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Ghost in the shell review

Published on 2017-04-18

I recently went to watch the new ghost in the shell (GITS) movie starring Scarlett Johansson. I was actually positively surprised. Unfortunately, I could not find any good analysis of it online. They either did a standard Hollywood review ("it is an ok popcorn movie") or they focused on the negative aspects ("whitewashing!!"). I do not really want to object any of that, but I do want to look at what the movie got right in terms of story.

Spoiler alert: I will talk freely, assuming that you know all there is to know about the franchise (or do not care).

The GITS franchise

There have been many iterations of ghost in the shell already. The most famous one is probably the 1995 movie. I have seen most iterations, but I am not a die hard fan who knows all the details by heart either.

It is hard to tell what it is actually about. The movies are calm and philosophical and the major ends up joining the puppet master. SAC is action-packed, features logicomas, and tells us that the major got her cybernetic body due to a car crash. In ARISE, the major is young and insecure. In the mangas, the major is actually funny. None of this is neccessarily canon.

Still, the general setting stays the same: GITS is about cyborgs in a not too distant future. Its world was shaken by a great war and is now filled with refugees, cyborgs, terrorists, corrupt politicians, and mega-corporations. Major Motoko Kusanagi is part of an elite police unit called "section 9". She is cold and extremely strong, both physically and as a hacker.

GITS tackles many topics like AI, individuality, gender, violence, and much more. There are so many facets to the cyborg idea, and GITs deals with most of them.

Donna Haraway

At some time I stumble across the "cyborg manifesto" by radical feminist Donna Haraway. Haraway's style of writing is somewhat special. She plants ideas in your head that allow you to see the world from a different angle. One of these ideas is that of the cyborg.

We tend to see the world in pairs of opposites: Dead/alive, natural/artificial, man/woman, good/bad, controlled/free, war/peace. We are so used to these binaries that it is hard to see beyond them. But cyborgs defy at least some of these categories, so they can be a loophole for us to escape our usual thinking.

Haraway warns us that we are already in the process of becoming cyborgs. But cyborgs have been shaped by military and capitalism. We have to make sure to realize the revolutionary potential of the cyborg rather than its destructive origin.

So in a way, GITS is very similar to the cyborg manifesto because it lets us experience a world in which many binaries no longer make sense. It is a world filled with ex-military cyborgs that have to find their place. And sure enough, Donna Haraway shows up in the middle of this world as a forensic doctor in Innocence.

The Hollywood movie

First of, the new movie copies many scenes and ideas from the previous iterations, and it honestly does a great job with that. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that Dr. Dahlin was actually Donna Haraway, just by the way she handled her cigarette. On the other hand, I felt that some of the action scenes looked cheap. I also never really felt immersed in the world. The overall atmosphere was lacking.

The major from this movie is somewhat similar to the one we see in ARISE: young, insecure, and not as resolute as we know her from other iterations. She is not called Motoko Kusanagi, but Mira Killian, and she is the first cyborg with a full prosthetic body. The characters almost break the fourth wall when they tell us that one day everyone will be like her.

In the end it turns out that she actually was Motoko Kusanagi all along, but the evil corporation erased her memories, gave her a western body and name, and used her as a weapon. The final scenes were a bit confusing, but I figure they were supposed to show us that the major finds her place somewhere in between human and machine. The major we are left with might well be the one we start with in other iterations.

I actually found it refreshing that this movie did not attempt to copy the AI-centric story of the 1995 movie. That would have inevitable been shallow. Instead, it chose to cover a topic that, as far as I can remember, has never really been spelled out in the franchise: The relationship between the cyborg's origins in military and capitalism and its revolutionary potential. Sure, the movie is not a milestone of intellectuality, but it does a good job of introducing this conflict and reminding us that it is real and current.

Conclusion

I do not want to argue that this is a great movie. It certainly has many flaws. But why does everyone say that it removed the philosophy from the story? Sure, it did not cover the same topics as the 1995 movie. But neither did any other of the many iterations. This movie did not just copy the source material, it did the courageous thing and took on a new topic. We should acknowledge that.

And, even more importantly, we should take its message seriously.