Ghost in the Shell (1995)

2 out of 5

Directed by: Mamoru Oshii

I haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell in quite some time.  My memories of it were not very positive, so I was curious – when a friend invited me to a recent theater showing – what Modern Me would think of it, now with more manga / anime / OVA experience, as well as just having read the comic.

When the end credits rolled, I sat, bleary-eyed, in the dark, too-warm theater and mulled over my thoughts.  I had settled on pretty deep summary of my feelings, and was turning to my friend to say it when he started first with something akin to: That was pretty good.

I was going to say that it was boring as shit.  …I politicized that to saying that it was about what I remembered.

I did not enjoy GitS the comic.  For several reasons, but mainly its inability to marry its heady ideas with its characters; in a meta way – and I’d stray from belief that this was purposeful – the story itself was a “shell.”. When creator Masamune dis want to toss high-falutin’ robot versus human concepts at us, the nitty-gritty was pretty fascinating, but the way it was inserted into the story was not; it was like the high-schooler who memorizes a psychology textbook: In between nose-pickings and masturbation (i.e. high school) these flat, dense blocks of text are just espoused wholesale.  But the art was great.

I liked GitS the comic more than the movie, and in hindsight of both, can appreciate the originality of what Masamune constructed and further acknowledge its positives (though still standing by my tasting).  The blocks of text are now dialogue, and the OVA shares a notable look – the animation (in the few scenes where people move…) are stunning, and occasionally boring.  But the movie, under Oshii’s helm, decides to double down on the comic’s indulgences, and spreads out a relatively small section of the book (the Puppet Master) to 90 minutes, lightly weaving other scenes from the book into the storyline through entirely uninteresting machinations  – in the way the comic is mostly unconnected cases, the movie features, briefly, other cases, then mutters something about some character being tied to what’s going on – then filling the moments in between with people staring into the distance, occasionally blurting some spew about cyborg life.  There is so little that actually “matters” to the movie on screen that it’s almost insulting, and it renders any need to know who is doing what and why pointless, as you can just wait for the final ten minutes for it to be exposited.  The journey to get there hardly matters.

I don’t mind a slow movie.  There is a beauty to GitS, and its dreamlike, wandering structure, stitched together with punctuations of violence and am arresting soundtrack, is, from a distance, entrancing.  But – again, like the comic – when someone pops up with some words to say it feels like a fake-out; it feels entirely separate from what we’re watching.  So I don’t mind a slow movie, but I want that slowness to feel like it’s part of a cohesive whole – an integral part of the movie – whereas here it felt like padding.  And if I have to jump to super cynical mode, it makes me suspect that the movie’s notableness derives from the gorgeous animation and arresting violence during its standout scenes (where people actually move), its nude-suited lead character, and then that its sprinkled with five seconds of AI mumbo jumbo for the intelligentsia.  Did you see that Japanese flick?  I’m fuckin’ cultured, y’all.

…Stepping back from that precipe which prompts such ideological spitting, here’s the brief movie synopsis I always forget to open with: Ghost in the Shell posits a future in which being a cyborg is a pretty common state, with some humans all cybernetic excepting their brain and skull.  One such cyborg – Major Matoko – leads police unit Section 6, which investigates tech crimes, though I dont think that’s explicitly mentioned.  Several cases seem to tie into something dubbed The Puppet Master, which appears to be a rogue AI capable of stepping into humans (the shell) and overriding their ‘ghosts,’ or souls.  Matoko and Section 6 need to track down this Puppet Master and understand its end game.

Sounds potentially exciting.  Take that synopsis and boil it down to about ten minutes of related screentime, then fill the rest with silence.

Obviously I didn’t care for Ghost in the Shell, to the extent that I’m skeptical of irs general reception.  Some of it’s problems stem from the source material, which shared a similar need to suddenly wax technical / philosophical without much precedent, but the book at least had characters to invest in.  The movie ditches that, assuming that ‘meaning’ can be inherited by just looking longingly at it.

In a world where I was the first one to see this movie, I might give it one star.  But I’m letting some historical bias seep in: viewed purely visually, GitS is absorbing.  If it were playing on a screen in the background somewhere, I would absolutely be distracted.  It’s poetic.  But it completely fails to marry that with content when you turn the volume up.