Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Transcendence has us scanning our memory banks in search of the best technophobic thrillers.
Ghost In The Shell (1995)
The title card that introduces Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell is split into two sentences. The first reads like boilerplate pretext for a techno-thriller: “In the near future—corporate networks reach out to the stars, electrons and light flow throughout the universe.” The second is perhaps the most quietly upsetting foreword in film history: “The advance of computerization, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.”
On first blush, it seems reassuring, as nations and ethnic groups are things that people typically prefer not to be eradicated off the face of the earth. But there's something unnervingly nonchalant about the wording of that opening scrawl. It may not be palpable at first (particularly in the dubbed and graphically retouched version of the film available on Hulu, which doesn't bother to subtitle the Japanese text), but the bleak implications of the preamble poke through as the film’s resigned worldview begins to take shape. A philosophical treatise masquerading as cybernetic noir, Ghost In The Shell immediately looks beyond human civilization as we’ve known it, and does so with a confidence that steals the story away from the speculative and locates it firmly in the inevitable.
Adapted from a popular manga by Masamune Shirow, Ghost In The Shell is essentially a graduate-level riff on Blade Runner—twice the brains, none of the heart, and an elusive soul that emerges as the film's central mystery. Set in a nameless city that’s modeled after Hong Kong but looks more like a computer chip than a recognizable metropolis, the film begins with an indecipherable flurry of languages and digital imagery, giving way to a flawlessly shaped woman stripping off her trench coat on the ledge of a skyscraper. She is Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg field leader for a covert government task force known as Public Security Section 9, and her naked body is the film’s slyest joke. There’s nothing more primitively comprehensible to the human eye than the nude form, but as this convoluted story unfolds, organic life so fluidly merges with technology that the repeated sight of Kusanagi stripping off her clothes—the flesh underneath looking less familiar and more abstract each time—becomes the most striking example of our confusion.
The film’s plot, at once thin and impermeable, follows Kusanagi and her memorable crew as they try to solve the mystery of The Puppet Master, who Section 9 believes to be a man capable of hacking people as easily as one might hack a computer. While the film is certain to establish this enemy as a genuine threat—he makes pawns of at least two innocent men by severing them from their memories—Ghost In The Shell doesn’t encourage technophobia so much as it illustrates its futility. Whereas most films of its kind attempt to dramatize our collective concerns regarding technology’s rapid evolution and boundless potential, Oshii is more interested in exploring why we’re so afraid in the first place.
A recognizably male voice occupying the busty nude torso of a blonde Barbie, The Puppet Master is ultimately less of a threat to Kusanagi than a promise of her possibility. Ghost In The Shell is about the moment in time when humans become an impediment to progress, rather than its shepherds; people cling to humanity like a virtue when the film sees it merely as a sentiment. It’s no accident that the movie’s most practical application of future tech is a camouflage device that blends people into their environments, visually conflating the body with the world around it.
There’s no doubt that these themes have been more coherently explored in other films, and most anime fans would rightly contend that subsequent projects like Serial Experiments Lain have used Ghost In The Shell as a launching pad to better articulate humanity’s role in an increasingly digital world. While it’s only natural that a new release like Transcendence reintroduces Ghost In The Shell into the conversation, it feels as though the footprints of Oshii’s masterpiece can be found in an increasingly diverse set of films. Watching Under The Skin, featuring Scarlett Johansson as the frequently nude female disguise of an alien visitor, brings to mind Kusanagi’s admission that, “The only thing that makes me feel human is the way I’m treated.”
Be that as it may, few films have so knowingly invited their own obsolescence. As The Puppet Master cautions: “DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself.” And, as with any program, it’s only a matter of time before an update is required.
Availability: Ghost In The Shell is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to purchase on iTunes or VUDU. The graphically retouched Ghost In The Shell 2.0 is available on Blu-Ray and DVD (which can be obtained from Netflix), to rent or purchase through the major digital services, and to stream on Hulu.