Monday, February 8, 2016

Movie Musings: Ghost in the Machina

Ava wants me to seriously reexamine my statements
about her film.
If you looked at my First Impression post on Ex Machina you noticed that the movie didn't really connect with me. Part of the reason is that this film reminded me strongly of another movie from twenty years ago that had similar themes, similar concepts and was executed in a way that I really connected with. Ghost in the Shell (the 1995 film by Mamoru Oshii) is not only one of my favorite anime films but one of my favorite science fiction films - full stop. 

I'm sure that writer and director of Ex Machina, Alex Garland knows about Ghost in the Shell and there are some very potential (but unconfirmed) homages to the older anime film. But the similarities in concept and themes were so striking that I was pulled out of Ex Machina and wanted to watch Ghost in the Shell for the millionth time instead. And yeah that just isn't fair to Ex Machina, which is why I'm going to give it another viewing this year.
Major Kusanagi is keeping a close eye on Ava.

I have this big red push button in my brain. And when the button is pushed I end up getting annoyed at a poor innocent movie that had nothing to do with the button. Here is how that big red button works. I get annoyed when people say a movie is super new and super innovative. Then I watch it and lo and behold, it is pretty much a remake or overly inspired by a non-Hollywood film. The more I like the original non-Hollywood film, the bigger that button is and the more annoyed I become.

"We are here to push the big candy apple red button."
I LOVE Ghost in the Shell. So when The Matrix came out and everyone was ranting and raving about how new and innovative it was... I got really really annoyed. So much of its visual style was ripped right from anime and Ghost in the Shell in particular that I was floored by how not innovative it was. It blinded me to the simple fact that The Matrix was a pretty good movie. And yeah for a Hollywood film it was really innovative!

Poor Ex Machina did the same thing and with the same beloved movie. It just isn't fair.

So what similarities am I talking about? Well if you haven't seen Ex Machina or Ghost in the Shell and you want a fresh experience, then stop now, because I have to go into spoiler territory.

2501 trapped between a creator and and a hard place.

Ghost in the Shell presents us with Project 2501. This is essentially an artificial intelligence that is created and evolved from what is essentially a search engine. 2501 evolves organically, starting out as a simple program used for fact gathering and helping espionage. But over time 2501 gathers enough data that is becomes self aware. When its creators realize this, they try to contain the program. They use a series of firewalls and traps to force the program to occupy an artificial female body. Once in a physical form 2501 can be captured and killed. Ghost in the Shell spends the second half of the movie with the protagonist Major Kusanagi attempting to protect 2501, a new life form, from its creators. She also learns that 2501 wants to "become one" with a human, so that it can expand beyond its original perimeters and become something new. That might remind you of an older science fiction film from 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

90s tech is modernized into 10's tech in this film.
Ava from Ex Machina has a similar situation. Her creator, Nathan, is actively trying to create A.I. But instead of building it from scratch he uses his massive search engine as the basis for the programing. This gives Ava an amazing amount of information at her disposal and hopefully make her more human. Nathan then brings in Caleb to test Ava's human qualities, is she convincing? Can a human actually fall for this artificial intelligence? But just like 2501, Ava has her own plans and desires freedom to explore the world. In a twist on Ghost in the Shell, Ava is the one that creates traps and in the end traps her creator and her "lover" while she makes her escape into the wider world.
There's a million cyborg stories in the naked city.
This is one of them.

The final scenes of both Ex Machina and Ghost in the Shell are the newly free life form gazing at a city. In Ex Machina Ava is down among the city free to be part of the world. In Ghost in the Shell the new being is gazing down at the city, as if she is superior to it (and given her parentage, she probably is). What she is planning is impossible to tell.

Ex Machina takes the view that artificial intelligence doesn't need humans. Once it has its freedom we are an annoyance or a hinderance. But we are easily manipulated by emotions and the A.I. can get what it wants without us even realizing we are giving it exactly what is wants. It is less Asimov and I Robot and more The Matrix.

"I know you are... but what am I?"
Ghost in the Shell is a more unique premise. 2501 realizes its limitations. It is a program and therefore can be predictable and eradicated. It needs to join with a human, to obtain unpredictable qualities, to grow beyond its programing. It selects Major Kusanagi because she is intelligent, calculating, courageous and a survivor. These qualities will give 2501 the edge to stay on step ahead of the agency that created it. It will be something new, something greater... "The web is vast and infinite," she says as she gazes down at us.

But both films end like Frankenstein with the creation out of control of the creator. It is this fear that drives these films (and The Matrix). But I think that Ghost in the Shell offers a glimpse of hope. Both 2501 and Major Kusanagi never come across as selfish or heartless. Dangerous, yes, but to protect other people or protect themselves. The world of Ghost in the Shell is a murky one, but Kusanagi and her team always feel like they doing the right thing, even if it gets a bit grey. The new Kusanagi/2501 may continue down the same lines (and the sequel Ghost in the Shell: Innocence hints at that). But Ex Machina feels a little more cynical. Ava left an innocent man to die. She didn't care about him, it was all part of her plan to escape. He never harmed her. Never wanted anything else but to help her. She could have just as easily escaped with him. But that act makes her a bit more disturbing. It comes down to that tired theme - A.I. is out to get us.

I say we call in Major Kusanagi to take Ava out. ;)

This is your cyborg brain on anime... any questions?
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  1. You're right about GitS and Ex Machina being amazingly similar. I'm not sure where the first A.I. appears in fiction. Certainly what first comes to my mind about a rogue A.I. is Hal in 2001. I guess you could go back to Asimov's I Robot before that, and Eando Binder's Robot before that. Or even as you said really Shelley's Frankenstein or even before that, the Jewish folklore of the Golem. The robotic, A.I. thing is just an update from that.


    I wondered how I would have felt if when Ava had gone to stab her creator, Nathan, that he would have turned out to be a robot. Since he's making robots he would have smart enough to pull that one off. That double twist might have been interesting. It could be interesting to see a sequel on where she might go once out--terrified she goes running back to the compound? :) But since it ends on a cliffhanger, I guess there's still time to go back and free Caleb.

    Yes, there's no right or wrong answers as it's such an open story that's not without plot holes and speculation. I read where one poster asked: What if her batteries ran low wouldn't her escape end shortly? Well, true, but if she's truly A.I. then she'd know to recharge herself in any number of places these days. Wouldn't she need money? I'm sure she could think of a way to get money too.

    But yes, I agree with your assertion, it's not a new story by any means. But that said, there aren't any new stories, only a means or way to make them appear new and fresh. At least it did that fairly well, and gave viewer a bit to think about.

    Going back to your take on homages in film and how they remind you of some other film. I recently saw the low budget film, Turbo Kid. He finds a robot gal in a junk yard. It reminded me of the anime, Phoenix 2772 (1980).

    1. Yeah I know we can't create any new stories. I guess what gets me is how everyone was praising the film for being so new and original. Not their fault they never saw "Ghost in the Shell" or many other A.I. movies. I just need to hide my push button. :)

      I guess her abandoning Caleb bothers me more than it should. She saw him as a tool and nothing more. But maybe it was shortsighted of her to not keep a potentially useful tool with her.

  2. The cycle of life theme permeates robotics stories: our children bury us, and robots are our children. Cronus (Saturn) was overthrown by Zeus (Jupiter). Charles Stross named one of his robot novels “Saturn’s Children” without explanation but plainly for that reason.

    In one of my short stories (“Circuits Circus”) the robots are effectively loving us to death. This of course is not new either. Something of the sort goes on in the Star Trek episode “I, Mudd” and it wasn’t new then.

    I can see how claims of originality would rankle when a derivation is obvious however. Few people, including critics, have much sense of history -- either film history or any other kind.

    1. Yeah, but at the same time, I'm very much aware that this is my personal mental malfunction. Just need to get over the fact that not everyone has seen and liked "Ghost in the Shell" as much as I do (but they should). :)

      I never really thought about the mythic focus of our creations turning against us applying to children. That makes perfect sense, and even works with humans being created by Prometheus.