Another week, another live-action remake of an animated classic. Well, you could argue that most of Ghost in the Shell isn’t really live action, since there’s so much that’s CG. You could also say it’s not a remake so much as a new adaptation of a Japanese comic book. Regardless, a lot of it is a pretty faithful copy, so a good percentage of this week’s list of Movies to Watch could apply to the manga or the anime versions of the story (I’m making it a given that you should see the original). That’s good for any of you boycotting the new movie due to its whitewashing controversy.
These 12 titles are worth seeing either way:
The Creation of the Humanoids (1962)
Despite being a cheap, cheesy sci-fi B movie, this is a significant work for being possibly the first involving cyborgs who don’t know they’re machines with implanted memories. Set in a semi-post-apocalyptic future, when humans are nearly extinct and humanoid robots are taking over, a doctor attempts to save humanity by putting the consciousnesses of the recently dead into new bodies. Some of these unknowing cyborgs are even ironically members of an anti-machine terrorist group.
Blade Runner (1982)
If you’ve already seen it, this one should seem a given as soon as the future Tokyo of Ghost in the Shell (new or old) appears on screen, as well as when characters start talking about false biographical memory implants. “Ultimately, all movies begin as copies of others, and it’s impossible to avoid consciously or unconsciously copying things from other works,” the anime’s director, Mamoru Oshii, told the LA Times this year. “Any film set in a near-future world is influenced to some degree by Blade Runner, but I did my best to make [Ghost in the Shell] different from it.”
Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1985)
Long before both Ghost in the Shell and The Lobster, this TV movie featured people being forcefully reincarnated as animals. Raul Julia stars as a computer programmer whose company punishes him by giving him a virtual vacation in the body of a baboon. His consciousness later ends up inside a simulation of his favorite movie, Casablanca, as his body is set for reuse, with a gender reassignment. The movie was originally an episode of the PBS series American Playhouse and was then featured and roasted in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Feel free to just watch the latter version.
The original Ghost in the Shell manga may not have been inspired by RoboCop – creator Masamune Shirow apparently wasn’t even aware of the movie, which itself probably was only accidentally similar to the ’70s Japanese series Robot Detective – but there’s no denying the parallels. Obviously both involve a robotic cop with a human brain, the memories from which have mostly been deleted (remnant material haunts the hero). Plus, the spider tank in the climactic battle sequence has long been compared to RoboCop’s enforcement droid ED-209. In addition to recommending this, I also direct you to read the Movies to Watch list for the 2014 RoboCop remake, which includes a number of relevant titles such as the 1990 anime short A.D. Police File 3: The Man Who Bites His Tongue.
Violent Cop (1989)
One of the highlights of the Ghost in the Shell remake is “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who plays the Section 9 chief. It is his first Hollywood movie appearance since another cyberpunk action flick, the 1995 Keanu Reeves-led William Gibson adaptation Johnny Mnemonic. While that would seem a more fitting recommendation, I’d rather encourage checking out Kitano’s Japanese films as a director, starting with this, his debut, where he plays a tough detective. Then maybe the noirish 1993 Yakuza film Sonatine.
The Matrix (1999)
We now have an official redo of Ghost in the Shell, but the anime has been so influential over the past 20 years that a lot of the live-action version should seem familiar to mainstream American moviegoers. When the Wachowskis pitched The Matrix, for instance, the story goes that they played producers a copy of Ghost in the Shell and said, “We wanna do that for real.” They clearly didn’t mean for real for real, as in an unofficial remake, but they did borrow a lot. To the point that Oshii hates being constantly asked about the comparison. “I prefer their debut, Bound,” he adds.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
The remake will probably never get a part two, so even if you don’t bother seeing the original, you could follow it up with this sequel to the anime. Maybe imagine in your mind what the live-action version would look like. Also directed by Oshii, this one has a bigger budget, a new protagonist (the Major’s partner, Batou – the Major has a supporting role), and a plot involving sex doll robots. After Innocence, check out a few artsy hard-boiled sci-fi films: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Rainer Werner Fassbender’s World on a Wire, and Oshii’s own live-action feature The Red Spectacles.
I, Robot (2004)
It may not be what Isaac Asimov fans were expecting, but Alex Proyas’s take on the Three Laws of Robotics concept is still a decent sci-fi action Will Smith vehicle with great effects and futurist production design. Although some of it is a humorous stretch, as can be expected from Couch Tomato, below is his video likening I, Robot to the anime version of Ghost in the Shell, which probably influenced it. The comparison is also relevant to the remake.
Transcendent Man (2009)
For the obligatory documentary recommendation, I have to go with a film on Ray Kurzweil and the idea of technological singularity, part of which involves the theory that humans will one day achieve immortality by transplant of consciousness to machine. Maybe even to a robot cop shell? I’d actually sort of recommended this film, which introduced me to the idea, on the Movies to Watch list for Ex Machina but focused on the then more relevant yet hokier doc The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil actually co-directed that one, but the earlier release will have you thinking more seriously about the subject. If you want a sillier take, you can also watch the fiction feature Transcendence.
Ghost in the Shell lead Scarlett Johansson also stars in this ridiculous but entertaining sci-fi movie from Luc Besson. Again, Johansson plays a character living in an Asian city, here Taipei, but this time she starts out as white girl, then her consciousness is uploaded to another form and is able to hack into computer programs. However, here her body is also transformed with her mind. As pointed out by The Guardian’s James Luxford, this was the actress’s third movie in a row with a similar theme, following Her and Under the Skin: “the characters are people, or beings, who evolve, mutate or vanish altogether.” Ghost in the Shell now joins them.
In Jennifer Phang’s indie sci-fi film, a Sundance winner and Spirit Award nominee, a woman elects to have her consciousness implanted into a younger body in order to salvage her job at the company introducing such a procedure. Like in Ghost in the Shell, the new body is also of a different race, though here that race is simply more ambiguous, which in addition to the age factor is better for the company’s public image. The feature is an extension of a 2012 short film version, which you can start with below.
Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s phenomenal hit is a perfect place to end on, not just because of the horror film’s dealings with race but also for a certain plot point. Both Get Out and Ghost in the Shell involve the transfer of a person’s consciousness into a more perfect body. In the former it’s an African-American human shell, while the latter has caucasian robotic bodies. If only Ghost in the Shell had tried to make some excuse or commentary on future Japanese society seeing white bodies, not just mechanical shells, as in vogue.