“If you don’t know where you’re from, then you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you’re going.” It’s a clichéd if truthful saying, especially for this film. Well, sort of. This film knows where it’s going, but it doesn’t know how to get there, it doesn’t know where it is, and it doesn’t know where it’s from. This film is a voice pining to speak, but it studders at every word.
So where does this leave Ghost in the Shell? Read on to find out.
In the year 2029, cybernetic technology has strengthened the human body and connected the human mind. Barriers have been broken as people can access the Internet with just their body alone. But with this new tech, comes cyber criminals looking to exploit it, and Section 9, a group tasked with stopping cyber criminals. One criminal, the Puppet Master, is skilled enough to hack the human mind. As Section 9 works to track him down, his very existence will challenge the idea of what it means to be human.
This is because almost every member of Section 9 is cybernetically enhanced. They’re basically super soldiers, with abilities far beyond even what most civilians can do. But at the same time, they’re just as vulnerable as anyone else. If a cybernetically enhanced person is hacked, their memories can be deleted or they can be fooled into believing a false life. Even then, their bodies need maintenance, and a system failure on that end would mean going back to their old shells or returning to dust. The story is basically used to explore what it means to be human.
But Ghost in the Shell explores these themes with as much discipline as an undisciplined soldier. Sometimes the themes are used believably, like with Motoko or Togusa’s dialog with the captured criminals after the garbage truck chase scene. Or Section 9’s dialog in Daisuke’s office about something they discovered. These scenes are believable because it raises the questions the film wants to ask, without letting them become heavy, so the plot still moves forward.
At other times, the theme use is cringeworthy. The last dialog from the Puppet Master shows an evolutionary tree several times, with the most roundabout way of saying “I want to evolve.” Or the boatside dialog between Motoko and Batou, where the former switches from soldier to philosopher at the drop of a hat, with deep water metaphors abound. There is actually a point where the second scene takes Batou’s point of view, giving the effect of Motoko talking to the viewer. Seriously.
Seriously. The film wants to be thought provoking, but doesn’t know how to express itself. At some points it expresses itself quietly, letting scarce dialog and a lot of plot progress imply questions for its viewers. At other times, the questions are loudly overplayed, hitting viewers over the head and grinding the plot to a halt. The story itself, for all the international conspiracy it involves, is underplayed. But that’s not a problem, since it’s just a vehicle for the themes the film tries to convey.
Too bad then, that said vehicle breaks down several times throughout the film. For minutes on end, the plot is road blocked by scenes of Motoko being cybernetically enhanced, random scenes of the city, and scenes of the military getting ready. But only the military scenes resemble story progress. The city scenes don’t progress the story, and Motoko’s scene would have worked as part of her background, but becomes pointless when later scenes explain it anyway. Time spent on these montages should have been used smoothing out character progress.
Most of the characters themselves have the same personality (military badass), making them hard to tell apart. Some background can help to tell them apart, but most of them are undeveloped on that end too, or share the same background anyway (“we’re all cybernetically enhanced”). This only leaves character progress to save its cast, but the result is like a failed military mission. And the one who takes the most casualties from this is Motoko.
Motoko has the most progress in the film, but it comes in chunks and lacks sincerity. Spending most of the film being a military badass, peppered with scenes FILLED with philosophical rambling, or worry over Section 9’s discovery, simply doesn’t compute. It lacks a middle ground to bridge the opposite sides of her personality, so it’s hard to believe her as the same person. Character progress should be steady, not sudden. The only one with steady progress is Batou.
Batou starts as a military badass, whose humanity slowly shows itself as the film goes on. During the boatside dialog, the viewer can get a sense of why Batou tagged along with Motoko when she’s changing out of her swimwear. During the dialog in Daisuke’s office, Batou casually tells Togusa why a recent discovery is a sore spot for Section 9. And during the last scenes, Batou’s emotions finally boil over in the end confrontation with the Puppet Master.
And speaking of confrontation, there’s the actions scenes in the film, and by extension, the film’s aesthetics. The animation is fluid, but the art design itself is grimy and imperfect. There’s a sense that every street in the city has been lived in, that characters have worn out their outfits, that colors lack any life to them. It’s not pretty, but then again, a crime that can invade the mind itself wouldn’t be pretty. The visuals have an organic look despite the high-tech setting and being computer generated, making them more impressive.
The action scenes themselves are quiet, forgoing actual music in favor of bone-crunching sound effects. The ground crunches when Motoko drops from a large height, and gun shots are the only melody during action-packed symphonies. Some of the scenes, like a criminal’s leg being twisted, or the snapping of Motoko’s arms when she’s trying to open an army tank, can be hard to watch. But that just goes with the gritty feel the film tries—and succeeds—to give.
There IS actual music, a haunting, choir-like piece. But it’s used in the montages that do almost nothing for the story, making for a nice but pointless soundtrack. Time spent on those montages should have been used to smooth out character progress. Even then, the story’s themes are believably used one moment, then without subtlety the next moment. Some viewers may wish the Puppet Master would delete their memories of wasting 82 minutes gawking at aesthetic wonders.
Now, to say Ghost in the Shell is enjoyable with the viewer’s brain turned off, watching it for the underplayed story, and being wowed by the aesthetics is a reasonable stance. But that would be ignoring everything else the film tries to do, and for something trying to be thought provoking, it’s inexcusable. This film may be a smart Ghost, but the voice it leaves behind is only a Shell of what it could be.