The live action Ghost In The Shell film has perhaps done the best thing regarding the previous productions (the Masaume Shirow manga, the 1995 and 2004 anime features, the mid-2000s Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex series and feature, the Arise origin story) that have all had their own takes on the material that aren't canon with each other but instead differently weighted interpretations on particular themes and images (the corporate/military/political intertwining together in backroom board rooms; group dynamics and the pleasures of working as a team; the potential intrusion even into a person's memories and entire sense of identity; the fleshy ties and responsibilities of the physical world versus the liberation of the mind into pure autonomous artificiality of cyberspace; the use of liquids, mirror images and diving as metaphors to express a mental state, duality and the online sea of information in general - a fast linear movement in a cluttered and overcrowded world) and gone its own way with its storyline whilst incorporating a lot of the most memorable imagery from all of the sources.
It seems particularly focused on the 1995 Mamoru Oshii film, though other sources inspire certain moments. For example the chain smoking doctor figure played by Anamaria Marinca in the film is somewhat inspired on the character from Innocence, and the main villain is a kind of fusing between the Puppet Master from the 1995 film, and the two antagonists from the two Stand Alone Complex series - the terrorist Laughing Man from series 1, and romantic, betrayed rebel leader Kuze himself from series 2. Which I guess makes sense in the film going for a different angle from the 1995 film, which seemed to celebrate the liberating power of escaping the 'shell' and moving entirely online as an entirely new form of being (even if that gets alluded to in the final scenes with the offer being turned down). The 2017 film is a bit closer in tone to the Stand Alone Complex series in which the Major is part of her Section 9 team and dealing with terrorist situations, and like Stand Alone Complex it still stays strongly tied to the physical world throughout as being where the Major belongs and has a future. Though even with that different philosophical approach, I was impressed by just how many elements of the 1995 film were kept in there (the diving scene; the wiped and false memory implanted bin man turned sleeper agent; the spider tank and side by side chat; even the nod to the Basset Hound, which was Mamoru Oshii's big talismanic symbol added to many of his films: Ghost In The Shell, Innocence, appearing at the turning point resolution of the mystery in Patlabor: The Mobile Police, even in the live action Avalon), whilst letting the film create its own, more emotional backstory.
Watching the latest film, it did sort of strengthen that sense of Ghost In The Shell being in the same area as RoboCop, which has never really come across so clearly as it does here. Not so much in the satirical sense but more in the way that the Major is someone pared down to a brain in an artificial body and that comes with a host of questions about who owns her 'intellectual copyright', and pays for all of her, presumably massively expensive, repairs and upgrades. With the inevitable answer that the military and/or tech corporations will, but they'll of course have their own agendas that they want fulfilled by their 'equipment' in exchange for their investment! (One of the big ideas running underneath all of these works is about what happens once someone has 'combined' with technology and has to deal with obsolecence, becoming outmoded and having, consciously or not, signed over control of their existence, both physical body and the contents of their minds, to a corporation. That's obviously only become more relevant in the social media age). That whilst not feeling pain to the same extent and being more powerful in general is an advantage and lets the body get pushed past breaking point to achieve a goal, it also comes with concerns about repair costs and cost vs result calculations! And I liked the idea that does get dealt with to some extent in this film of someone (in this case Juliette Binoche's scientist character) having access and the expertise to see every thought that the Major had, poring through the paper readout like it was a seismograph chart after an earthquake! That's a scary addition to the material, with its suggestion that there's no privacy to have your own unbridled thoughts in that situation, because someone is always going to have a record of everything that crossed your mind! (Plus how much of 'you' are 'you'? How much has been artificially suppressed through drugs, or was cut away in the surgery, based on the decisions of what someone else felt was 'enough' to leave you with? Is this world as it exists in the film moving towards recreating a person entirely from their brainwaves, or would that result in an even cruder artificial intelligence? The end point this film appears to come to is that a merging of flesh and technology together is the better option, rather than a total mind-body split one way or the other)
The Stand Alone Complex series was a bit less concerned about those existential threats and seemed generally fine with people gradually becoming more artificial (especially in the series ongoing subplot of Togusa getting steadily upgraded after beginning 'pure' human, something which gets passed over to Batou having his 'origin story' in the 2017 film, though it is nice that Togusa, along with Saito briefly at the end, still turn up as characters here), it did have some moments in specific episodes involving ideas around the economic upkeep aspect of an artificial body. The 2017 film sort of splits the difference by taking the mind and memory based approach of the 1995 film, as well as keeping the inherent primacy of the physical form (even if it is a newly artificially created one) as providing a grounded sense of self, and the idea of 'growing into' your new body and finding a confident identity and role in the world by the end, which is perhaps closer to the Stand Alone Complex series.
That all seems to feed into that idea in the 2017 film that perhaps the corporation and scientists doing these 'shelling' experiments were on the wrong track by wiping a memory at the moment of implantation and trying to create new memories around particular events most useful to their needs (a bit like going into the army and having individuality broken down to get re-moulded as an effective, or efficient, soldier) when there is a suggestion that knowing your past also helps to ground you and then move on using it as a basis, rather than being tormented (or at least distracted!) by coming from a scary blankness regarding your origins. The 1995 and 2017 film are interesting to compare in that they both feel somewhat hopeful, but while the 1995 film sees 'letting go' of the physical entirely to become pure mind and synaptic impulse as the new stage of humanity, the 2017 film sees being at peace in your own body and reconnection with social (family, colleague) ties as being worth celebrating. Both ends of the spectrum, but they sort of come to the same conclusion of the Major finally having some sort of 'autonomy' over her own actions again, after having been so estranged from even her own sense of self.
It does make this latest film feel a little more conventional than its source material, in the sense that we get a lead character getting betrayed, finding out about her past and coming to a big action climax against the actual bad guy rather than the relatively more sympathetic monster they were initially after. But I think that works in providing a strong plot for the imagery to support, and since a lot of the imagery is coming from a lot of disparate sources, I was surprised at how effectively it all got weaved together into something different.
I really like the way they treated the fluid sexuality aspect of the material (in the sense that when you are just a mind in a swapped out shell doesn't that liberate you from gender norms, not to mention racial and sexual ones. Anyone can potentially be anything they wish), in the way that the moment of hiring the prostitute is about her being flesh-and-blood human above all. That it is about the yearning to be able to touch warm and living flesh physically, which of course is bound up with sexual notions but also just about the contact between two human beings in general.
The casting of the film was also fun. Of course Scarlett Johansson is great in another role where she has to be impassive and kind of emotionally blank and distant for the majority of the time (its tempting to call this a trilogy with Under The Skin and Lucy, where the more arthouse ideas of Under The Skin are getting refitted into more commercial cinema modes. There's a moment of the Major looking into a mirror in her bedroom that is both perfect for the material of Ghost In The Shell and also similar to the scene in the mirror in Under The Skin, of someone looking at their image to try and understand who they are in their world. And the diving scene here, despite being a straight homage to the scene in the 1995 film, also contrasts amusingly with the under-gloop scenes in Under The Skin!), but its also great to see Juliette Binoche with quite an important role too (and she lasts longer here than she did in Godzilla, which was wonderful!) and Takeshi Kitano gets to speak in Japanese with subtitles here (which likely makes sense in a world where everybody has a Babel fish app in their augmentations! Though it would have been amusing to know if the characters actually see the subtitles floating in the air or not!), and has the required action scene of someone with his past filmic history of having a gunfight in and around a car!
If I have one concern with the film its that its almost too in thrall to recreating iconic imagery, to the extent that it was less about seeing a new setpiece than finding out how a pre-existing sequence had been adapted for the new film. That's always the issue with remakes/adaptations to some extent - stay too faithful and there's little reason for existing, yet stray too far and there was no point in working with the material in the first place - and I think this film does the best it can within that pre-existing framework. In some ways the moments where the film adds its own slight twists to the imagery and story work the best (the shattering mirror as someone is shot through it; the above mentioned prostitute scene; the circular apartment block), and kind of work because the film has entirely nailed the smaller but crucial elements of the world (the above mentioned Basset Hound homage; the beautifully cluttered hyper-megalopolis based seemingly on a future vision of Hong Kong; the slightly disturbing 'just following orders' way that the 'heroes' of Section 9 have no compunction about summarily executing criminals, Judge Dredd style) that sort of suggest that not just the surface imagery has been adapted, but a lot of the tone and worldview of the source material too. After a while, I felt the adaptation was in safe hands and almost wanted them to expand into other areas of the world rather than stick to the small story they had. But that sense of wanting them to have done even more (as in the 2012 Dredd film) is probably a good feeling to have been left with, rather than the more usual sense of despair in adaptations that all the 'cool' images that inspire a project had been used as a shell, but none of the philosophical intent behind the eyes was the same!