The Curious Datedness of GHOST IN THE SHELL

I was browsing my Twitter feed yesterday when a bland photo of Scarlett Johansson caught my eye. She was on the cover of Total film, clad in leather in that ¾ from behind T&A pose so beloved by hack comic book artists, but what struck me was under the logo for her upcoming Ghost in the Shell remake, where large, attention grabbing letters read “The next-gen Matrix”. It seemed weirdly appropriate however, as while watching the movie’s trailer with its legions of cyborgs, neon-lit dystopian cityscapes and heavy Japanese influences, it couldn’t help but feel about thirty years old.

A major tenet of science fiction is examining the relationship between technology and society, and doing so by exaggerating the element of the world you wish to criticise for the purposes of demonstration. 1984 dragged post-war totalitarianism to its logical endpoint, They Live created a world literally ruled by advertising and Ex Machina depicts a techbro retreating from the world to build himself a waifu.

Ghost in the Shell in all its versions is a cyberpunk story, a genre originating in the decade it was written. The 80s were when computers tangibly entered most people’s lives for the first time. After becoming ubiquitous in business, PCs appeared in people’s homes, videogames became a cultural force, and computer networks became accessible at universities and corporations. Also, and strangely crucially, simple computers became ever-present in home appliances and accessories like toasters, TVs and watches. The resulting feeling of intrusion into people’s lives was felt at all levels of society, and can still be seen today when older people complain about how unnecessary it is to have a computer in your washing machine.

Cyberpunk reflected this by having computers literally intrude into people’s bodies. Ghost in the Shell’s cast casually plug their brains into them as part of their job, and replace parts or even their whole bodies with machinery. They have become literally inseparable from technology, and the film ends with its hero fusing her mind with an AI to become an entirely new lifeform.

The genre also heavily reflected the 80s political scene. While Reagan and Thatcher were dismantling financial regulations and welcoming banks and corporate raiders into politics, films like Aliens and Robocop envisioned futures in which these corporations expanded to running entire cities. Cyberpunk took this even further. These banks and corporations were some of the earliest adopters of large-scale computer networks, letting them make huge financial transactions out of sight of the rest of the world, and this hidden world of money and power is what inspired the idea of cyberspace.

In his novel Neuromancer William Gibson envisioned this as a hidden reality under corporate control, in which there were no laws and corporations not only ran the world from behind the scenes, but could kill anyone who tried to intrude into their space by frying their brain. And reflecting the widespread political apathy towards growing corporate power few characters in cyberpunk stories ever question this. Corporate control of the world is seen as natural and the idea that a better world might be possible is forgotten.

There’s also a very heavy Japanese influence to cyberpunk. The 80s were the culmination of the three-decade postwar Japanese ‘economic miracle’, and between their seemingly inevitable economic takeover of the world and the huge growth of the Japanese electronics industry during this time science fiction imagined worlds in which it never ended. This probably accounts for part of cyberpunk’s popularity in Japan, but it also has the strange effect of making an American remake of a film like Ghost in the Shell feel dated merely by its setting.

Cyberpunk’s aesthetic was also very deliberately attention grabbing. Technology was seen as desirable in and of itself at the time and so was designed to emphasise its artificiality, with huge, boxy computers and cars, and cyberpunk took this to the limit. Its worlds were very ostentatious, with huge, glowing corporate logos looming over city streets and bulky computer implants jutting from people’s heads. Blade Runner even eschewed natural light entirely in favour of bathing everything in neon, as though the sun itself had been replaced by technology.

But none of this reflects how technology is seen today. We now have many of the technological advances cyberpunk stories indulged in and many they never even dreamed of (ubiquitous wireless communication, for instance), but none of them resemble the way they were imagined. Computers are now omnipresent, but are navigated by swiping on a phone instead of huge, unwieldy cables plugged into the cerebrum. Computer networks have also lost the mysterious, ethereal quality they had before the internet became commonplace, so the idea of cyberspace as a physical space feels hopelessly quaint. And most importantly we have not fused ourselves with machines.

The modern attitude towards technology can best be seen in how cyberpunk has been supplanted by what is often termed ‘post-cyberpunk’. Stories like Black Mirror and Ex Machina critique technology’s influence on society, but their approach is very subdued in comparison. As technology is no longer considered desirable in itself, post-cyberpunk worlds try to look naturalistic, keeping their technology as minimalist as possible to conceal the silicon heart beating beneath. Nathan in Ex Machina lives in a high-tech steel and glass house, but it’s hidden in the middle of a forest.

Remaking Ghost in the Shell in 2017 is ultimately a lost cause because the world has moved past it. Not only has society changed to the point where the movie is no longer a recognizable facsimile of it, but modern sci-fi was built on its foundation. Everything from Inception to District 9 to Children of Men contains its DNA, so going back at this point just feels retrograde, like adapting Watchmen in 2009. And ironically its most popular offspring is the one it wants to compare itself to. The Wachowskis borrowed so much of the film’s visual style that audiences who’ve never seen Ghost in the Shell have been watching it for over a decade. Ghost in the Shell can’t be the next-gen Matrix, because The Matrix was the next-gen Ghost in the Shell.




After the Deluge: Cyberpunk in the ’80s and ’90s by Tom Maddox

HyperNormalisation (2016, dir. Adam Curtis)

  • Totally agree. Cyberpunk is only different from Steampunk in terms of specific fetishism. Otherwise, they’re both outdated and silly.

    • Jamikel

      I don’t mind the aesthetic if they’ve got a decent story to tell. But focusing on the Major’s existential angst over being mostly machine is about the least interesting direction they couldnhave taken this movie. One of the things I’ve always liked about her is how she’s so well-adjusted about what she is.

      • It’s the cyberpunk version of having to re-tell Batman’s origin every time. Just in case someone doesn’t know that Batman’s parents are dead.

      • Ian Abbott

        Exactly. In every iteration of GitS through Stand Alone Complex, we’ve met the Major well into her career and after a near lifetime of being a cyborg. This film seems to be making her a one of a kind person, though, which means the rest of Section 9 will be mostly fleshies.

        To me this reeks of the original Deus Ex mixed with Robocop, her discovering the dark secret of her origin. Fuck, I fell asleep already.

        • It’s not even Deus Ex or Robocop specifically, this is a very generic sci-fi story that Hollywood have been draping different aesthetics over for decades. I first recognised it as Oblivion, but The 5th Wave did basically the same thing last year as well.

  • Ian Abbott

    It’s hard to not get hung up on the line “As technology is no longer considered desirable in itself, post-cyberpunk worlds try to look naturalistic, keeping their technology as minimalist as possible to conceal the silicon heart beating beneath” when people pony up a few hundred dollars each year for a slight upgrade to the smart phone they already have. Smart TVs, barely upgraded ‘new versions’ of video game consoles, fitbits, smart watches, Bluetooth everything, I’m just not sure that tech isn’t desirable in itself.

    Further, we may not yet be joining our bodies with machines, but if you pay attention to the bleeding edge of prosthetics and implants you see the very real possibility that we will be soon.

  • Neon Paradise

    Generally agreed. But part of my enthusiasm for this film in particular comes from the very fact that I know “cyberspace” and cool-looking bulky computers and whatnot have been replaced by the mundanity of smartphones, etc, so film is the only place where I might be able to find that “physical” technological escapism. The film may end up not being relevant in the technology it presents, but if anything it’ll at least add something to that 80-90s view of the future?

    There’s another great read on cyberpunk relevance nowadays here if you haven’t checked it out already:

    Also, was adapting Watchmen in 2009 retrograde, or just ahead of it’s time? Regardless of whether the Snyder version is a successful adaptation of the material, it would’ve probably been a much more relevant film if released today, or at least post-Avengers.

    • The problem with Snyder’s Watchmen is that he kept all of the commentary on the 80s political scene and 80s comic books long after they stopped being relevant. Why have two generations of heroes when they’re no longer representing the Gold and Silver ages of comic books, for instance?

    • That Verge article was interesting. The vibe I get from the artists it covers is very much one of fetishism without having any sort of point. There’s a part where they’re described as beginning with image and then working backwards to create a genre, which reminded me strongly of Zach Snyder and his obsession with cool images over substance.

      The interesting thing though, is that none of the movies the article cites as emblematic of this style (besides District 9) have lingered in the public imagination. Avatar and Elysium were both very pretty, but despite the former’s monumental success neither have any notable artistic descendants.