I’m not quite sure what to make of Ghost in the Shell. I think it’s a good film, thought-provoking and entertaining, with dynamic animation and an interesting cast of characters. But it’s also curiously pedantic – the exposition is just a little too on-the-nose, and the ending is an anticlimactic mess. It’s still an excellent movie, but at the end I found myself wondering, “Is that it?”
This might not be the film’s fault. I’ve done quite a bit of research and critical reading on the concept of embodiment in cyberspace and cyborg-feminist theory over the past year or so, and many of the film’s ideas are ones that are not particularly revolutionary for me. This may also account for how I had an easier time following a film that has a reputation for being somewhat opaque. But I don’t want to pretend I’m smarter than this movie – this is a very smart movie. And I also don’t want to let it off so easily.
The film starts out in a remarkably interesting way, with a truly unique assassination. It then moves on into murkier, more interesting territory as we learn about a hacker called The Puppet Master, and get a couple of highly engaging action scenes that show the extent and power of his (or her … or its) influence. The Puppet Master can control people through erasing their memory and other such devices; he can do this because of how cybernetically enhanced everyone in this world is. Let’s put it this way – it’s a big deal that one of the characters doesn’t have hardly any cybernetic enhancements.
The film begins with the question of what makes us human, and at first the answer seems to be “our memory,” because of various monologues about how we are who we are because of what we remember about our past. As the film the progresses the answer gets harder and harder to discern, as the question is broadened to ask, “What is life?”
These are the big questions. These are questions we’ve been trying to answer for millennia, since the dawn of man, probably. Now, I’m not expecting this movie to "answer" these questions. That would be miraculous. What I do expect is an honest engagement with them, which is hard to do when your runtime is so limited. This movie is under an hour and a half long, and therein lies the major problem it has: it simply has too many ideas to cram into one movie, especially one that’s so short.
To be fair, someone must have realized this because there’s a TV show based on the movie. But that doesn’t really help the movie much; with such a short runtime, the characters have to engage in lengthy dialogues that don’t just explain the admittedly complex plot, but also the large, omnipresent themes of the film. It simply doesn’t have time to do these big questions justice, and it seeks to remedy this through a series of exposition-laden conversations towards the end of the film that more or less kill the momentum. Even a last-minute car chase can’t make up for the fact that most of the characters spend the entire thing talking through it, trying to figure out the plot.
It may sound like I didn’t like the movie, but I did give it 8/10 for a reason. The characters are highly engaging and entertaining – the female lead is especially complex and interesting. The animation is great, and the action scenes are among the most exhilarating I’ve seen. I enjoyed the music as well, though it wasn’t as instantly iconic in my mind as say, Kaneda’s theme from Akira. This is, in essence, an extremely well put together film that suffered some problems in pacing and runtime. Still, it’s also revolutionary and unique, and while its questions may be asked a little too bluntly, they’re still highly thought-provoking questions. This is a good movie that could have been great with better writing and a little more room to breathe; as it stands, it’ll have to settle for being one of the more influential anime.