Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)
Directed By: Rupert Sanders
Written By: Jonathan Herman, Jamie Moss
Runtime: 106 minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures

I decided I would review Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson some months back but just didn’t know when I would do it. Please note this review will have some spoilers as it is also an analysis of the film. I was already familiar with it from the 1995 anime of the same name, which explores the same story. I vaguely recall it as I actually saw it around that time and haven’t yet re-watched it to refresh my memory.

Nonetheless, I am in touch with its themes not just from the films but from the subject of transhumanism which is ever more prominent as technology in real life progresses. Back in 1995 it didn’t seem absolutely certain the ambitions of the technologists, specifically artificial intelligence and robotics people, were going to come to fruition. This was because at the time, although they had achieved some impressive accomplishments in those fields, they had not yet done anything like what we see today.

Judging by what we see today, it looks strongly as though most if not all of the technology in Ghost in the Shell will become a reality. Only world war or catastrophe, natural or man made, would prevent these advanced technologies illustrated in the film from coming to be. They are mostly a combination of artificial intelligence, often referred to simply as AI, robotics, and transhumanism.

Allow me to give a brief description of each. Artificial intelligence is what is used in things like Chess programs. They enable you to play against a computer opponent if you don’t have a human opponent. An AI chess program can beat the best human Chess players in the world now. Another AI program can beat the best Jeopardy players. Jeopardy is a television game show. The name of the AI program that can play it better than a human is called Watson. He or it, scans Wikipedia pages as part of his program so he can, as I understand it, answer general knowledge questions. One could say he reads wikipedia, in a way, although very quickly.

Going even further, AI programs can produce music in the style of notable musicians as well as just produce general music. They are also used in stock trading done by major banks. In fact, the biggest banks use AI and according to my knowledge it is superior to traditional methods now. AI programs have not been able to produce works of fiction that can rival ones written by human authors, but it’s only a matter of time before they are able to.

In the future, it could be the case that an AI program could write endless novels in the style of your favorite author with great accuracy. In the more distant future, perhaps a book could be written just for you, exactly the way you are predicted to like it. On the one hand this sounds good but on the other it doesn’t sound so good. This raises the problem of what we will do when machines, robots, and computers can do everything better than we can.

The phenomenon of human labor being replaced by machines is called ‘technological unemployment.’ One proposed solution to this problem is to augment human beings with machine technology. This action is called ‘transhumanism,’ which I mentioned above. Ghost in the Shell 2017 is rife with transhumanism. Rife has a bit of a negative connotation because it’s usually used to describe something unpleasant. And some of what happens in Ghost in the Shell is unpleasant in my view. Take for example a young girl learning to speak fluent French in under 10 seconds.

Normally a person has to study a language for 4 years to reach fluency. This process takes tremendous effort, will power, concentration, time, dedication, intelligence, problem solving, practice, study, and patience. All of these things are beneficial to a human being. They strengthen character, provide something for one to do with one’s time, encourage discipline, and in the end reward all of the hard work with the acquisition of the language.

Without putting your sweat in, nothing is really worth anything, some people believe. And so if all you have to do is hook your brain up to a computer for 10 seconds to bypass all of the journey, isn’t it cheating? What’s the point of that? You’d be going straight to having the language at your disposal. The use of it would be you could speak to people in their own tongue when you couldn’t before. You could enjoy a holiday more freely, when it comes to the social aspect of it. But it’s in the process of learning a language the hard way that you figure out how you can express yourself the way you want to.

If you have a language downloaded into your head, you are not going to learn exactly the way you wish to express yourself in it, which is learnt during the normal slow process of acquisition. What is more, if everyone knows you downloaded it, no one will be impressed. One of the nice things about learning a language is when people compliment you on your hard work. So you can see much of what is good about doing it the hard way is destroyed by doing it the transhuman way.

So the idea with transhumanism is to make us as competent as machines so we can have jobs. But that makes no philosophical sense because in the eyes of many, the objective is to not have jobs, but to have only hobbies instead. Pleasurable activities, basically. And yet many hobbies become jobs for a lot of people. Take musicians for example. Many of them say they want to make music anyway. Elly Jackson of the band La Roux says she only did music commercially because she didn’t ‘want to be broke while doing it.’

I suspect if technology completely took over all tasks, people would want to experience things in simulated realities, much like they do now in video games. In video games people play the roles of soldiers, gangsters, skateboarders, race car drivers, fighters, etc. I think if people could not experience being these things in real life, they would opt to experience them virtually. This is where virtual worlds would flourish. People would not have to risk their lives doing these things for real but all of the blood sweat and tears element could be engineered into the worlds so the players could have the sense of accomplishment they seek.

Now I’ve addressed AI, and transhumanism, I’ll address robotics. We already have robots that can perform surgery and make cars, among other things. Much of the robotics in Ghost in the Shell is, I’ll be frank, sex robots. In the film they’re called ‘geisha bots.’ They’re for men obviously. It’s an embarrassing subject for most. But with the franchise being from Japan, it’s to be expected, and it’s relevant. We don’t yet have effective robot cleaners and that is because we have yet to create robots that can perform all human movements. Many of the first humanoid robots would walk a few steps and simply fall over. For some reason human movement is a difficult feat.

So let’s move on to the film in some detail. It has visually appealing cinematography. Many of the shots feature futuristic backdrops, costumes, cars, weaponry, and equipment. There are a few gratuitous shots of Scarlett Johansson, it should be said. The excuse given implicitly is her body suit is skin colored because this enables her to become invisible, for tactical purposes. Nonetheless, we get to see her as though she is naked. Howard Stern in his interview with her brings that issue up with her. He told her she is basically naked in it. She said yeah in the sense that it’s a rubber skin colored body suit. She sort of agreed with him but still pointed out she wasn’t actually naked. It was just a rubber skin colored body suit which made her appear naked.

But this is Hollywood. It’s to be expected. Gratuitous means lacking good reason. That the body suit allows her to become invisible is not good reason. We know the real reason. So anyway, her character is a human brain transplanted into a cyborg body. It is the first of its kind. The reason the film is called Ghost in the Shell is because it is said a human brain contains a ghost or a soul. All other cyborgs or robots, no matter how advanced, do not have a ghost or a soul.

It’s unclear whether society has established some sort of spiritual understanding of human beings. Sometimes it seems like they mean there is a ghost or a soul, but it is generated by the human brain, rather than separate from it in some way. Like they can’t generate one using machines but a human brain can generate one. It’s mentioned this ghost has capabilities machines do not have. The one that stands out the most is intuition. AI in the film does not have intuition. The idea is she can have all of the capabilities of her human soul meshed with the extreme capabilities of AI and robotics.

She is a transhuman supersoldier, and used for tactical military purposes. People get killed is what I’m saying. There is mention of terrorists. There is mention of people who disagree with technology, dislike it, perhaps hate it, and they go into what is described as a ‘lawless zone.’ Such things already exist but here in the UK they are very small. I’m told there is one housing estate where if you go into its parking area, it’s very dangerous, and if you call the police, they won’t come. Apparently if people see police from out their windows, they will drop televisions on them. I’m not joking. I saw a documentary about it. But that’s by-the-by.

I do wonder if there really could be a lawless zone in a world like the one presented in Ghost in the Shell. Perhaps there could be. It would allow for a demarcation between the technological world and the non-technological world. The people in the lawless zones could be subjects of study. They would no doubt be infiltrated by agent provocateurs as well.

As the story progresses, it turns out there is a conspiracy. Scarlett’s character, Mira Killian, is actually not the first of her kind. She’s in fact the first of her kind to actually be a medical success. By that I mean many were operated on before her, in failed attempts. One such failed attempt is the character Kuze played by Michael Pitt. He is claimed to be a terrorist by those above her but she finds out he was a prototype. He is much like she is only not as good. Flawed and in a great deal of pain. Full of hatred and seeks revenge. He managed to hack her system while she was doing something called a ‘deep dive.’

She has interactions with him and he enlightens her as to what has really gone on. She sympathises with him and wants to know her true origins. They have been hidden from her but stored on some sort of memory disk, while she has fake memories implanted by the robotics division of Hanka Corporation. I couldn’t help but think the film is a warning to us all. Almost pre-conditioning. It’s said in conspiracy circles that China does peculiar experiments to do with technology, ones often to do with stem stells and DNA editing. These are purely biological and do not involve robotics etc. But nonetheless, it’s disconcerting.

The film co-stars Pilau Asbaek who had a brief appearance in the first scene of Lucy, also starring Scarlett Johansson. He is so different in Ghost in the Shell, both in appearance and personality, I didn’t recognise him at all. Good actor, literally. Managed to trick me into not thinking I’d ever seen him before. Johansson sings his praises in one of her interviews. He plays Batou who is a key character in both the original anime film and in the anime television series, called Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

It would be a crime of me not to mention the film also co-stars Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki. This character is Mira Killian’s figurative angel, for without him, she’d have no back up in high places. Takeshi Kitano is a legend in Japan. He speaks Japanese in the film, with subtitles. As far as I know, his English is not that great. But even though he speaks in Japanese, you can hear how cool he must be if you understand Japanese. Juliette Binoche also has a pivotal role and she was once a very prominent actress. She does a superb job. She comes across as very manipulative when she is meant to but then has a change of heart when her conscience finally emerges as actually existent within her as a person, despite all she has done.

I certainly recommend Ghost in the Shell and multiple viewings are comfortable because it’s quite light dialogue wise with what is often visual artwork that can be seen again and again with much pleasure.

Reviewed by Alistair Martin

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3 Comments »

  1. drummertimbragg said

    Nice review Alistair. I want to watch. Since I was a child I have been interested in the ‘robot without soul’ question. More so the robot who believes in the soul – without (apparently) a soul.

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  2. drummertimbragg said

    Well it turned out your review was more interesting than the film Alistair. Cliche after cliche – as if many of the recent sci-fi films had been stirred into a big pot and out comes this tasteless soup. I actually fell asleep (though I had eaten and the fire was crackling out its heat). I also couldn’t bear sticking it to the end. My wife (who really didn’t like it) told me there was twenty minutes to go…next time I asked it was 15. Is it nearly finished yet? Boring. Lifeless. Lumpy ‘acting’. Nothing to challenge the brain. Not even sexy. Predictable. Nothing new to say. It’s a wonder there’s no ‘helmet law’ in the future – but those generic bikes all have nice big fat tyres. At one point my wife (who loves sci-fi) commented: well I don’t care if any of them are killed. She had no connection with any of the characters. Think the worst of The Matrix (all that Kung Fooy dancing in the air shooting hordes of folk stuff); think the backdrop to Bladerunner (and that is IT); think Star Wars (and Lord Sith or whatever he’s called). Think of coincidence to move the plot along in a kind of pretentious fashion. I think you’re getting the gist – I REALLY didn’t like it (nor my wife). I spent some time thinking of some of the ideas discussed in the review…as I sad, better than the film itself. Presumably this was never a novel first…I’m so confident, that if it was – I’d watch the film again (purely as punishment).

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  3. Alistair said

    I had to extract the ideas for my review from very small sections of the film which contain usable information. I think the overall objective with the film was to just mostly attempt visual appeal; things like slow motion shots while Scarlett looks cool. (To some people.) I’ve noticed a big change in the way big budget films are made. I’m not a classical style reviewer. I create distortions for people.

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