Ghost in the Shell

With the upcoming live action Ghost in the Shell three dimensional experience approaching, it feels like a good time to revisit the ghost hacked garbage truck driver who asked “[w]hat does a virtual experience mean then?”  Probably not a three dimensional movie, but those kids at Dreamworks and all the punks who have the skills but moved to New York to cut their teeth on freelance benders are making it pretty damn difficult to tell if the pixels I see on the way to work are forming Time Square in my reality or yours.

“I am a life-form that was born in a sea of information.”

Speaking of Times Square, school is out, and teenagers instinctively know that Times Square is their territory.  I am more afraid of a group of teenage boys than anything else I encounter on a regular basis.  When they suss out that deep dark insecurity you didn’t know still lingered, they let their insults fly casually so you know how easy it is for them to hurt you.

These kids.  They were born in a sea of information.  They don’t, as far as I can tell, have George Church’s sili brains, but they do carry a rough draft around with them like the rest of us.  Will they give us a choice when they merge?

Released at the end of 1995, which began with the opening statements of the OJ Simpson trial, Ghost in the Shell was both ahead of its time and right at home in the same year that witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber when some of us were naive enough to believe that tragedies on US soil were by definition outliers.

The film did not depend on special effects or violence to the same extent The Matrix franchise would a few years later, instead, it asked a serious question about the future of humankind.  These Times Square kids might be surprised at how much dialogue is in this film.  It is thoughtfully constructed, and its spirit is more in line with Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker than most stories involving cyborg assassins with ghost cloaks.

Ghost in the Shell was visually inspired by Blade Runner, and that is beautifully evident in the final scene, which takes place in a large room with a domed ceiling that intentionally or not looks like a sly nod to the impossibly fresh view of LA’s iconic Bradbury Building seen in Ridley Scott’s masterful adaptation of PKD.

If you’re feeling broken, take an evening to re-watch this classic before the marketing blitz for the live action remake assaults you.  Watch the subtitled version and, if you can, try to get a teenager into it.


For reasons discussed in more detail below, this is one of the most disturbing films I have seen in a long time.  It affected me viscerally for several days.  If that fact piques your interest, I highly recommend watching this disruptive art project masquerading as a film.

If you have never intentionally put yourself into a dissociative state, you might be bothered by Hardware’s hot mess of a plot.  But if you’re no stranger to time loops, and the horrible feeling of being doomed to repeat the same mistakes ad nauseam, you might feel right at home inside this film, which is one of the bleakest and most graphic portrayals of the end of humanity I have found.  While not entirely accurate, I heard myself describe the film in a post-viewing discussion as “We die watching ourselves die.”

It isn’t the complete lack of hope or even the hard-to-watch almost pornographic deconstructions of human flesh that profoundly disturbed me.  It was the slow realization that I had tried to watch Hardware at least a half dozen times without making it more than 15 minutes into the film.  In that way, Hardware had already infected me and illustrated how insidious passive consumption of media can be.  If I were a character in the film, I wouldn’t stand a chance.  By the time I could exhale, I felt like the song birds my childhood friend from Africa taught me how to shoot and splay on his kitchen counter in preparation for the grill.  I spent the rest of the day examining my media consumption habits.

On paper (and in streaming media provider algorithms), Hardware looks like it was made for me.  Lemmy and Iggy Pop both make appearances.  Stanley shot the film on a relatively meager budget in 8 weeks.  The opening long shot shows a barren wasteland, and the ensuing plot is as trippy as it is dystopian.  For these and other reasons I am not privy to, Hardware consistently appears in the top of my search results when I am looking for a movie.  Finishing this film was a reminder that I am not immune to advertising, and the marketing people I spend my professional life saying “no” to have my number.

To Stanley’s credit, he warns viewers that they’re in for a fucked up ride in an opening shot focused on Chapter 13 Verse 20 from the book of Mark.  In the King James version, the verse refers to intense persecution by the Romans and reads “[a]nd except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days.”  Stanley wisely shortened the verse to “[n]o flesh shall be spared.”  Mark 13:20 is a clever and immediate reference to the fate of the characters in Hardware.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of or seen this film, remember Liza Minnelli’s admonition that “money makes the world go around, the world go around, the world go around.”  Your answer starts with the CIA arming people in Afghanistan to fight the Russians.  South African born director Richard Stanley was traveling with and documenting a band of guerillas fighting Russian troops in Afghanistan when he found out someone was willing to fund Hardware.

Paul Trijbits and JoAnne Sellar, two independent London cinema owners new to film production, convinced Stanley to come to England where he realized he had to submit a real budget for the film.  Faced with a more realistic and therefore a much larger budget, Trijbits and Sellar did not give up.  Instead, they contacted a fledgling Miramax and convinced the Weinstein brothers to invest in the film.

The film barely avoided an X rating and opened to unexpected success in the United States.  Its instant profitability kept it out of general circulation for several years.  Not only were the investors arguing over the profits, the publishers of the comic Shok!, which appeared in 2000 AD (linked below), brought a successful copyright lawsuit alleging that the film copied directly from the comic.  If you’re interested in the copyright aspects of this film, the entire comic in question is linked below the trailer for the film.