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GHOST IN THE SHELL -- Retro Review

The title's right. This classic's honestly a little hollow.

Previous Retro Reviews...

This isn’t a Retro Review so much as a re-visitation. I already saw this flick, years ago during my teens, when it might as well have been called America's #2 gateway anime. You know…

AKIRA rocked, right? Want something similar? Dude, you’ve got to watch GHOST IN THE SHELL!”

You’d hear that from a tape store clerk back then, or read it in some mag about all this “Japanimation” stuff that’s supposed to freak out your folks. Now, Netflix and Amazon have honed this recommendation process into an algorithm, and I still think there are plenty of better titles to recommend first.

Look, there’s no denying the significance and influence, here. Nobody’s forgotten how the Wachowskis famously sold THE MATRIX to studio execs, in part, by playing clips of action from this and saying “we wanna do that for real.” Watching it again, though, and having a better grasp of how to articulate what made it so boring the first time around, it seems more like a barrel of raw material that was subsequently refined by its followers into something more usable.

(And, of course, if we really want to pull apart the chain of influence, there ought to be an acknowledgment to the works of William Gibson somewhere in its credits.)

As you’ll recall, GHOST IN THE SHELL follows a couple of cyborg G-Men - - lady asskicker, Kusanagi, and her no-nonsense subordinate, Batou - - as they pursue the nigh-mythical uber hacker known only as “the Puppet Master.” Their search is complicated by the appearance of a naked robot chick who’s seemingly been created without any human command (although there’s a good chance Puppet Master put the call in.) Muddy cyber-spy intrigue props the girl’s importance up and, after enough choral-scored slo-mo shots of city-scapes to make this feel like a feature-length cologne commercial, Kusangi somehow tracks her to a warehouse for a climactic gunfight with a spider-bot.

There’s some cool stuff up in there - - enough to load a seven round .45 magazine, perhaps. There are briefcases that snap out into Uzis! And robot fingers that type with tentacles! And invisibility cloaks not affiliated with Hogwarts! And a flesh-colored cat suit!

However, there isn’t as much you’d expect; or as much as you’d need, for that matter. Break it all down, minute to minute, and so much of what’s on screen seems like talky bait for a grad student’s film studies thesis paper.

This isn’t a character-grounded film. Kusanagi’s another one of those laconic assassin types; terse because she probably isn’t too good with words, not because she chooses them carefully. She “evolves” when she merges her consciousness, certainly, but it’s not so much growth for her as it is listless change. She’s gotten to the end of the movie, so she ought to do something drastic, right?

It isn’t too thrilling of an actioner, either. The gunplay comes in fits and starts - - bursts of sound and fury to shake you back to attention whenever you start dozing. It plays out something like the aforementioned baited grad student, shouting random obscenities in a discussion class during TA duty after he anxiously notices that students’ eyes are fluttering. “Listless” even works pretty well to describe this action, too. It's over-the-top, certainly, but somehow never exuberant about it (and you've got to be exuberant about it, man.)

Where does the attention go, then? It goes to interminable philosophical discussions that more-or-less treat the action scenes like water breaks. And that works real hard against a flick whose poster shows a naked chick brandishing a massive pistol and cybernetically-enhanced boobies.

Look, there are always one or two conceits you just have to accept with sci-fi. Usually, it’s about 90-pound waifs stomping the shit out of goons more than twice their size; or it’s about hardcases walking off fatal gunwounds through sheer, stubborn willpower. Here, it’s about these gruff grunts waxing intellectual like they’re at a post-symposium dinner party. Even if Kusanagi and Batou were that self-aware, it’s still hard to buy them being this articulate.

Or maybe the point is the two actually aren’t that sharp. The questions they posit about identity and consciousness sound heady, at first, but seem more like filibuster after just a little analysis. What is the self? Where is the soul? Can minds merge? The questions aren’t profound by themselves, and they look rather inconsequential when the credits roll and nobody's bothered to offer any concluding statements to put them to any use.

82 minutes is a savagely tight run-time to tell a cogent story, let alone to try to cover the big and profound Q's. Perhaps this is yet another case of a nuanced and sophisticated manga getting dumbed down to accommodate the constraints of a costly animation budget. Perhaps its a title that's simply lost its luster after so many imitators have standardized its innovations.

Or perhaps the title "GHOST IN THE SHELL" is a none-too-subtle clue - - a joke of the creators' that nobody's noticed - - because there isn't actually much of anything substantial lurking inside this flick's reputation and appearance.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

atesh42on April 17, 2012 at 9:55 a.m.

I never liked the style of this film having already read the first manga.

The TV series pulls it off much better but it was also able to take its time.

LifeByDegreeson April 17, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

I've only ever watched the TV series-would it be worth it to watch the film at this point?

kwyrton April 17, 2012 at 1:03 p.m.

@LifeByDegrees: Personally, I think you're better off watching the anime first. It gives you more time to get to know and care about the characters. That's the way I did it, although not through any choice of my own. Saw the anime on Adult Swim, decided to check out the movie. But looking back I am glad it turned out that way.

sickVisionz moderator on April 17, 2012 at 1:09 p.m.
Watching it again, though, and having a better grasp of how to articulate what made it so boring the first time around, it seems more like a barrel of raw material that was subsequently refined by its followers into something more usable.
... Where does the attention go, then? It goes to interminable philosophical discussions that more-or-less treat the action scenes like water breaks.

I was never able to get into this movie and never got what the hype was. It always felt like a mess of techno/philosobabble that is cool if you're into that type of stuff, but it bored me to pieces and didn't really deliver on anything I'd want a film to deliver on.

The anime series are good though. Significantly better in almost every aspect.

csl316on April 17, 2012 at 1:22 p.m.
I got 20 minutes in a few years back and decided to finish it later. Never did.

I have it right here so now's a good a time as any, I guess. I'm just glad that if I don't enjoy it this time around then I'm not entirely crazy.
tristenkw5on April 17, 2012 at 1:57 p.m.

Wait a sec, so I wasn't crazy and this franchise IS kinda dry and boring?

Oh good. I can go to sleep a little more soundly tonight.

MrXDon April 17, 2012 at 2:11 p.m.

Ah yes, I remember watching Ghost in the Shell with my brother and sister at my grandparents house.

Turambaron April 17, 2012 at 3:43 p.m.
Different strokes and all that jazz.  The philosophical discussion was what made me like the franchise in the first place.
FoxxFireArt moderator on April 17, 2012 at 5:11 p.m.

I've yet to read the original manga, but I really want to. I enjoyed this movie, but GITS: Stand Alone Complex is far more interesting. Especially the second season feels like a Tom Clancy novel.

The philosophy really makes us question what it is that makes us human. The only part of Motoko that's from her original body is her brain. She was one of the earliest full-body transplants.

kashif1on April 17, 2012 at 6:53 p.m.

@LifeByDegrees said:

I've only ever watched the TV series-would it be worth it to watch the film at this point?

Sure, its not as good as the tv series but its certainly not bad and the animation is great for its time.

damswedonon April 18, 2012 at 7:58 a.m.

@FoxxFireArt said:

I've yet to read the original manga, but I really want to. I enjoyed this movie, but GITS: Stand Alone Complex is far more interesting. Especially the second season feels like a Tom Clancy novel.

The philosophy really makes us question what it is that makes us human. The only part of Motoko that's from her original body is her brain. She was one of the earliest full-body transplants.

The problem with the philosophy in Ghost in the Shell, be it the films or the show, is that it exists instead of plot progression. In the film it is the long boring talking head sections, and in the show it comes in the form of the Tachikoma episodes. While the show has the time to sacrifice an episode or two to the Tachikoma talking about their souls the film doesn't and just suffers for it.

The thing is the film shouldn't have to sacrifice the plot for the sake of philosophy, Blade Runner was able to have multiple levels, original cut not so much, and still have a core story that drives the plot to the very end. I'd like to just put this down to Japanese story telling being Japanese, like how a character will say I'm so happy instead of smiling. But really that is a problem with a lot of fiction, Rogue telling us that she is having relationship issues with Magneto instead of us being shown that is the first thing that comes to mind.

Hmm, not sure that should be a reply or if I just wanted to get that off of my chest.

Little_Socrateson April 18, 2012 at 11:45 a.m.

I really, really enjoyed it. I couldn't disagree more as to its merits. But you came looking for The Matrix, while I I showed up looking for Blade Runner, and I got what I wanted. It's not as good as Blade Runner, of course, but it succeeds as a follow-up and is still aesthetically engaging.

zaldaron April 21, 2012 at 1:48 a.m.

"so much of what’s on screen seems like talky bait for a grad student’s film studies thesis paper."

"She “evolves” when she merges her consciousness, certainly, but it’s not so much growth for her as it is listless change"

Well as if the love you have for yu yu and dragon ball Z didn't show it enough this review certainly does. You are looking for very different things in anime than I am. To the first quote...why is this a bad thing? This is exactly what makes the show good. The questions are not deep? Are you on crack? To anyone but a devout atheist these are rather important questions. If we make everything but our mind a computer are we really still human? Also note this was the FIRST show to ask such a question as well as the first to have intelligence and consciousness come alive in a computer. Think about that for a second...intelligence evolving completely independently in a COMPUTER created by humans. How exactly do you get more interesting, more complex than that? Know she doesn't do anything after merging but so what? The merger itself is so dramatic she is the first child of a completely new SPECIES that anything after that would be anticlimactic...did you want something like the movie end of Evangelin(which hilariously Firefox can now correct the spelling of first anime title I've seen do that) really? Those movies were completely unnecessary and ludicrous. Why is PLOT the be all and end all of movies? The choral sections that you call slow are incredibly beautiful and musically entrancing. The fact that, a visual person like yourself didn't mention the amazing beauty (a throwback to ancient japanese art which was intentional as a contrast to the technology in the shows world) tells me you were baiting a little bit I think. However you did call this an anti-utopia over on comicvine which shows you really don't get it at all. As for the "toughs" being articulate and philosophical...with the bodies they have they are basically immortal. Given that amount of time ANYONE would become articulate and philosophical and these are not average humans in any sense. This is not the show I recommend to people who liked Akira (as that show is overrated as you saw from reading the manga and rather nonsensical) but if you liked the philosophy in Evangelin and Lain then I recommend this show. I have the manga do read it, I found it dense and unintelligible but your opinion would be interesting. (it comes with several pages like twenty of endnotes) the philosophy and depth in this show would make it a classic for a watch and learn (as would lain and texnolyze actually) but I guess that isn't going to happen. Don't watch the second one with this opinion of the first...it plays even more heavily with the philosophy (I learned more western philosophy watching it than in any college class) and unless you like that you will find it even worse. I own both ghost in the shell 1 and 2 and love them both. The series suffers from taking out the most interesting part of the movie the major becoming a higher life form.

Dig Deeper into Ghost in the Shell

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