Scarlett Johansson is becoming — no, at this point it’s safe to say she is — the default Hollywood poster girl for transhumanism.
She has played a member of a clone community cultivated as organ donors to extend the lives of the wealthy and powerful (The Island); a seductive predator whose human appearance hides an alien body (Under the Skin); an artificial intelligence that evolves beyond humanity after a romantic fling with a human (Her); and a woman transformed by a superdrug into a superhuman who transcends human limitations and ultimately corporeal existence itself (Lucy).
Ironically, her biggest role to date is one of the few superheroes in Disney’s Marvel universe, Black Widow, who is not more than human (though who knows; Iron Man 3 temporarily gave superpowers to Gwyneth Paltrow’s very ordinary Pepper Potts, and a future installment could do the same for the Black Widow).
In Ghost in the Shell — a Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese multimedia sci-fi action franchise best known in the U.S. via a pair of well-regarded anime films — Johansson plays that penultimate transhumanist aspiration, a cyborg created by transplanting a human brain into an android body. Her living brain is her only real vulnerability; the transhumanist’s only fonder hope is to upload consciousness itself into a fully digital world, leaving behind the last vestiges of biological corporeality.
The story takes place in a dystopian future of variously cybernetically enhanced humans. A bit like Big Hero 6’s East-meets-West city of “San Fransokyo,” the sprawling urban setting is an immense mashup of Tokyo or Hong Kong by way of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.
The global cast includes Juliette Binoche, Japanese superstar “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, Fijian Australian Lasarus Ratuere, Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, and London-born actress Danusia Samal, who is of Kurdish and Polish origin — and, of course, the controversially cast Johansson, whose portrayal of an iconic Japanese heroine has elicited charges of whitewashing.
Director Rupert Sanders demonstrated a visual flair in his debut film, Snow White and the Huntsman, and he confirms it here, not only in the decadent eye candy of production designer Jan Roelfs’ shiny-nightmarish neon-hologram illuminated city, but also in some of the more striking action sequences. Ghost in the Shell’s best and most colorful sequences look like nothing else in mainstream Hollywood action moviemaking, though these alternate with gritty, dingy sequences reminiscent of every other big-screen dystopia.
While many aspects of Ghost in the Shell will be familiar to Americans from the likes of Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence: A.I. and Minority Report, James Cameron’s Avatar and above all The Matrix, that’s a tribute to the massive cultural influence of Ghost in the Shell. (In turn, visual and thematic similarities to Blade Runner attest to influences running in the opposite direction, and all these works are indebted to cyberpunk and sci-fi authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.)
Johansson plays The Major, the ultimate weapon of a military-industrial complex encompassing Hanka Robotics and an antiterrorism unit called Section 9. According to her backstory, she’s the first of her kind, a purely synthetic organism with nothing human except the rescued brain of a refugee-ship disaster, transplanted into her new body by Binoche’s maternal Dr. Ouélet, who remains on hand to repair The Major’s body any time it’s damaged in the line of duty.
The Major’s artificial body is capable of a range of superhuman feats, including a cloaking effect built into her skin, requiring her to strip naked to go into action. Unlike the anime, which takes a relatively naturalistic approach to this, uh, combat nudity, this film gives the Major the same sort of mannequin or Barbie-doll “nudity” the X-Men franchise gave Mystique. From the neck down, the Major’s artificial skin has a plasticky sheen and modular components that sometimes shimmer and pulse, making her look like a curvy actress in a form-fitting bodysuit with a CGI polish.
The Major’s living brain supplies her artificial body with intuition and passion, apparently still valuable commodities that can’t be replicated by A.I. She has almost no memories of her past life as a human being, but Dr. Ouélet says her memories will return with time and gives her medicine to help her brain recover. Can anyone reading this not guess where this is going? Raise your hands.
Asbæk plays Batou, The Major’s dedicated second in command, a hulking bleach-headed warrior who hardly looks like he needs high-tech enhancements, though like everyone in The Major’s team, he carries his walkie-talkie in his skull. If Binoche’s character is The Major’s surrogate mother, Kitano is a paternal or perhaps grandfatherly presence as Section 9 chief Daisuke Aramaki. Then there’s Michael Pitt (The Village) as a shadowy terrorist who calls himself Kuze and appears to be out to destroy Hanka Robotics for reasons you will never, ever guess, unless you think about it.
In its Japanese incarnations, at least the original manga graphic novel and anime film, Ghost in the Shell raised philosophical questions about the nature of identity and personality in a world of cybernetic implants, synthetic bodies, artificial intelligence, false memories and translation of the mind into other forms.
The American version gestures at some of these concepts, but has no interest in pursuing them. An African diplomat endorses implants while expressing concerns about “messing with the human soul,” and Ouélet opines, “We cling to our memories as if they define us. But it’s what we do that defines us,” but such notions like this mean little if they aren’t developed.
Like Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman, Johansson is a talented actress playing a placeholder rather than a developed character. Major, of course, has no memory, except being trained and used as a weapon, but for a story that turns on the “ghost” — the spirit or soul — in that shell, the film seems more interested in the shell than the ghost.
The Cartesian idea of the spirit or soul as a disembodied presence merely using or occupying a body, rather than the two being integrally connected, is a cardinal principle in transhumanism, the ultimate goal of which is to transcend the limitations of corporeal existence through technology.
From the earliest attempts at cryonic preservation (beginning with psychology professor James Bedford in 1967; contrary to urban legend, Walt Disney’s head was not cryonically preserved) to the latest advances in brain-computer interfaces and 3-D bioprinting, transhumanism has a powerful hold on the popular imagination — not least among the elites of Silicon Valley, for many of whom the notion of curing death through science has become a postmodern religious obsession.
Like religious apocalypticists attempting to calculate the date of the eschaton, many cling to Aubrey de Grey’s famous prediction that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born (a sharp hedging of his earlier 2004 prediction that the first person to live to 1,000 might already be 60!).
All of this is antithetical to real humanism, whether secular humanism or Christian humanism. Christian anthropology in particular affirms that human nature, in all of its biological specificity, is central to who we are. A person is not a Cartesian spirit in a body, a ghost in a machine shell. I am neither a soul with a body nor a body with a soul; I am a unity of body and soul, two sides of a single coin. In becoming human, moreover, the Son of God took to himself human flesh as well as a human soul, redeeming both. In this, not technology, we place our ultimate hope for immortality.
That makes transhumanist fantasies like Ghost in the Shell — or Avatar, which I nevertheless enjoyed a lot, despite reservations — problematic. That’s not necessarily a telling objection; Christians have always enjoyed stories and depictions of pagan gods and other stories based on sub-Christian premises. Even as wholesome and beloved a classic as It’s a Wonderful Life offers some eschatological imprecision in the notion of humans dying and becoming angels.
I enjoyed Avatar above all for its visionary, colorful worldbuilding, its thoughtful xenobiology and the pleasures of life among the Na’vi, not least the exhilaration of flight. To the extent that it offered a transhumanist arc of a human being becoming something else, it was at least rooted in biology, community and spirituality rather than technology. And it was only one person’s story; it wasn’t framed as the next evolutionary stage toward which humanity was pressing.
Ghost in the Shell also offers some striking worldbuilding, though, unlike Pandora, it’s not a world I would want to inhabit for any length of time, and the rules aren’t as well worked out as I’d like.
What we see of the world of Ghost in the Shell is almost unremittingly unpleasant, punctuated with heavy violence and a body count of scores. There’s a place in the world for unpleasant, violent dystopias, but this world leaves so little room for humanity that it soon becomes alienating and never recovers.
Then there’s the way The Major’s arc ends. No one paying attention will be surprised (spoiler alert anyway) when it’s revealed that The Major — like Johansson’s character in The Island — is a victim of transhumanist meddling who has been given lies and false memories about her origins. To that extent, Ghost in the Shell could be taken as a cautionary tale.
Ultimately, though, it seems The Major’s makers have done the right and necessary thing in the wrong way. “I’m the first of my kind,” she sums up in a closing voice-over, “but I won’t be the last.” In other words, this is where humanity is heading. I’ll take a pass.
Caveat Spectator: Pervasive deadly sci-fi and action violence; torture; stylized nudity; limited crude language and cursing. Mature viewing.