THE GHOST IN THE SHELL
“Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar. Man the sum of his climatic experiences Father said. Man the sum of what have you … stalemate of dust and desire” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Rupert Sanders’s movie rehearses the old philosophical question of the mind/body duality—with a twist and a few turns. The hero—heroin, in this case, named Mira—has a human brain and a manufactured body. As one protagonist tells her: “Your body belongs to them but not your ghost”—‘”them” being, in this context, not God(s) but the techno-scientific-industrial complex that has replaced any notion of transcendence. The central question is “What are you?” and its variation “ Are you human?” with a disquieting sub question: “What did they take from me?”. The biblical language of creation is troped to refer to her production (her “birth”/ she is a “miracle”). Her nakedness points to her peculiar status: while human beings are covered, she sheds her clothes to reveal the true mechanical nature of her body—her “shell”. The word “shell” bespeaks both (her) strength and vulnerability. A human mind in a cybernetic frame creates, perhaps, only an illusion of wholeness.
The term “ghost” has a two-fold dimension—as soul (the divine-like quality of human beings as it is presented in the Book of Genesis where God insufflates His very breath into humans to give them life, the work of the Holy Ghost)—and as specter—that is, in the image of Jacques Derrida “an openness that reserves space in the present for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there” (Specters XVIII). As a sort of return of the repressed, the “ghost” haunts (inhabits) the metallic parts.
This uncanny hybrid performs disturbing cultural work for us viewers. Her (or should we say “its”?) beautiful physical appearance mirrors our current obsession with bodily perfection (and youth). As a mechanical product derived from human flesh, Mira invites us to reflect on the increasing reification of human bodies in our culture. The narrative invented to rationalize her production resonates with contemporary political forms of “alternative” reality/facts and regimes of “post-truth(s)”. Mira is told that she was rescued from the boat carrying her and other refugees (in particular her parents) as it was under attack by terrorists in the harbor (quite a condensed version of some of the themes haunting our world…). In fact, as a runaway and rebel, the young girl named Motoko Kusanagi was considered disposable and recycling material for a scientific experiment—the shell (re)named Mira. The daily liquid prescribed to keep memories at bay under the guise of some medicine designed to keep the brain from rejecting the body speaks to diverse (current) forms of mind numbing.
Of note in this latest filmic avatar about humans and machines is the fact that we have moved away from the mere opposition between humans and robots to focus on the actual production of “Enhanced humanity” defined by performed actions. As Doctor Ouelet states: “we cling to our memories because we think they are what defines us. But what defines us is what we do”. The question of memory—so ubiquitous in the movies staging robots and humans—undergoes an essential turn: the core of the matter is the status of memories (are they real or fake?). As Kuze explains to Mira about Hanka Robotics CEO Cutter and his team: “They create a vacuum, they bring a new reality, new memories, it’s all the same. Just noise.” Mira becomes painfully (humanly) aware of her lack: “I remember fragments. There is this big fog over my memory,” she adds: “Nothing I have is real”. Her vulnerability, in particular through the anxiety created by the absence of memories, belies her machine-like behavior. In addition, like a human being, the hybrid retains the sense of her uniqueness. “You are what everyone will become one day” one character tells Mira—however she proves to be “one of a kind” in her rebellious and soul-searching wanderings/queries. Human complexity cannot be so easily cancelled or replaced, and resists the well-oiled machinery of the disposable and replaceable. Like a specter, the resilient shelled ghost triggers questions that will not go away, as some short dialogues between Doctor Ouelet and Cutter illustrate: “You are reducing a human to a machine”/”she is the future of my company” and later: “She ‘s mine”/”She is a contract”.
Mira discovers that previous sacrifices had to be made given the complexity of the task of creating cybernetic hybrids, and others before her have been destroyed to allow for her final “improved” version. Yet, as Doctor Ouelet observes: “We changed your identity but your ghost survived”. Defeat or victory? Curse or opportunity? It is for Mira to decide. And she does. When the repentant scientist surrenders to her “human heart” and gives Mira a chance to “survive” by handing her out her “real past”, Mira seizes it, recovering the rebellious behavior and mindset that had characterized her as a human being. Memory and the imagination then resemble two hands at work in digging up the past and retrieving filiation and history.
The handling of the question of agency and free will so pervasive in AI movies indeed is another interesting feature of the script. When Mira claims: “I keep my consent”, who is this “I”: The machine (programmed, filled with false memories) or the ghost (the remaining free will in the brain)? The hybrid is reminded by her makers: “We never needed your consent”/”You only surrender once”. Yet, when she finally reaches her place of belonging (the shelter where she used to live with other rebels), she touches the wall of the building and remembers, in a Proustian moment that is all too human—giving back the ghost in her shell its real voice.
Also of note in the film:
The visual dimension of the urban landscape and the proxemics of city life with people living on top of each other (skyscrapers), encountering each other—ghosts in shells, perhaps.
The border crossing dynamic recreated through a series of palimpsest images: cameo images of people running—on the move—superimposed on to the texture of the shell-like city.
The video game aesthetics with its quick pace and raw violence, sparks and clashes.
A hacking scene staged as physical battle: very graphic and intriguing.
The role of pets—cats and dogs—to reassert the link with our essential bodily dimension.
Mira and Kuze as interfilmic reminders of Jim Jarmush’s Only Lovers Left Alive, another stranded pair in another Waste Land.
Mira’s final statement—“I know who I am, what I am here to do”—sounds hubristic and human enough. It might not completely satisfy us and does not function as a happy ending. Not a direct threat either— but more like some kind of menace, perhaps.
Interestingly, J. M. Coetzee’s latest novel The Schooldays of Jesus also stages characters who, in the words of Colm Toibin, “are haunted by what they do not know and cannot recall”: “This great emptiness leaves them free to live in the present and interrogate its contours with an intensity that is solid but also ghostly because they are aware that there was an earlier time whose resonance has been erased” (NYRB May 11, 2017, p. 37).
Fiction, whether in its filmic or literary guise, endures as the ghost in the shell of reality.