What makes you you? Is it your memories—the pictures, feelings, and snippets of sound you associate with your past? Or your mind maybe, the way you analyse, process, and interpret your environment? Since no one can see those, perhaps ‘you’ is your body: your skin tone, your body fat, your sex organs. Maybe none of that matters, and you are simply the choice you are making in each of your present moments. Ghost in the Shell, a much more intelligent and philosophical blockbuster than I’m accustomed to, deals with all of these questions in multiple ways. And like the best ‘big question’ movies, it’s more content asking them than pushing and shoving its narrative into answering them.
In the world of Ghost in the Shell, the vast majority of humans have chosen to augment themselves with robotic components, becoming cyborgs of varying degree. One man installs a bionic liver so his hard drinking never has to stop. One gets new eyes, allowing him to see more detail, including X-Ray vision. And many have eXistenz-esque sockets in their neck, allowing them direct physical access to networks. These cybernetic improvements surely provide many Ship of Theseus-like existential crises in this environment—but no situation is as dramatic as The Major’s.
Played by Scarlett Johansson, who after this and Under the Skin has clearly perfected icy curiosity, The Major proves a special case. A terrorist attack killed her family and destroyed her flesh. Only her brain (her ‘ghost’) survived, placed into a created-from-scratch body (her ‘shell’). With her robotic anatomy, and her memories clouded by trauma, she essentially lacks an identity. Johansson does not make the mistake of playing The Major as a robot, though; she walks the perfect line between animatronic and human. The disconnect between The Major’s physicality and psychology is constantly fascinating to watch.
So how does an identity-less cyborg make a living? It’s gotta be in law enforcement. The Major leads a special task force called Section 9, specialising in forestalling the plots of terrorist hackers. And here is another of Ghost in the Shell’s fascinating ideas: hacking humans. In a sense, we’re already there, aren’t we? With people so chained to their phones and susceptible to social media influence, getting inside people’s brains is becoming easier and easier. Here the filmmakers dispense with the middlemen and explore direct reconfiguring of a human’s grey matter. What would it do to your sense of self to erase data? Implant new memories? Could an adversary just upload a new sense of self into you, bypassing these difficulties?
Sure these aren’t exactly new concepts in science fiction, but they bind to each other so well in Ghost in the Shell. There’s also the idea that The Major’s shell may not strictly belong to her. Dr Ouélet, ensouled by the magnificent Juliette Binoche, created it for Hanka Robotics, which still seems to display some ownership of it. How can you reconcile this with a sentient human brain controlling it? Does ownership of the shell necessitate ownership of the ghost, seeing as how the ghost would perish without it? Must The Major relinquish control of herself to the men barking orders at her?
This is all further complicated by the introduction of a hacker deliberately seeking to sabotage Hanka Robotics. This is Michael Pitt (The Dreamers), who seems to be somewhat like The Major—a mostly fabricated shell housing a damaged soul within. His performance is also expert; watch how his shell is overcome with glitches, and how sometimes it cannot keep up with his ghost. Does he have a connection to The Major? Or Dr Ouélet even?
The art direction here is superb, like something out of a Gaspar Noé fever dream (although, ‘Gaspar Noé fever dream’ is probably redundant). I struggle to think of a recent release whose art direction is so good at helping to dramatise the film’s theme. Certainly, the characters here supplement themselves with electronic improvements, but so does the city. Animated holographic adverts, moving traffic indicators… Every modernity has been updated to be as convenient as possible, yet almost nothing natural ever enters the frame. The cyberpunk landscape is big and bright, but also somewhat cold, impersonal.
And then there are the visual effects. I’ve criticised countless GCI-heavy films for looking like very expensive cartoons instead of looking real, but I can’t make that criticism here. They are not, strictly speaking, always supposed to look real. Especially from The Major’s point of view, reality can look a bit glitchy, like there are disturbances in the Matrix or something.1 You get the idea that any cyberorganic augmentation must fundamentally alter the way you experience your reality.
Ghost in the Shell falters only at the end. Director Rupert Sanders seems to want to tie together his philosophical and narrative threads at the same time, but ends up slightly shortchanging both. It’s a bit anticlimactic, to be honest. But what it doesn’t do is jettison its thoughtful theme for the sake of a pat narrative conclusion, or blowing a bunch of shit up. And thank god. Ghost in the Shell is, for the most part, a big-budget art film, concerned with ideas and theoretical conundrums over blood and mindless action. It’s one of 2017’s best offerings.