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Games

The New ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Nails the Cyberwar and AI Future We Dread

Forget about Cyberpunk 2077 and Final Fantasy VII Remake, this CGI version of the beloved anime is the best cyberpunk story of the year.
December 23, 2020, 2:00pm

Spoiler alert: the following article contains major spoilers for Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, as well as the rest of the Ghost in the Shell series of movies, shows, and manga. 

In the seventh episode of Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, the latest installment in the universe of one of the most influential sci-fi—and hacking—mangas and movies of all time, Batou comes back to Japan after six years spent working as a hired cyber mercenary next to his longtime boss Major Motoko Kusanagi.   

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"It hasn't changed much, has it?" Batou asks the new Public Security Section 9 recruit Purin Ezaki, as their helicopter flies over an unspecified metropolis a la Tokyo. 

That question could very much be asked about this Ghost in the Shell show on Netflix. The short answer, at least at first sight, would be a resounding, and perhaps a tad disappointed, yes! 

This Ghost in the Shell, and the world its characters inhabit, look nothing like the anime that inspired a generation of hackers and fans, including the Wachowski sisters, who famously showed the movie to producer Joel Silver in an attempt to pitch The Matrix and then said: "We wanna do that for real."

It may very well be one of the most inspired works of speculative fiction in a while

But when you look more closely, and read between the lines of what may look like a children's version of the beloved anime, you realize that it may very well be one of the most inspired works of speculative fiction in a while. At least in the way the show talks about the military industrial complexification of the world, and how hacking and cybersecurity have become—and will remain—a  fundamental part of our lives. Just this week, multiple news outlets reported that suspected Russian government hackers had infiltrated several organizations, including DHS and the US Department of Treasury with a sophisticated cyber intrusion. This is exactly the kind of scenario the original Ghost in the Shell, and this new show, consider business as usual in our future. 

In particular, the show really nails how hacking will become an integral part of how governments do war, diplomacy, and law enforcement, as well as the way surveillance technology has become ubiquitous. Its speculations about AI, however, are not as inspired. 

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The show, moreover, does suffer from some glaring problems that make it a worthy, but ultimately flawed sequel to the iconic 1995 anime and 1989 manga.  

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The cast of characters in the new Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. (Image: Netflix)

The show starts 16 years after the original, and several years after the elite law enforcement unit Section 9 has been dismantled. Without their old job, Batou, Kusanagi, and a group of other ragtag hacker soldiers (including longtime characters Saito, Ishikawa, and the friendly robots Tachikoma) get hired to go after terrorists in the west coast of the United States. 

In other words, they’ve become mercenaries, though it’s clear from the beginning that Kusanagi runs the ship with a strong moral compass. 

The terrorists are either high tech pirates and gangs of angry youth who have lost faith and hope in the governments of the world after a global economic collapse—called the Synchronized Global Default—sent most people into huge debt. The government's solution to lift their economies back up? Embrace the concept of technology-fueled forever conflict called Sustainable War. The terrorists fight while proclaiming that they’re trying to get rid of “the 1%.” Sounds familiar? 

While tantalizing, and central to the show's premise, this concept doesn't actually play a big role in the storyline, and is vaguely explained. Hopefully it gets a deeper treatment in the second season, slated to come out at the end of this year or early next year

It's impossible to watch this without imagining a near future where some 4chan incel decides to unleash his anger by instigating others to go after his victims.

The seventh episode—"Pie in the Sky: First Bank Robbery"—encapsulates the show's highs and lows. In it, Batou goes into a bank to deposit a bag full of cash he made by doing a mission for an undercover NSA agent—hilariously named Agent John Smith, who looks exactly like Agent Smith in The Matrix. Smith tasked the mercenaries with apprehending a Steve Jobs-like character who is actually a nearly unstoppable cyborg that represents a mysterious, and evil, new step in the evolution of mankind. With the job done, Batou has a bag of cash he needs to drop off at his bank.

After striking a casual chat with an old woman who just realized her deceased husband’s savings won’t be enough for her "last hurrah," a trip to Switzerland where she planned to euthanize, Batou is ensnared in a grotesque robbery carried out by two geriatric, cyberbrain-less, average men. The two are pissed off and desperate for money because their government pensions lost all value in the global economic crash. Amid a series of classic Batou one-liners, the big man ends up helping the robbers—and the woman—steal money from the bank's manager, who is revealed to be a fraudster. 

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This episode, which is truly a stand alone with nothing to add to the overarching narrative of the show, highlights the two extremes that this new Ghost in the Shell has to offer. On one hand, the story of the old widow who can't even afford one last trip to get a euthanasia is poignant and echoes the economic struggles of our times. On the other hand, the episode's "deus ex machina," the discovery that the bank manager is corrupt, and Batou's idea to steal money from him to give it to the desperate geriatric robbers feels a bit too happy ending in what should still be a dystopia.   

The economic struggle of everyday people is a constant theme of the show, but one it struggles to depict directly. In another scene, Batou credits "the work of the robots and the poor" as the reason Japan's economy is recovering. Yet, the struggling 99% is almost never depicted, just vaguely referenced. This is never explained, but perhaps that's why the Japan of this Ghost in the Shell looks nothing like the original. In the 1995 classic, Japan is dangerous, seedy, gray, and dirty. In this one, it's more similar to present-day Japan: clean, tidy, technologically advanced, and appears prosperous. This discrepancy doesn't really detract from the show, it's just odd, but it's worth remembering that the show takes place 16 years after the movie, and the Adult Swim Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex already had hugely different aesthetic, even though it only took place a year after the movie. 

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Major Motoko Kusanagi in a scene of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2045 (Image: Netflix)

Perhaps the weakest part of the show is its main character. Major Kusanagi is still a badass, but she is flat, and doesn't have any of the multi-faceted character and intrigue she displays in the original movie, or the manga. In the movie, she is rebellious and mysterious. And she shows intriguing signs that she has an innate instinct to connect with people and intuit clues thanks to her “ghost”—as the show calls it—that’s almost like a superpower. None of that depth and charm is in this show. 

At least, this show doesn't sexualize and objectify her as much as the original, and way less than the otherwise good Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which came out in 2002 and constantly gazed at Kusanagi from behind, with the camera at ass-level. Don't get me wrong, there's still some classic and hackneyed anime male gazings in the Netflix show, but it's relatively rare, not as blatant, and sometimes disgusting as in the previous Ghost in the Shell installments. 

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The show truly shines when it talks about hacking. There is no clairvoyant, farsighted vision of the future like in the original movie, but unlike so many other shows, hacking is weaved into the narratives and stories without making it the story, without ridiculous hacking scenes or tired tropes. Instead, hacking is talked about as a regular component of foreign policy and military operations. Kusanagi is still the best hacker in the world, but everyone comes into contact with hacking, as almost everyone has a cyberbrain and high-tech prosthetics.

One of the best episodes of the show features an intriguing high school hacker who creates a program called Think Pol. The social justice malware allows groups of people, particularly teenagers, to hack into the cyberbrain of a target—often someone seen as an immoral person worthy of punishment—and kill them through a flash mob of faceless people who only exist in the victim's brain, but can beat them to death. All while the instigators watch and laugh. It's impossible to watch this without imagining a near future where some 4chan incel decides to unleash his anger by instigating others to go after his victims.      

Aesthetically, the show abandons the classic anime looks for anime and video game inspired CGI 3D graphics that use motion capture with real actors. The end result, in my opinion as a casual anime watcher, is pleasant and fresh. It's also fitting when the camera displays very video-game-like first-person shots or smart visualizations of the encrypted VR cyberspace where the Section 9 agents interact without anyone else noticing. That being said, this aesthetic is unlikely to win over traditionalists, and the polished, glossy looks of this world never feel quite right for the world of Ghost in the Shell.

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All things considered, I found the show to be a lot of fun. It's action packed, has great music, and the plot is well-crafted enough that it keeps the watcher engaged. If you can get through the first handful of episodes, where the main trust of the story is yet to be revealed, you're in for a great ride in the second half of the show, with a thrilling cliffhanger. 

25 years after the original movie, its clairvoyant view of the future is why we still consider Ghost in the Shell a timeless work of art. And, for me, the best hacker movie of all time.

Still, I only watched the original Ghost in the Shell anime last year, and was blown away by how modern it felt. I had a hard time believing that the movie's depiction of hacking's role in government espionage and crime was really from the early 1990s, when most people in the world did not have an internet connection. 

The movie's view of a future where people constantly connected to the internet have great opportunities but also face the ever present danger of getting hacked—including getting their memories wiped—was spot on. In the Netflix show, hacking is always in the background, and there's no visionary revelation of how this will shape our future. In a way, the new show has the advantage that for viewers hacking already is a fact of life, there's no need to convince them to buy into the fiction. The fact that most soldiers now have hacking skills makes total sense. In a future where technology and the internet is ubiquitous, you can't fight a war unless you can take over, steal, and spy on people's data. Of course the Steve Jobs-like evil superpowered AI character can hack into one of Kusanagi's teammates' brains, turn him against his own friends, and eventually paralyze him. In this future, everyone is a hacker—or a hacking victim.  

25 years after the original movie, its clairvoyant view of the future is why we still consider Ghost in the Shell a timeless work of art. And, for me, the best hacker movie of all time. 

The Netflix show will not likely survive such a demanding test of time, but it has smart ideas. And crucially, it doesn't make those ideas the only driving narrative, but weaves them through a captivating story of an unequal future run by ruthless elites.

Ghost in the Shell: SAC 2045 is certainly not a masterpiece, but it ends posing a lot of intriguing questions and leaving enough loose ends that could make for a great second season. As Major Kusanagi famously says at the end of the classic 1995 movie, this new Ghost in the Shell reminded me that “the net is vast and infinite.”