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'Ghost in the Shell': Machine Politics

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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Viewing director Rupert Sanders' highly imaginative "Ghost in the Shell," based on Shirow Masamune's Japanese comic series, it occurred to me: How do I know I'm not a cyborg, installed by some great Machiavellian organization to surreptitiously spread their deceptions through my film criticisms? It can't be .. I'm just a nice liberal guy, trying to make sure folks spend their movie money wisely. Or is that simply what I've been programmed to think?

Although still not sure, as sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick asked, if androids dream of electric sheep, I now must move on to wondering if Ancestry.Com might help a disillusioned cyborg learn his identity. All of which recalls the wisdom implicit in the rhetorical question posed by a pretty but tired, middle-aged waitress in a rural Iowa diner, circa 1969, who, looking up from wiping the worn, Formica counter, opined, "Who's to say what's real?" Her thoughts aptly foretold the provocative questions asked by "Ghost in the Shell."

Doing a backflip off the roof of a high-rise building in a stunningly colorful, jam-packed metropolis with Asian overtones, Scarlett Johansson's Major Mira Killian, counterterrorist fighter extraordinaire, makes like the human version of Angel Falls. Only thing is, maybe like me, she's not completely human, which, in a variation of "to be or not to be," is the question.

You see, her original anatomy was destroyed, but thanks to Juliette Binoche's Dr. Ouelet at the Hanka Corp., under contract to the government, her brain was put in a robotic body.

Connoisseurs of the female form will be happy to note that the engineers at Hanka, run by a fellow named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) who we immediately distrust, do a very good job of reconstructing Johansson's figure. And don't worry ... that somersault in the previous paragraph leads not to the sidewalk below, but rather magically into the digital cyberworld of the near future when beings who share the major's hybrid attributes try to make sense of the information explosion's infinite potentiality, good and bad.

Yep, it's all pretty anthropomorphized down there, or wherever it is, replete with hacker-installed viruses that, in some cases, whimsically take the form of insects. But what it really is, for all intents and purposes, is the battleground of the Brave New World — a place I fear we are currently experiencing in its threatening nascency. When you are hungry, you notice restaurants, and so it makes sense that in our search for truth, justice and the American way, we notice supportive allegories in our art.

Thus, it might not be irony at all that, in this entertaining tale, we recognize our own patriotic attempt to discover whether or not a foreign power has exerted its will on us through computer wizardry, and whether that cyber warfare was aided and abetted by human confederates. Our present situation is metaphorically echoed in the lessons of "Ghost in the Shell." Truth itself is under attack.

Of course, this obscene threat to civilization couldn't stand a chance if it weren't for the rise of a whole new class of deniers: a Greek chorus to the villain. They have been duped into thinking that things will be better for them in their demagogue's phony world, and enthusiastically bear false witness to obfuscate the quest for honesty. Such is what is sown out of fear and in search of pie-in-the-sky solutions. It is much easier to believe in ideology than to face the hard facts of reality. It's not for nothing that the great philosopher assured that truth is beauty.

Though director Sanders injects a smidgen of gray area into his story, he's much more interested in the age-old fight between good and evil. It's a given that, in the world depicted, a raft of civil liberties have already gone by the wayside. So the goal now is to hold that line, and to be ever vigilant of the unholy alliance that can occur when business, technology and government allow humanity's greedier instincts to take precedence over charity, wisdom and an altruistic vision for the future.

Hence, while the tale does include a rebel group of cyborgs seeking its own form of vengeance against The Man, there is otherwise little quibbling about what is right or wrong. Mira is a terrific heroine, a Yin and Yang of human/robot convergence who symbolizes a frightening but ultimately optimistic melding of biology and machine. She is worthy of idolizing song and lunchbox adoration.

As such, I especially recommend her example to those senators and congressmen who have thus far stayed neutral in our moral crisis. As for their minions who don't necessarily care about subtext, hifalutin' axioms, Aesop-like deductions or even the fight for freedom for that matter, we can only hope that the exciting action that plays across the eye-filling landscape in "Ghost in the Shell" sparks a civic-minded spirit in them.

"Ghost in the Shell," rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, and Takeshi Kitano. Running time: 107 minutes

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