Category Archives: cyberpunk

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Since we’re living in the Age of the Reboot and the number of films made from existing properties outpaces the number made from original scripts, some important questions need to be answered.  To what degree does the artist’s or author’s original intention matter when doing a remake? Given that every writer tells a story using a specific set of characters, themes and ideas to make a general point, can a remake which repurposes those ideas to conform to contemporary sensibilities legitimately call itself by the work’s original name? At what point do those themes and ideas become so different, that the reboot has become a different story altogether? Where is the line between respectful homage and outright sacrilege? Most importantly, at what point do the thematic reinventions have a deleterious effect? I don’t have definitive answers to all of these questions, but GITS 2017 certainly has me inclined to believe that the law of diminishing dramatic returns holds true more often than not when it comes to these reboots. This is not to say that GITS 2017 is a complete disaster because the deviations from GITS 1995 are indeed handled very cleverly.  However, this does mean that the various changeups don’t add up to a better final product even when accounting for the ramped up production values.

The broad strokes of GITS 2017 are basically the same as GITS 1995, but the changes to those original themes alter the overall message of the film in significant ways. Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, and in contrast to GITS 1995, the film is setting up an entirely different dramatic conflict by emphasizing how she was created and by whom.

In the future, the line between human and machine is disappearing. Advancements in the technology allow humans to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. Hanka robotics, funded by the government, is developing a military operative that will blur the line even further. By transplanting a human brain into a fully synthetic body, they will combine the strongest attributes of human and robot.

This isn’t a departure from the basic premise of the original, but it marks a distinct shift in emphasis. Where the original was positing the idea of a fully sentient digital being, GITS 2017 is giving us a variation on Robocop.  Instead of OCP, we have Hanka robotics which has contracted with the government to build a cyborg super soldier.  The opening of the film shows us a fatally injured Mira Killian being carted into an operating room in which her brain is ultimately salvaged and inserted into her cybernetic shell.  There are flashes of some violent fiery trauma which may or may not be flashbacks to the incident which left her fatally injured.

 

 

Upon being fully regenerated into her new cybernetic shell, the CEO of Hanka and her designer Dr. Ouelet have a debate over her future assignment. CEO Cutter wants her assigned to the elite anti-terrorism unit, Section 9, while Dr. Ouelet insists that Mira isn’t ready for that kind of duty. This is one of the points of departure from the original and where the film goes off the rails a bit. As Dr. Ouelet, Juliette Binoche is presumably an elite robotics engineer working for the most prestigious robotics company and instead of treating her like a professional doing the job she was hired to do, the film has her projecting maternal attachment to her new creation.  So not only is the film trying to get feminist booster points by having a female character in a STEM role, they portray her exercising her female biological instincts on her cybernetic newborn. Way to smash gender stereotypes, folks.

While I’m generally cool with suspension of disbelief in SF, I can’t help but to nitpick the scientific premise they’re putting forward since Rupert Sanders and company have chosen to make the Major’s creation story the center of gravity. Hanka is presumably a sophisticated and well resourced for-profit robotics company. Albeit one that’s in bed with the government.  They want to build a super soldier by taking the human mind of a young woman with no combat experience whatsoever and place her in a cybernetic shell.  So Hanka believes that Mira’s human reflexes, spatial recognition, muscle memory, emotional disposition, neurological and biological proclivities will be a sufficient foundation for a super soldier once outfitted with a cybernetic shell. It made sense in Robocop because Murphy was a cop in the first place. I know this is SF and everything, but good SF generally starts with at least a generally plausible scientific premise and extrapolates.  This is saying that the all of the attributes which are either biologically hardwired or psychologically imprinted into the young female mind are simultaneously the most valuable attributes for a cyborg super soldier and can be sublimated once paired with cybernetic musculature. Alrighty then.

In the scene following Mira’s cybernetic birth, the film tips its hand by more explicitly revealing the film’s progressive editorial in what is otherwise a visually stunning reinvention of the original opening. Now operating as the fully functional cyborg super cop she was designed to be, the Major scans a meeting taking place between a Hanka executive and the African ambassador. Instead of a generic foreign diplomat negotiating a Megatech programmer defection, they give us a Hanka executive making a pitch to an African politician. Cuz multiculturalism and shit or something. Against the orders of Section 9 leader, Aramaki, the Major dons her invisibility cloak and storms the room just as a geisha-bots begin attacking the Hanka executive. Right before the Major shoots the hacked geisha-bot, it utters a warning: “Commit to the will of Hanka and be destroyed.” Where GITS 1995 left us to puzzle out the Puppet Master’s ultimate motivations, this one is telling us that this new mind hacker has it in for Hanka.  The big, bad corporation. Imagine my surprise. 

The Major and her multicultural team of Section 9 cyborgs spend the remainder of the film trying to identify the new mind hacker, Kuze.  At the same time, the Major becomes increasingly curious about her past since her flashbacks become more vivid and frequent. 

The film is making an important point about the nature of memory and the structure of human cognition, but it’s approaching the topic from a Marxist angle. By giving the Major a false memory which sharpened her killing instincts, the film is saying she had, in effect, committed to the will of the bourgeoisie. Which, in this case, was the Hanka corporation. Naturally, the false memory portrayed her as an immigrant whose parents were killed by terrorists because, after all, you need to gin up that antipathy towards terrorists artificially.  To the film’s credit, the writers portrayed the Major’s natural genetic memory as the force which compelled her to discover her birth mother and know her own story more fully.  As it turns out, her ghost belonged to Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese radical who campaigned against cybernetic enhancements.  So Hanka figures it can fulfill the ghost requirements of its super soldier program by culling the ranks of anti-cyber-enhancement dissidents. Alrighty then.

Like many other Hollywood films, it’s trying to have it both ways by making Cutter and Hanka the bad guys. Cutter is yet another two-dimensional cardboard cutout who is all calculating menace and cartoonish malevolence.  He also happens to be….you’ll never believe it….a white male. It’s as though there’s an overriding narrative.  

Kuze threatens to destroy those who “commit to the will of Hanka”, but Hanka contracts with the government. Whose will is truly being carried out here? Section 9 is clearly some kind of special forces/homeland security unit which needed an elite cyborg and Hanka delivered. Again, one detects the distinct whiff of an agenda. 

Of course, there are some pretty obvious sops to PC sensibilities.  The film takes place in future Japan, and naturally, multicultural harmony and gender equality reign supreme. Besides the addition of another female cyborg to the Section 9 roster, the team speaks to Aramaki in English while he speaks to them in Japanese. This doesn’t make any goddamn sense, people. Also, if the Major’s ghost was Japanese, why is she speaking English? As long as there are nation states, there will be a dominant culture and language that will be upheld. The Japanese have proven themselves pretty protective of their culture and language. There’s no way Section 9 is multilingual. Sorry. 

The film emphasizes the Major’s sentience by having her verbally consent to the administration of a serum or being jacked into a digital network. It’s an interesting twist and it reminds us that the Major is still human, but once again, the aroma of a certain highly politicized issue wafts about this piece of the story.  One could certainly extend the question of consent to a wide variety of federal policies, but I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers had in mind.

The look of the film is spectacular, and it takes the arthouse cyberpunk noir of the original to another level. This is another take on the hybrid of squalid urban sprawl and holographic commercial overstimulation that we’ve been getting since Blade Runner. ScarJo has been raked over the coals for a number of aspects of this role, but she and the rest of the cast are enjoyable enough. The complaints of “whitewashing” from the #SocialJustice crowd are painfully stupid and tiresome given that these jackasses tend to be the most vocal cheerleaders for immigration and multiculturalism. 

Since both GITS films have addressed very specifically the role of memory in determining selfhood, I can’t help but to think that what Sanders and company have done here is exactly analogous to what Hanka did to the Major. By rewriting the story, they want to hack the minds of the public and implant a new memory of GITS that will supersede the memory of the original. At some level, all of this remixing of the past is saying that there is no sanctity to a any artist’s original vision. Everything must be tailored to the prevailing political winds. 

While I found it enjoyable enough, I still came away thinking that this remake failed to add anything new to the original and ultimately detracted from themes and ideas that were more provocative and original.  By insisting that all films conform to progressive orthodoxy, films are increasingly taking on an aura of bland globalist cosmopolitanism.  Where the original asked you to contemplate the nature of selfhood, the transmission of genetic memory, speciation and the possibility of a post-human being, this film ends up rehashing ideas that were already explored in films like Total Recall, Robocop, and Minority Report. The Major is haunted by her past, but only achieves peace after discovering the truth of who she was and from where she came. Ultimately, the film is affirming the importance of familial and cultural bonds while simultaneously affirming that one can only fulfill the process of individuation through self-discovery. Contrary to the claims of contemporary social scientists and gender “scholars”, the human being does not come into the world as a blank slate. Every person possesses an a priori cognitive structure through which the experiences of the world occur. The process of defining selfhood requires that one distinguish between whether you are the author of your own existence or a player in a drama that’s been written for you. While I can acknowledge that this is the common thread that binds the films together, I don’t know that this film is Ghost in the Shell. Or if it’s a different ghost in the shell of its predecessor. 

The Major: You are not defined by your past, but for your actions…

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Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk.  With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance. 

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end. 

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity. 

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer.  The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.  

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism. 

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form! 

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?  

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.  

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings.  The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.  

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.