This post contains some spoilers.
After nine years in development, Hollywood’s take on Shirow Masamune’s Ghost In The Shell has dropped. While some reviews applaud the film for sticking to the original’s themes and art style, others condemn it as an empty film with a few “deep” monologues.
To be honest, the filmmakers were up against it from the start. Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation had a huge impact on pop culture, from The Matrix to Metal Gear Solid. How do you stay faithful to such influential source material while remaining fresh?
GitS 2017 suffers from many of the same problems as Oshii’s version: the pacing drags, characters are introduced and discarded without much development or fanfare, and the major themes are delivered via exposition rather than action.
But, much like GitS 1995, the plot itself isn’t meant to be intriguing. Instead, it serves as a vehicle to scaffold heavier themes of technology, culture and posthumanism.
Where the new film separates itself from other GitS adaptations lies in its context. GitS 1995 concerned itself with much rawer questions of posthumanism and spirituality, whereas Scarlett Johansson’s Major inhabits a film concerned with consent, cultural identity and how to exist in a world governed by information technology.
In GitS 1995, The Major is primarily concerned with her sense of “self”. Armed with a completely cyborg body, she feels that her consciousness has taken a back-seat in defining who she is. It’s a concern that strikes at the heart of the cyberpunk genre: if we replace parts of ourselves with corporate-owned tech, who do we become? Where does our “self” end and our tech begin?
Just as The US’s culture has Christianity at its bedrock, Japan has Shintoism. While I’m the last person who should be giving you a lesson on religion, an important aspect of the belief system is that all things potentially contain a spiritual essence. To put it another way, the idea of a “soul” isn’t reserved for humans, or even animals.
This cultural context gives us a clue as to why The Major’s collaborative-self is so readily thrust onto the audience: the possibility of non-human “things” being spiritual is already established, we just have to decide what that means for cyborgs.
These historical and cultural factors play into why the anime, for all its bleakness, ends on a high: The Major and The Puppet Master AI become one, and their amalgamation, depicted as a young girl, rides off into the sunset. A new age of inter-connectivity was dawning on the world, and “The Net” was the new frontier.
Fast-forward to 2017 America, and the world that spawned GitS 1995 is gone. For many theorists, the question about whether we will become part-machine has been settled: our use of the internet for daily tasks, constructed-selves on social media and the location data we happily feed apps means we have already become “cyborg”. Our transformation was social, not physical.
Instead of being concerned with what will happen when we merge with computers, GitS 2017 is interested in how deep this rabbit hole goes, and the fate of humanity as we continue to plunge.
The film wears its cynicism on its sleeve. The Major and Batou navigate a cynically-neon Tokyo awash in holograms, trading insults and wisdom. The chanting, united voices of Kenji Kawai’s 1995 soundtrack are relegated to the background, remixed and repackaged with heavy industrial tones. The corporate machines of the information age have muffled humanity’s voice.
Plot-wise, the character’s approach to cybernetic enhancement has changed too. We are introduced to cybernetic implants via a sales pitch from a scratchy-throated business exec and are told – without a shadow of a doubt – that The Major’s body was not something she signed up for. Even Batou doesn’t sport his trademark eyes until he needs them.
These features all boil down to the film’s over-arching concern with the consent we exhibit in the information age. Unlike GitS 1995’s take on cybernetic enhancements as extras to make you more badarse, GiTS 2017 suggests you need to be plugged in to survive.
Despite our personal feelings on social media, Google tracking our movements and targeted-ads, many of us have become locked-in to the online world. Granted, no one is going to die because they refuse to use Google Maps or LinkedIn, but it won’t do them any favours in terms of getting around or finding employment. Much like The Major’s dependence on Hanka Robotics to repair her, many of us have become dependent on the corporations that manage our data.
In the 90s, Giles Deleuze put forth the idea of a “Society of Control”. Although the internet gave us a sense of freedom, we were actually locking ourselves into a much stricter contract.
Sure, you can work from home – but now you’re answering emails 24/7. You can get the best route home – but Google is keeping the data on your movements. Want ads tailored to your needs? We’ll just take note of everything you search.
It’s a trade-off that many are complicit to. The fact that Google gives me ads for sci-fi novels and rock n’ roll shows is a small price to pay for them knowing about my Duran Duran love. But when the line between irreverent info and sensitive data blurs, things start to get scary.
When The Major verbally gives her consent to Hanka Robotics throughout the film, she isn’t letting them scope out how she likes her coffee, she’s letting them erase memories and other data. She’s letting them modify her “self”.
With the US rolling back data protection laws, the film’s blurred lines between the police force and Hanka Robotics couldn’t be more poignant. Despite what The Major thinks, it becomes shockingly clear early on that she doesn’t have any consent at all.
GitS 2017 is not a perfect film. Like its 1995 predecessor, it has pacing and character development issues. But while the anime raises questions about what becomes of the individual should humanity and machines integrate, Hollywood’s adaptation is more concerned with the fact we already have. Hopefully, it’s still up to us how we deal with it.