William Gibson, in a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, said, “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written.” In his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, Gibson explicitly began to write about the present day; the real world had overtaken the cyberpunk fantasies of the ’80s and ’90s. Like any artist who perfectly embodies a genre, Gibson, the acknowledged founder of cyberpunk, disdains the label. But not without reason.
Cyberpunk is a closed road to the future. It imagined a moment when one person could bring down corporations using virtual means, when conglomerates and oligarchies consolidated real power behind impotent governments. When the internet was the last free space left. That moment has now passed.
What use is faithfully remaking Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, then? Rupert Sanders’ upcoming Hollywood remake of the 1995 original underwent a fraught, 10-year production and came out the other side looking just like the anime, but more Caucasian. You can watch the first five minutes on YouTube; they mix the cornball post-Matrix slow-mo action of I, Robot (2004) by way of the overdesigned absurdity of Jupiter Ascending (2015). More cyborgs are shot to pieces in these five minutes than in the entirety of the original film, sacrificed on the altar of a “cool” that tastes 20 years out of date.
Cyberpunk as craven retromancy means absolutely nothing. Oshii’s film is a syncretic marvel that rewrites a hundred influences into its own individual aesthetic code. It explicitly spoke to how technology was changing not only the ways people related to one another, but the ways people related to themselves.
Oshii fully committed himself to this idea: He spends far more time on long, ambient montages that probe the urban strata of “Newport City” or the existential musings of the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi (voiced by Atsuko Tanaka; Mimi Woods in the English dub) than he does on the gunfights and political intrigue of Masamune Shirow’s original manga. When the film does break into violence, it is stark, physical and uniquely quiet—no pounding score, only ambient noise and soft, insistent bells on Kenji Kawai’s soundtrack.
The city is alive: Its citizens flow through it, data streams among skyscrapers that glow like server stacks. Trash-choked canals run alongside tenements which sit beside pristine, glass-and-metal shopping centers. This is the film’s milieu: a bleary, rain-soaked metropolis which iterates upon itself constantly, a neverending series of updates piled atop a broken codebase. That environment is echoed in the cast’s cyborgization; flesh-and-bone bodies are improved on in every possible way, but, as Kusanagi says, those bodies are on loan from the government. Kusanagi even sees the “expanse of the data net” available to her cyber-brain—what has been coined prosthetic knowledge —as part of her consciousness.
As Ghost in the Shell ends, Kusanagi rejects her bounded, defined selfhood in favor of merging with the consciousness of the government-created AI known as “the Puppet Master.” In a virtuoso sequence which echoes the phantasmagorical doubling of Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 Persona in its visual schema, Kusanagi is convinced by the AI’s rhetoric. Throughout the entire film, she struggles with her selfhood: She stares at her reflection, submerges herself in the ocean, uses her cyborg body like a disposable tool. “Your desire to remain as you are is what ultimately limits you,” the Puppet Master says. As she listens, their faces are framed in a way that melds them together. Kusanagi will inherit the Puppet Master’s vast network access; the Puppet Master will “achieve death.”
For Sanders and company to repeat—reboot—the aesthetic of Ghost in the Shell is to fall victim to stasis—the same stories-high Blade Runner billboards, the same exoticized neon Japanophilia, the same feminized androids. In adapting Shirow’s manga, Oshii and writer Kazunori Ito reshaped it to their own ends. It is demonstrably different from its predecessor; as is every subsequent iteration of the series, for better or worse. “A copy is merely a copy,” the Puppet Master says. “[It] doesn’t offer variety or individuality.” William Gibson’s late work just looks like now, framed in a way that accentuates the absurd pace at which technology has advanced. The new Ghost in the Shell is cyberpunk that fails to engage with our present, a present which has rocketed past the genre’s imagined future. It serves no purpose other than hollow nostalgia.