Ghost in the Shell at last

I know, the Ghost in the Shell movie has been out for a while, and I wasn’t able to find a movie theatre that still had it on roster until a colleague was able to sniff it out in one of our out-of-town mega-complexes. Long story short, I though I was condemned to see it on […]

Ghost in the Shell

I know, the Ghost in the Shell movie has been out for a while, and I wasn’t able to find a movie theatre that still had it on roster until a colleague was able to sniff it out in one of our out-of-town mega-complexes. Long story short, I though I was condemned to see it on the small screen but last night I was able to catch the last but one showing of this movie here in Milan.

Now, the plot should be well known: squad 9 is a cyber-investigative unit led by a girl in a synthetic body, known as “the major”. Their investigations about cyber-terrorism unveils the plot of a mastermind, known in the manga as “the puppeteer”, who hacks minds and robots to get revenge against the government and the robotics industry. The original manga is one of the most influential works of our time: it laid the foundations for a lot of our favourite science fiction, including Matrix. A live action movie about it was long due. So, how’s the movie like?

Spoilers ahead. Like big ones. Like I’m actually telling you the ending ones. Consider yourself warned.

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If you were familiar with the manga, you know the original story: the Puppeteer eventually turns out to be “Project 2501″, an artificial intelligence whose aim is to reach its next step in evolution, becoming human. In the anime, major Motoko Kusanagi agrees to the “marriage”, man and machine become one, and she is reborn as Motoko Aramaki. The main theme is what primarily links the anime to the philosophical work of the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle and the psychology theory found within Ghost in the Machine by the Hungarian-British journalist Arthur Koestler. You should check their work out if you’re interested in these kind of topics.


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This is the cover of the original book. It’s era-defining.

What you should not do, on the other hand, is watching the movie.
In the movie, the story takes a drastic turn and depicts something completely different: it becomes about identity, about whether if it’s our memory that defines us, if it’s our choices and actions, if it’s something within our soul (the ghost) or if it’s the interaction of our soul with what defines our body (the shell). The Puppeteer, here called Kuze, is simply a previous experiment and through their personal previous lives he is linked to the major (here Mira Killian while Motoko Kusanagi is the real name of her previous identity). His evolution is simply put as a transition from the human mind to a network of minds and though this would have been an interesting switch it stays a topic in the background, expecially considering that the major refuses to become digital with him and embraces her human life in a synthetic shell.

Now I understand that you need to tread lightly on these kind of topics because, unlike the 90s, this is not science fiction anymore. Motoko was a girl rendered heroic by her tragic past (an accident in her childhood destroyed her body) and her augmentations were not (only) super-weapons making her superior: they were a tangible sign of her heroism. The same kind of character, if you got that, was imperator Furiosa in the recent Mad Max. Now, we live in an era where this kind of girl really exists.

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Yes, I’m thinking about her.

Japanese authors have been working on that subject for two decades now and it’s hard for some of us to appreciate the depth of their contribution because “since it has pictures it’s not serious”. We are struggling with these topics ourselves now: this winter’s number of wired was a lot about that topic, but I strongly advise you read D.T. Max’s article that was published on National Geographic this April. It’s titled “Beyond Human” and tells a story about a young cyborg named Neil Harbisson, a color blind musician who had a fiber-optic antenna-like sensor plugged into his brain so that he can hear the sound of colors. Like for real. The article is beautifully illustrated by Owen Freeman (pictures) and Alvaro Valino (icons) and is worth alone the purchase of the magazine.

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Now, the point is really evolutionary. Will technology blur the line between disability and enhancement so that the expression “differently able” will really hold a deeper meaning? In the paralimpics this is already happening, but we have difficulties talking about the subject. We mainly were thought not to talk about it, as a manner of respect, so that when we do we don’t feel entitled to. I know the feeling because I’m experiencing it right now.
This might be one of the reasons why the topic is dismissed and the focus is shifted from the shell to the ghost itself and the interaction of an invasive digital world with our human mind, another topic our western world seems to be struggling with.

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The opening clip, kindly provided by Paramount Pictures

The vivid and sumptuous background for this story about conscience is a marvelous depiction of what could be an Asian city few years from now and in that the cyberpunk spirit was completely preserved: huge holographic advertising are flashing alongside metamorphic street signs and cybernetic spider-robot geishas, tattoo parlors are illegal spots for illicit augmentations, nightclubs are… well, nightclubs would be nightclubs wherever you go.

Characters are built in a very simple way and most of them don’t get to be explored: the squad member who doesn’t want augmentations, the other girl, even the sergeant feeding stray dogs gets little quality time on scene. The leader of squad 9, Daisuke Aramaki, is portrayed by a decent Takeshi Kitano and his charisma manages to lift a bit what otherwise would be a very bad set of shallow characters and shallow acting. Even Juliette Binoche is frankly quite terrible.

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Her acting, on the other hand, is very good.

On the other hand, I don’t share any of the indignation around Scarlett Johansson‘s casting. As Sam Yoshiba said in an interview, she is cyberpunk enough, there’s nothing to it, and if you’re at least a little bit familiar with the Japanese aesthetics behind these kind of products you totally understand why the Japanese audience couldn’t understand the fuss behind this. The problem is not that she is white. The problem is that she is… well, honestly, her acting should be all about movements and gestures. Her body is bulky but not muscular. Her way of walking is ludicrous. It would have been probably best to go for a more algid portrayal, but these are just my two cents. Part of this is probably due to the director‘s lack of experience: I see lots of the problems shared by Charlize Theron’s acting in his previous work.

What’s really stunning, aside from the visuals, is the music by Lorne Balfe (a bunch of Assassin’s Creed scores, Crysis 2, but also score co-producer of things like Inception) and Clint Mansell (yes, Requiem for a Dream). There’s a Music Inspired by the Motion Picture score around and you can find something about it here.

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PS: In case you’ve been wondering, they actually did cut the kiss scene between the major and the escort, thus being accused of “queerbaiting” (something I didn’t even know was a thing).

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