Ghost in the Shell

Sometimes, it's difficult to be the one standing out in the crowd saying that the emperor has no clothes. You'd think that reviewers would get a tough skin about this, since every film, no matter how bad, has its fans. But it's more difficult than you might think to smack on a title others love--hate mail has few rewards. One such review I wrote a couple years back was for the much-ballyhooed Ghost in the Shell. A popular manga series from Masamune Shirow converted to film by Mamoru Oshii, the picture was a huge hype machine when it arrived in America, and it has since spawned a new series called GITS: Stand Alone Complex. Unfortunately, the film just didn't live up to the rave notices it received.

Now that the hype has settled down and the hate mail has all been swept under the doormat, I've taken another look at Oshii's Ghost in the Shell, this time on DVD in 5.1 Dolby Digital. I have to say I'm a little more impressed this time around, but only on the surface. Ghost in the Shell is incredibly beautiful, and the immersive soundtrack can get the adrenaline going. It almost gets you past the plot holes, the painfully dull stretches, and the artwork that compromises Shirow's beautiful designs. But those still remain, and Ghost in the Shell still isn't a great film, regardless of what you've heard.

The story revolves around Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cybernetic beauty who's more cyborg than human, who takes her team into pursuit of an illusory being known as the Puppet Master. In this near future, most everyone has cybernetic implants that let them plug directly into the 'Net, and the Puppet Master has found out how to crack through the layers of protection and directly access users' "ghosts"--the essence and soul that makes them who they are. Although the Puppet Master appears malicious, not all is as it seems, especially not when the government gets involved. There are layers upon layers of conspiracies, all which will point Kusanagi back to one central question-what does it mean to be human?

Although regular readers know I watch virtually every film subtitled, if you have a DVD player with a surround sound system, I really encourage you to watch the 5.1 dub. I found I could really only fully immerse myself in the film this way--although I owned a subtitled videotape of the show, its murky colors and extensive text made things muddy and dull. The DVD is alive and vibrant even in the darkest scenes, and the remixed sound envelops you into the world of future Tokyo. This is a rare case where not having to read subtitles gets you deeper into noticing the details. On this viewing, I found the animation to be even more detailed and top-notch than I remembered. If you love animation regardless of storyline, then pop this baby in and enjoy the ride. It is simply beautiful. If you don't get too deep into the plot, you might also get a kick out of this futuristic story that owes a debt to Blade Runner.

I must admit that when I started watching this film again a couple days ago, blinded by its beautiful visuals and helicopters flying behind my head, I wondered if my original review had been off base. But when the movie was over, when I started looking back through it and seeing all the holes, I realized why it didn't work for me. It's in-between the lines that Ghost in the Shell starts to get downright creaky.

Although the dub makes a bit more sense than the sub version, many of the machinations around the Puppet Master lead nowhere in either one. There's a bunch of questions that come up from this thing's existence that are never answered properly. The ending rips off the ending of the film version of Akira, but transforms it from a bang into a whimper. The film's designs don't even hint at the splendor of Shirow's characters, destroying a lot of their inherent beauty. And though I've grown accustomed to Oshii's methodical approach to film, Ghost in the Shell still has passages that feel too slow. Virtually none of his films have action in them, and Ghost has quite a bit--and perhaps that's the problem. He gets us moving and then slows us down, and we wind up feeling like traffic stuck in rush hour driving into Los Angeles at 9:00am.

I've grown to like Mamoru Oshii's work a lot, and yet I just don't have much affection for Ghost in the Shell. I've known quite a few people who've gotten into anime as a result of this motion picture, and so it's not all bad, not by a long shot. But go into it with your eyes open, expecting an OK picture at best, and you'll do better than those of us who went in expecting the next revolution in anime and walked out sorely disappointed.

Ghost in the Shell -- extended non-sexual nudity, violence, adult language -- B-