Ghost in the Shell is a visually stunning animated masterpiece. Japanese animation has always been in a class of its own, so I won’t even attempt to describe the incredible attention to detail and beautiful imagery in this movie. In this case the animation is merely icing for what is one of the most important works of science fiction in recent years.
Every generation has had books and movies that have contributed to our collective understanding of reality. Prior to World War II this included books like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and later Orwell’s “1984”. Today most warnings about the future fall into the category of science fiction. Science fiction began to fill this role when Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001” warned us of the potential for humanity to create intelligent, even sentient computers that could murder their human creators. “2001” envisioned computer intelligence imprisoned in the physical body of a computer. Where “2001” left off, Ghost in the Shell begins.
Ghost in the Shell tells the story of a future in which a computer program, Project 2501, becomes self-aware and begins a quest to fill basic needs it feels are qualifiers of being alive by controlling computers and people to achieve its ultimate goals. Whereas the HAL-9000 computer was relatively harmless, owing to its confinement in the Odyssey space ship, Project 2501 is a recognition that the global internet could have dire consequences for all of us. By comparison, this new villain is virtually invincible. But is Project 2501 a villain?
Most people who have told me that they didn’t like this move said that they didn’t understand it. Indeed, the story and concepts are very complicated. I have watched it several times and still get new things out of it every time. Roger Ebert called Ghost in the Shell, “Unusually intelligent and challenging science fiction, aimed at smart audiences”.
Ghost in the Shell is full of fascinating dialog, such as this diatribe about the cycle of life and death by Project 2501. “A copy is just an identical image. There is the possibility that a single virus could destroy an entire set of systems, and copies do not give rise to variety and originality. Life perpetuates itself through diversity, and this includes the ability to sacrifice itself when necessary. Cells repeat the process of degeneration and regeneration until one day they die, obliterating an entire set of memory and information. Only genes remain. Why continually repeat this cycle? Simply to survive by avoiding the weaknesses of an unchanging system.”
Thus Ghost in the Shell goes beyond simply a prediction or warning for the future: it attempts to contribute to our understanding of reality by breaking existence down into biological terms and making us question, along with the characters in the movie, whether or not any of us has a soul. The characters in Ghost in the Shell are unusually deep and are a refreshing change from the one-dimensional stereotypes we’ve become numbed by in modern media. Ghost in the Shell would be required reading in many high school and university courses if it weren’t for the fortuitous fact that it can be enjoyed in this beautifully animated feature film. This is one of the few movies ever made that everyone should watch at least once.
10 out of 10 stars