ghost-in-the-shell-wallpaper-126                                       Fig 1.1 Major Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell


I am a great fan of science fiction and I truly believe the best films in this genre explore one question throughout the heart of their stories, ‘what does it mean to be human?’

Many of us still watch and love the iconic science fiction films of the last thirty years in particular, and considering it is a niche target market, there are some titles that to this day remain popular with a very wide audience. I hear you cry out Star Wars, Robocop, Predator, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, Alien, and the list goes on! I will start with a gem of a movie that many believe is where the Wachowski Brothers got their idea for the Matrix series, Ghost in the Shell. In its original form this was a Masamune Shirow Manga novel but is known worldwide in its movie form which holds great critical acclaim:

It has never lost its popularity, and it is hot again thanks to its Manga sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Man machine Interface (American edition throughout 2003) and news of its TV “side story” version, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Twenty-six episodes starting October 2002 in Japan) and forthcoming second theatrical feature, Innocence: Ghost in the Shell, scheduled for spring 2004.[1]

The theatrical films and TV series portray a distinct visual presentation of a future built on the evolution of computers and Cybernetics. Our protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a sexy Cyborg government agent working for an elite group called ‘Section Nine’. Her history is left very vague as the plot is more concerned with current events; however, it is clear that she is obsessed with experiencing anything that she deems makes her more human, for example drinking beer on a fishing boat and swimming in the sea:

The plot strongly implies that she used to be fully human and is now little more that her mind/intelligence in a completely artificial body.[2]

Fig 1.2 Mayjor Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell Major Kusanagi

Kusanagi’s mission is to find and stop an international computer hacker called ‘The Puppet Master’, who the Japanese government assume to be human until it turns out to be a top secret artificial intelligence programme that Section Nine assumes to be American, however, this is never confirmed. The Puppet Master has broken free across the global computer network and is all too aware of itself, much like the Skynet programme in The Terminator, although The Puppet Master does not engage in the destruction of humanity, but instead insists it is a life form and free to live amongst society in a prosthetic body. On escaping its creators, The Puppet Master begins hacking into other Cyborgs, via the global network and implants false memories into them so they do as he/she requires of them to avoid capture. There are distinct similarities here with The Terminator, although the fundamental difference is how The Puppet Master does not abuse its power in a way amongst its divine access to any output in the global network to inflict damage against its creators or other governments. Instead it is increasingly evident that its overall goal is actually to locate Kusanagi:

…and insists that it is much a “real person” as any biological human. This forces Kusanagi (and the audience) to consider whether she is still human or not – and if not, is she less or more than a human?[3]

Like the postmodern representation of the Cyborg, positive or threatening, as these examples connote, it is also interesting to acknowledge how Vivian Sobchack observes the spaceship in a similar way:

In many films it is a trap from which there is little hope of escape. Its sleekness is visually cold and menacing, its surfaces hostile to human warmth. It functions mechanically and perfectly, ignorant of its creators and operators – or it malfunctions with malice, almost as if it could choose to do otherwise but prefers to rid itself of its unsleek and emotionally tainted human occupants.[4]

Science fiction films entwined with horror such as Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, also use spacecrafts as a prison in a very raw sense where the crew fight to survive and escape. The Event Horizon of the film is an advanced prototype spacecraft that can influence space time so that it can jump instantaneously to a far away point in space. This is done by pin pointing its actual position and destination on a computer layout and manipulates space itself like a piece of paper by folding it temporarily so that the current position in time and the desired destination exist in the same space and time, allowing the spacecraft to reach its intended destination instantly. Through this process the spacecraft unintentionally crosses the boundaries of space time and becomes a gateway to Hell, and in doing so, creates a prison for the crew to which they cannot escape, inevitably leading to gruesome deaths.

Fig 1.3 The Gravity Drive, Event Horizonevent_horizon_gravity_drive

Despite the Event Horizon having a computer system that initiates this process, it is always manually operated by humans and at no point becomes self aware. Instead it is the supernatural effect of Hell that influences control of the ship. 2001: A Space Odyssey differs when we see how a computer that is given too much control becomes almost impossible to stop when it chooses to disobey human commands. HAL, the artificial intelligence, causes the ship to become a floating prison by preventing crew members from getting back into the ship, ignoring requests, and killing them off, even the ones remaining in stasis. These films share many similarities, particularly the likes of The Terminator and Ghost in the Shell where artificial intelligence, computers, and Cyborgs become as or more intelligent than their creators, believing they have a right to survive and dictate.

In The Terminator we never hear direct from Skynet why it is so fixed to its cause, although we are given a logical interpretation or, technically, a future retrospective from our hero Kyle Reese, who explains that Skynet broke free from human control and begun constructing an army of machines to destroy mankind. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL, who I will refer to as he and/or it, is a male speaking computer with polite reasoning and responses like an ordinary person, but has no change of tone in his voice, which makes it difficult to ascertain whether he has malfunctioned or not. This proves to be a wise choice for the film as HAL comes across as a charming and intelligent addition to the crew but when the disobeying and killing begins, its charm and intelligence becomes frightening. As the plot progresses HAL becomes aware of the plan to shut him down and tries to protect his existence by reacting to what it believes to be a conspiracy to end its functioning. Due to HAL being so independently minded and relied upon to govern majority control causes the entire safety parameters of such responsibilities to become a hazard. In all three films the artificial intelligence is given independence to think and learn which results in its disobedience, arguably a message that all three films explore in a negative way, however, Ghost in the Shell differs as The Puppet Master doesn’t necessarily wish to or use its current power to abuse or kill, but to act and fight for total freedom and recognition.

In Artificial Intelligence, David (Haley Joel Osment) is referred to as an artificial boy, but correctly speaking is in fact an android. Every action he makes is clearly robotic and evidently a result of programming by the assertive manor to which he moves, watches, and responds, however, no matter how artificial David may be, he is a mimic/imitation of biological life in appearance and in most of his actions. We are shown a clear indication of this when he is programmed to accept a mother, to which he responds “I love you, Mommy.” We are then provided with a negative example of his programming when a young boy inflicts pain on David’s arm to show a predictable android response. David’s pain indicators trigger a survival response to protect himself from further harm, and in doing so, grabs onto another boy for protection that causes them to fall back into a swimming pool.

Though these machines are often designed in contrasting ways or set in contrasting environments and times, we clearly understand that they are not biologically functioning but instead created by the biological, and in terms of Cyborgs and androids, made in the image of life. In A.I, Bicentennial Man, Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner, Cyborgs, androids, and Replicants mimic humans, at least on one level so that they can relate to each other, and in turn, the created are then seen to mimic creator:

The humanist Cyborg is constantly involved in situations that involve him watching and commenting on their colleagues as they fall in love, get angry, regret, and pass away. At key narrative moments they are called upon or challenged to act and react in the same way as their human compatriots. And while they seem incapable of this, fired as they are by objectivity and rationalist principles, and while they seem unable to bridge the emotional gap that is required of them, what is given away each time, through the use of a dramatic close-up that catches a forlorn glance, or an enigmatic reply, is a deeply hidden wish to be the same kind of human being. [5]


Fig 1.4 Dr. Dave Bowman, 2001: A Space Odyssey 785517509954379045


As for Bicentennial man, Andrew (the late Robin Williams) goes through this entire process amongst the family he is assigned to, however, it is arguable to account the behaviour of HAL, Skynet, The Puppet Master, and the Replicants as an effort to claim humanity as well, regardless of whether they have an artificial shell or otherwise. HAL, whether obligated as a computer or not, plays chess with members of the crew and consistently responds to have enjoyed the experience, and clearly has a social connection and bond with them, and as we learn later on, is capable of defending himself, so I feel it is accurate to assume he is as worthy as a life form or indeed considers himself to be, which is why he acts so violently to keep in existence, just as David acts to protect himself by clinging onto the boy, ‘…reminders are constant of how woefully naive the present is about the potential deadliness of machines.’[6]

Every example of artificial intelligence in these films has a fight for survival, whether it is politically or physically, Bicentennial Man being the only example that does not include violence as Andrew’s fight is a moral and political battle for human rights and acknowledgement on behalf of a global government. Andrew’s body has prosthetic organs that he designed himself, and can subsequently be used in human beings, though it is his original ‘prosotronic’ brain that keeps him from receiving the title of human being, for which the judge argues would create too much jealousy because it is immortal. When Andrew is given a nervous system and blood, by further design on his part, he becomes mortal and thus grows old. He eventually is granted his wish and becomes the oldest human being in recorded history.

In The Terminator, the fight for survival is both man and machine with the result of not one ruling the other, but by the elimination of one over the other, which is arguably why Skynet resorts to following the one fundamental similarity between all these films, which is for machine to become more human. Although Skynet fights to destroy mankind, its most effective weapon is to ‘know thy enemy’ by mimicking it, thus it deploys Terminators, Cyborgs than can walk and act amongst humans without them knowing any better. This is a key message of Blade Runner as the existence of the Replicants is confusing by the end of the Director’s cut that seems to imply that Replicants are all that exist anymore. In The Terminator it is interesting to acknowledge a role reversal from our human hero Kyle Reese who, in order to fight the machines, must also ‘know thy enemy’ or at least adopt a certain characteristic:

To survive his militarised, post-apocalyptic youth, Kyle Reese has been trained to believe pain can be ‘disconnected’ as though he were a machine.[7]





Fig 1.5 A Terminator in its raw endoskeleton form, a truly fantastic design, The Terminator


The principle of choice is arguably a reason for the actions of the examples I have discussed, which relates to Rene Descartes’ famous philosophical quote, ‘I think therefore I am.”[8] This is explicitly the case with The Puppet Master due to his argument being directly explained to the audience that because he thinks for himself he has every right to exist. Much like THX: 1138, Ghost in the Shell explores concerns of surveillance and the impact it has on privacy, ‘As technological sophistication increases, concerns that privacy will be eroded arise.’ [9]

Ghost in the Shell explores this concept via Kusanagi as she is theoretically free to do as she pleases to fight terrorism; however, the reality is not that simple because her prosthetic body is owned by the government as are her memories that have been collected since working for them.[10] In THX: 1138 the issues of privacy are placed in context to the whole of society which is kept underground in a predominantly all white environment. The message through Kusanagi’s character is how the growth and improvement of technology will become an aspect of our lives that we will rely on, so much so, that it will inevitably place us in a state of control due to every person being connected to the global computer network, ‘Oshii shows that as technology becomes a larger part of our everyday lives, it can inscribe us within new circles of control.’[11] Kusanagi’s private mission throughout Ghost in the Shell is to capture The Puppet Master so that it can be destroyed; however, because she knows she cannot escape the contract that binds her body and memories to the government, she accepts the overall goal of The Puppet Master and becomes ‘one’ with him/it, thus escaping through the global network and downloading into a body her partner purchases on the black market, escaping her government contract:

Through the ‘magic’ of special effects, science fiction creates new spaces, dimensions and frontiers that re-define the human sphere of operation and often challenge our definitions of what exactly it is to be human.’[12]

All of this relates to the postmodern condition of science fiction films, especially contemporary Hollywood examples as the spectacle of this genre is consistent in depicting foreign worlds or current cities in the near or distant future by the technology of computer graphics (CGI), though science fiction is commonly recognised to comment on current social divisions and politics of the time, ‘…what the audience sees and hears in part resembles closely the world as it is experienced on a daily basis.’[13] All of the films I have discussed have that wonderful question through their core, what does it mean to be human? Bicentennial man stands out for me in more ways than one, for example, out of the films I have mentioned and discussed, it is the only one that truly depicts a utopian future rather than a dystopian one. This film not only takes that question into account for the purpose of its narrative, but progresses it into something more, and by that I mean how Andrew arguably discovers what is to be human throughout his experiences and then goes on a quest of knowledge and experimentation to answer ‘what will make him human?’. Andrew is similar to all the other Cyborgs and androids but the difference with his character is how this identification doesn’t necessarily make him better than the other but does make him easily distinguishable in terms of his human characteristics as he is not a Cyborg at the start of the film, but an android. He is more assertive, useful, intelligent, and artistic than any other android of his series, more polite, insightful, generous, helping, and caring than any human, which is why he is consistently labelled ‘unique’ by his owner. His mission is not only to become human and be human, but also to be loved by a human. Throughout his journey he advances from android, to Cyborg, and finally to human:

Here we see an example of an android as a post-human versus a human transformed in to a Cyborg. The whole question of sentient androids and their quest for freedom and self-determination is raised and explored.[14]



Fig 1.6 Robin Williams as Andrew, Bicentennial Man


Star wars, George Lucas (1977, FOX, USA)

Bicentennial Man, Chris Columbus, (1999, Columbia Tristar, USA)

The Terminator, James Cameron (1984, FOX, USA)

Robocop, Paul Verhoeven (1987, FOX, USA)

Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii (1995, Manga Entertainment, JAPAN)

Blade Runner, Ridley Scott (1982, Warner Brothers, USA)

THX: 1138, George Lucas (1971, Warner Brothers, USA)

Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, FOX, USA)

Predator, John McTiernan (1987, FOX, USA)

Back to the Future, Robert Zemekis (1985, Universal, USA)

The Matrix, The Wachowski Brothers (1999, Warner Brothers, USA)

A.I, Steven Spielberg (2001, Warner Brothers, USA)

2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick (1968, MGM, USA)

Event Horizon, Paul W.S Anderson (1997, Paramount, USA)


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Fig 1.3 picture provided by extremetech


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Fig 1.6 picture provided by fan art



[1] ‘Less or More, Than Human’, Anime Archive column in Newtype USA, no.3, March 2003, in Pattern, Fred, Watching Anime, Reading Manga, (USA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004) p.288.

[2] Ibid. P.287.

[3] Ibid. P. 288.

[4] Sobchack, Vivian, ‘Images of Wonder: The Look of Science Fiction’ in Redmond, Sean, ed., Liquid Metal, (GB: Wallflower Press, 2004) p.6

[5] Redmond, Sean, ‘Liquid Metal: The Cyborg in Science Fiction’, in ed., Liquid Metal, (GB: Wallflower Press, 2004) p.156.

[6] Larson, Doran, ‘Machine as Messiah: Cyborgs, Morphs and the American Body Politic’, in Redmond, Sean, ed. Liquid Metal, (GB: Wallflower Press, 2004) p.193

[7] Ibid. P.193.

[8] Descartes, Rene, Discourse on Method and The Meditations, (UK: Penguin Books Ltd; New Impression edition, 1973)

[9] Ruh, Brian, Stray Dog of Anime: The films of Mamoru Oshii, (USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) p.10.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] King, Geoff, and Krzywinska, Tanya, ‘Introduction: Spectacle and Speculation’, in Science Fiction Cinema: From outerspace to Cyberspace, (UK: Wallflower Press, 2000) p.1.

[13] Redmond, Sean, ‘The Wonder of Science Fiction’, in ed., Liquid Metal, (GB: Wallflower Press, 2004) p.2.

[14] SFAM, ‘ Bicentennial Man’, ‘Cyberpunk Review’,, April 4th/06, updated June 9th/06

About Dominic Adams

Dominic Adams works full time in the funeral service with a diploma in embalming and a degree in film studies. Between higher education and work, his interests include sports, writing, playing video games, and watching films. After studying film for eight years, Dominic spent most of his free time expanding on screenplays he had started during his college days and adapting them into novels. He currently resides in Westerham, Kent, United Kingdom.