Maybe not from the directions you are staring at… Review of ‘Ghost in the Shell’

What if women were actually robots?  Ghost in the Shell — a film based on the ideas of the 1989 manga — explores this idea… again.  And it’s pretty boring.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major — a robot with a human brain residing within it.  She works for a counter-cyberterrorism organisation (which might be a government organisation) by taking off her clothes and shooting at things until they spill delicious plot points.  A shadowy figure called Kuze is killing people with hacked robo-geishas… and that’s the last time this film even tries to make sense.

I am craving a good antagonist.  Even if that means having the bad guy in the film plant his feet shoulder-width apart and deliver his thesis directly into the camera, I do not care.  I just want a good antagonist.  Ghost in the Shell does not have a good antagonist.  By the time he’s hacking robo-geishas to brainjack his enemies, I’m both too terrified and too bored to care about this movie.

Part of the problem is that every edgy director is trying to play with ‘shades of grey’.  Maybe the good guys have dirty hands; maybe the bad guys have really good reasons.  Cool.  But do you know what would be better?  None of that and, instead, you have at least one character that you are hoping will succeed in their quest and one character that you hope does not succeed.  That is the essence of drama.

Ghost in the Shell fails particularly hard on this front because the introduction to Team Good is Team Good doing something unconscionably awful.  I am the world’s biggest robophobe, but when I’m thinking the robo-geisha kidnapping people and sucking out their brains probably have a point, there’s a problem with your film.

It is a film that does not know what it wants to say.  Is it a criticism of technology?  A comment on our outdated concepts of identity?  A fierce attack on the problematic relationship between science research and State violence?  It doesn’t really engage with any of these questions, and prefers instead to produce set pieces which feel like they should be visually stunning, but aren’t.

The point of the robo-geisha scene wasn’t to say anything politically interesting (it could have been an interesting scene about the perversions that are facilitated by technology).  The point of the fight scenes aren’t to advance the plot, but to have Scarlett Johansson run around in CGI-nudity.  The point of Scarlett Johansson visiting a cyber-prostitute wasn’t to say something about her society, identity, or sexuality, but instead to wrap a model in creepy bits of plastic.

There’s nothing enjoyable about the film and there’s nothing intellectually exciting about any of the ideas being presented.

At some point, we have to get beyond the ‘What if a woman was a robot?’ theme that’s rotting science fiction discussions about robotics.  Ex Machina mined everything worth mining out of the discussion.  Ghost in the Shell clearly wanted to return to the discussion of robotics that made nerds wet themselves back in the 1990s: a discussion where robots are just ipso facto cool and you can indulge bong-fuelled ponderings about the mind-body problem.  Outside of first year philosophy tutorials at community colleges, nobody really cares about that.  We’re all much more terrified at the prospects of robots taking our jobs, policing us, or killing us.  And the cleverest discussions are about how cybernetics will change our social intuitions.  How will society cope when robots let people indulge fantasies that we find abhorrent and antisocial?

Ghost in the Shell had obvious ways of entering into those debates, but consistently failed to do so.

On the non-tech side, we again have the problem of ‘mystery’ organisations that seem to be undertaking the work of governments without the obvious constraints.  The Avengers has largely dominated this space, with some sort of board of wealthy benefactors driving the development of an organisation that can deploy overwhelming force to any corner of the globe.  But Ghost in the Shell blurs this link between money and police enforcement so much that it’s difficult to work out for what sort of organisation the protagonist is working.  Is it a private security firm?  Is that why rich Techman McMoneybags is able to direct the deployment of resources?  But why is a security firm clearly doing police work?  The head of the unit seems to have a direct line to the Prime Minister, but it’s not clear why.

Let us assume — as I think we’re supposed to — that the organisation is government sanctioned.  Why don’t we talk about the dynamics of a world where the police force are equipped with military-grade resources?  That’s not even science fiction.  We are having constant debates about the role of capital and profit in promoting the uptake of military weapons by domestic police forces.  What does it mean to protest against government actions when you know that they can mow you down with assault rifles?  Ghost in the Shell could have provided an extra layer to this debate: what happens when you technologically enhance your police officers?  We saw elements of this in (the criminally underrated) RoboCop film in 2014, but there are ways of pushing that debate further.  In Ghost and the Shell, there seems to be a link between health services and this technological agenda, but it’s never made explicit.  A character suffers the effects of an explosion, and so has his eyes replaced with cameras that see through walls (into the ladies’ change room, no less).  What is curious is that the technology isn’t about healing the lost sense, but in making the employee more effective at their job of deploying violence.  That is, they don’t give him his eyes back, but give him enhanced means of tracking down his target.  We might wonder why this ability wasn’t previously available to him in the form of a pair of goggles or something.

I hated this movie.  It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be, but it was still very easy to hate.

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