Ghost in the Shell 2.0

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 ★★★

Most reviews here are focused on how this is different from the original release, but what if you're watching this for the first time? The fact is that for someone getting into anime these days, if they want to check out this staple of the genre then this version is the only good transfer available on blu-ray. So let's get into it.

That iconic opening scene, pictured on the poster. The original release crashed through cultural barriers and preconceptions with a cyberpunk riot of ideas mixed up with cool titillation and taut action. Agents are in place around a futuresque skyscraper, listening in on a meeting and clearly setting up a sting. There is political and technological babble we can't keep up with, but our attention is rooted to the female figure perched atop the building, waiting for the word go.

When she gets the call, she pauses briefly, and when her on-the-ground robot-eyed colleague questions her on it, she quips that she had some cyberstatic and "it must be that time of the month". She then drops her coat, which hangs briefly on her nipples before falling to reveal a slim naked figure with no genitals. 'What is she?' the audience wonders, staring at her gunbelt garters and overt sexualization as she drops off the edge of a building to engage in a bit of political assassination. Some fluid, graphically violent action later, she drops again, her skin animated with an effect we could (in '95) only compare to The Predator...

The opening scene of this film tells you everything that's coming, both the bad and the good. Long, dense exposition alternates with incredible animation to give the film a feeling of highs and lows. This is a 1995 Japanese vision of what an empowered woman looks like: independent and physically powerful, yet still sexualized and answering to men. This scene also features heavy use of updated (in 2008) computer graphics cut into the animation and, while it looks good on its own, it's jarring in combination. This is Ghost in the Shell. This is 2.0. You're on board or not right here.

This opening prologue is actually the epilogue to Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie, part of the ARISE series. I decided to watch the whole ARISE series of films first as they basically work as an origin series that sets up this movie. The characters are a bit younger there, and as it's more of a TV budget, designs are a bit simpler. Otherwise, it's pretty consistent with this and works really well to set up a lot of the ideas crammed into this film. I highly recommend the 1-hour origin film at least, which I reviewed here:

That's followed by four more films roughly the same length, and then a big, gorgeous full-length theatrical movie. I also really recommend that as I think it comes together a lot better than this one does: The epilogue there leads seamlessly into this except that
A. Chief Aramaki appears to have aged a fair bit here (though I imagine some time passing between this opening scene and the rest of the film), and
B. A couple of the team members built up in ARISE don't appear here. This is much more limited in scope, really focusing mostly on Chief Aramaki giving orders to our heroine, Major Kusanagi, who is backed up by her partner, Batou.

Much of this feels a lot more like an old skool cop film than the top level government espionage team in ARISE. While personally I think ARISE makes a lot more sense, let's not play favorites and just say that this one is more influenced by Blade Runner whereas that's more influenced by Mission Impossible. I will say that, like Blade Runner, this one gets so crammed with philosophical waxing that a lot of people probably tune out those speeches and focus on the imagery and action. And this is actually some of the MOST accessible of director Mamoru Oshii's work. While some cinephiles acclaim him as an auteur, I doubt many have dug into his extensive filmography of experimental failures. He's not a guy that has many more slam dunk successes like this was, that's for sure.

I have to think part of that is the sexual draw of Kusanagi. I think her opening quip about her body is meant to be a bit of witty distancing on her part, that she doesn't really think of herself in terms of her body. She's fairly reckless with it here, and the denouement of this film suggests she thinks of "self" differently than we might. But the way this is directed is definitely pandering to fans of original author Masumune Shirow's work, which nearly always features partially nude young anime ladies. 1995 was, after all, a time when there really weren't many girls into comics or anime especially, which may be hard to conceive of now.

So, this film was made with a different target audience in mind than the newer ARISE, which handles things much better in my opinion. The ARISE series lets Motoko struggle with finding balance in having a sense of self without having a sense of ownership over one's own body. It dives into what reproduction is, what pleasure is, what intimacy is when you're a cyborg. And it has Kusanagi calling the shots on her own strike team, a cantankerous relationship with Aramaki that recalled to me the dynamics of Miami Vice, with an embedded team who knew more than their Captain and had to make calls on their own. In ARISE, there's simply a lot more agency for Motoko, and a lot less exploitation.

Where this film really benefits from having watched that series first though is in the reams of ideas. I found watching Ghost in the Shell to be pretty heady and dense back in '95 because it has a lot of ideas and it delivers them in intense packets. However, pretty much all of these ideas are already explored in ARISE, so there's very little to get lost in by the time you watch this. Digital "ghosts"? Body-hacking? Fabricated memories? Fake images? Internet-mobile AI? Done, done, and done. I think the script here by Kazunori Ito doesn't do as good a job of delivering the dialogue in a natural, comprehensible way compared to ARISE, though. The writer there, novelist Tow Ubukata, actually creates a denser plot with more players, a la Patriot Games. Those films suffer the burden of explanation that this one mostly doesn't even bother with, but the net effect is that this becomes comparably breezy to watch.

I wonder if this becomes almost a case like Star Wars, where those who watched the Original Trilogy back in tha day have a hard time with the Prequels. But I know a lot of people (often younger or from other countries) who watched the Prequel Trilogy first and actually preferred it when they saw the OT. If you watch the ARISE series before this, does the original Ghost in the Shell still have the same impact? It didn't for me. While it's still a good, engaging film, the imbalance of it was so clear to me this time. The animation by Production I.G. was still stunning, but it was used for these long, music video filler sequences that didn't move the story anywhere. Oshii also makes a real choice with the score, but it seems like such an intentional callback to Akira rather than something that really fits THIS movie.

Then there's the fact that we're watching the 2.0 version. The CG is mixed in with seemingly little rhyme or reason, and I just couldn't get behind it. Where they use it to replace the original computer screens shown in the film is fine. But they also use it to replace all the flying vehicles, as well as Motoko herself in several scenes. The original animation holds up fine, so this change isn't worth the Dolby 6.1 sound remastering that goes with it. And despite the new voice recorded for The Puppet Master (it was, rather confusingly before, a male voice), there are also several bits of scenes that help establish them and give context now clipped out of this version. It's all so unnecessary.

All-in-all, if you haven't watched Ghost in the Shell and it sounds the ARISE series. But if you're STILL interested and can't get ahold of the original film, then check this out. It's not a stain on the Earth as some people would say, and the original film is still good, even with a rather unsatisfying ending.

Jeff liked this review