone expected it to, or even thought it should, though I do applaud the suggestion that the script could have been sparser.
Many have complained that most of the cast wasn’t Asian. That doesn’t bother me because the genre is sci-fi; it’s hard to insist that the ethnographic landscape of the future is being misrepresented, especially when everyone in that future is some kind of cyborg.
I like the theme of self as defined by choice, but—as disproportionately dedicated as I am to the life of the mind—I believe the implications of a complete mind/body dichotomy are only philosophically relevant in a fictional future world where brain transplants are possible. Here and now, we are not our brains; we are who we are in large part because of how we are embodied. Injuries, even those we fully recover from, can disrupt an otherwise stable sense of self. (Case in point: A Leg to Stand on, a book about neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recovery from a serious mountain-climbing injury.)
Another way to think about the mind/body theme is from the standpoint of a political prisoner. A government can jail you, torture you, or even kill you, but it can’t change your mind because your mind (the ghost in the machine) remains yours and yours alone—unless you live in Orwell’s dystopia, in which case, all bets are off.
And speaking of 80s, I loved the choice of automobiles for this movie. They didn’t look like cars of the future, they looked like cars of the past. Or science-fiction of the past, at any rate. The setting had a Blade Runner kind of feeling to it; but this time the neon lights were all 3D, none of the skyscrapers were pyramids, and none of the robots were owls or snakes.
Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My beat sheet for Ghost in the Shell
The plot points were all there… but not all in order. Everything between the midpoint and the finale is a bit jumbled.
We see Mira’s shell being created, though not for her sake. (The motivation and method are reminiscent of Westworld.)
Set-up / Catalyst
Some terrorist named Kuze is hacking and killing high-level Hanka staff. Mira’s mission is seek and destroy. (Against orders, she intervenes in a spider geisha robot attack. Yeah, that’s right, “spider geisha robot”. Weird, right? Really weird. I could have done without that particular piece of world-building.)
Mira seems to think the geisha robot was a kind of victim, and feels compassion for it, especially since she knows that she herself is being used a weapon, too. The doctor tells her she’s not, or not just, a weapon, adding that we are not our memories; we are what we choose to do. This assertion is perhaps colored by the fact that the doctor is encouraging Mira to use a serum that suppresses her human past, which apparently includes the cat she hallucinates.
Debate / Break into Three
The terrorist is really dangerous. Mira’s purpose is to eliminate him, whatever the cost to herself. Therefore, against orders, Mira decides to do a “deep dive”, meaning she will digitally/mentally interface with the damaged robot. Though she is almost overcome by some bad code, she resurfaces with the information she sought: the terrorist’s location.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Mira and her stray-dog-loving partner and the rest of her team go looking for the terrorist in a Yakuza club. Mira is captured and isolated, but although she pretends to be weak, it seems she can take care of herself. Finally reaching the basement, the team learns the terrorist isn’t there, and Mira’s partner is blinded by a bomb.
Mira struggles with her identity. Mira sees a mirror image of herself (haha, get it?) that isn’t flipped the way mirror images usually are. She hires a prostitute and asks her to reveal her unaltered human face, and describe what it feels like to be touched.
Another employee is killed, and they discover that the terrorist wants information about project 2571, and is killing all the people who worked on it. Mira and her team race off and arrive just in time to protect Mira’s doctor friend from an attack by a mind-controlled garbage man, who she fights in a puddle while invisible, as in the anime version. Captured, the man seems to know nothing about the attack or how it was carried out. When the terrorist again takes over his mind to see Mira through his eyes, the team traces his location and again sets out to capture him.
Once again, it’s not him. It’s the center of some kind of twisted hive mind. Nevertheless, Mira and Kuze do come face to face because he captures her. He explains that Hanka has lied to her; she is not the first of her kind, only the last and most successful one. He is a failed experiment, slated for destruction, and he wants revenge on all of humanity for creating him (badly) and then casting him aside. He offers to let her kill him, and she tries to, but then sees that he has a tattoo of the pagoda that she’s been hallucinating, and runs away, unsure what to believe.
Dark Night of the Soul
Mira confronts her doctor friend, who confirms Kuze’s story, admitting that there were dozens of failed experiments before Kuze and Mira were created. (I thought maybe there were a couple thousand because of the number assigned to the project.) Pondering all this, or just trying to shut it out, Mira goes swimming with the very fake-looking CGI jellyfish that somehow live in the city harbor.
Bad Guys Close In
Cutter, the appropriately named Hanka guy who created Mira, sees that she has become a problem, and now wants Mira and her team killed as well as Kuze.
All is Lost
Mira is captured. Her doctor friend is instructed to harvest her data and then kill her.
Break Into Three
The doctor disobeys orders, sacrificing her life to revive Mira and give her a literal key to her past. Mira escapes and uses the key to locate a woman, her mother, who tells her her rebellious, anti-technology daughter Matoko ran away a year ago, was captured by government agents, and committed suicide. Mira promises to return and visit the woman (and her cat) again.
Mira finds the pagoda she has been hallucinating, where she lived as a runaway, and understands that both she and Kuze were kidnapped and dismembered by Hanka for the sake of weapons research. Kuze begs her to join him in his digital network, where they can live on and take revenge on humans. Then Cutter attacks via a remotely controlled spider tank. CGI Mira evades it and the infrastructure collapse it causes. Mira busts an arm to disable the spider tank before it can shoot Kuze, but he gets shot anyway, just after she refuses his offer. Mira’s team swoops in and takes her away for repair.
Mira’s boss kills Cutter. Mira reunites with her mother in front of Matoko’s grave.
In a monologue voice-over, as she stands poised on top of a tall building, Mira reiterates the theme (my ghost is mine, we are what we do) and predicts a future in which there are more like herself. Then she leaps off the building, turning invisible as she falls.