Among the more difficult things to realize in life is that change is slow, and accepting things that deviate from expectations isn’t always a quick or easy process.
The themes of change and expectation deviation permeate the recent reboot of the 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell, and animated film that follows the military android Major Motoko Kusanagi. In an almost fully roboticized shell, with only very few parts of her body still human, the Major spends her off-mission hours musing about the nature of humanity and ghosts, while relying almost wholly on her robotic strength, agility, durability, and capabilities to succeed in her missions.
These same sentiments occupy almost all of the thoughts of the reboot’s protagonist Major Miria Killian, an American refugee who found herself drowned prior to being saved and transformed into a prototype, almost entirely cybernetically enhanced shell. Her new body, though very powerful by non-enhanced standards, has left her little memory of her life before. This body and the Major herself are given over to Section 9, a governmental agency, on loan from Hanku Robotics. Despite her position, the Major is constantly struggling with her self-perceived disconnect from the outside world, leaving others to labor at length to emphasize that she is not her body, but her ghost, the spirit of humanity preserved by her entirely human brain.
Being a prototype, and a very early one at that, Major Killian’s body is subject to constant check-ups, maintenance for decidedly minor battlefield damage, and requires constant medication to stave off audio-visual glitches which manifest from her organic brain rejecting her new, synthetic parts. In the context of action scenes, this means that while she doesn’t seem to perceive or react to mild damage, she is almost profoundly vulnerable as compared to how she feels.
As time passes, and members of the Major’s medical team at Hanku come under attack from a mysterious figure named Kuze, and glitches in Killian’s perceptions become more and more frequent. Throughout all of this, the Major’s almost foolhardy approach to aggressive and direct action lands the Chief Aramaki of Section 9 under vague threats from Mr. Cutter, the head of the robotics manufacturer.
The setup and timeframe for these events means that both Major Killian and Section 9 have independent but related conflicts, both of which share screentime as the plot unravels and weaves itself to reunite Aramaki and the Major’s goals. The biggest tragedy of this shared screentime is that Section 9 itself—in no small part due to its history with several manga, film, and series adaptations—already has a rich mythology of personalities and conflicts that struggle to find any major purpose as compared to the recent film’s protagonist, whose motivations themselves are remarked upon more by the supporting cast than she herself. Major Killian is remote and seemingly aloof when placed next to any character save her partner Batou, and even those brief flashes of humanity seem just a little too muted to give her character enough room to carry the emotional burdens of the plot. Section 9, meanwhile, has a wealth of opportunity but little room to stretch its legs.
Given enough time, the Major’s internal struggles and her external efforts at coping with the components of her inhumanity could themselves make for a compelling narrative, completely unrelated to the plots of Cutters and Kuzes and crimes. But none of that time is granted to the film. Instead, the Major’s internal feelings may inform many of her actions in ways the audience is forced to either assume or misunderstand, and even those actions whose motivations are readily apparent hardly feel like they’ve been given enough weight to be as pressing as they are. Those whole experience feels a little hurried without the pace ever feeling rushed, as though there are story beats skipped for the sake of a brevity never acknowledged or needed. Major Killian’s change from refugee to impulsive operative—or even how or why she ended up in Section 9—was never given time, so everything that follows seems to just happen, rather than happening for the reasons that were almost assuredly there.
Likewise, Section 9 as an organization seems to have the Major’s back for reasons of sentimentality, but one rarely shown. Her emotional vulnerability is only ever acknowledged by Batou and the chief, and the other operatives were mentioned by name but given little more than a handful of sentences. Their motivations for their own behaviors, such as becoming cybernetically enhanced themselves, are remarked in ways that felt like they would lead somewhere. They don’t. Instead, Section 9 had the Major’s back for unstated reasons, and their personalities such as they could have been were left more to imagination than inference.
For all of its absences in the main plot, Ghost in the Shell is unapologetically beautiful. Though many of its best scenes are adapted almost shot-for-shot from its animated counterparts, there isn’t a moment in this film where the visual splendor feels phoned in or undervalued. Lights, darks, holographic advertisements, sweeping aerial pans, underwater vistas, dim clubs, and crowded streets are all given laborious attention to detail. Even awash with all of the colors and crowds, none of the scenes get drowned in sensory overload. Instead, all that’s left is shot after shot of lovingly crafted material, perhaps a tiny bit loud, but not at all dishonest to how a crowded city street or market would look even without the holographic advertisements or neon lights.
Unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell loses a lot of the magic that made the beautiful shots of the animated film feel as meaningful as they did the first time around. Without the haunting soundtrack and quiet time to muse over the implications of ghosts, shells, and the humanity that seems lost between, the goings on never nail the landing. Hanku Robotic’s very American military industrial complex ethos, atmosphere, and command structure feels out-of-place in the very Asian scenery. The cohesion between the central cast feels entirely lost, where a Japanese-speaking chief gives orders to English-speaking American, Danish, English, Singaporean, and Australian operatives. This team, though apparently skilled and talented to merit the organization they’re a part of, never gets the chance to showcase anything more than a handful of sentences.
Which leaves Ghost in the Shell feeling like a finished but unconsidered film beneath a beautiful surface. Major Killian feels a little too impulsive to carry the narrative she has rested on her shoulders, her peers and superiors are given a lot of narrative opportunity but little screentime with which to accomplish it, and the central villains all feel brusque, aggressive, and resultingly one-dimensional. The relative youth of cybernetics means some of the cybernetics required of the plot events and scenes lifted from the animated weirdly out-of-place and convenient rather than as a result of a world that’s bursting at the seems with technological novelty. The Major’s prototype body is powerful, but inconsistently so, which can be damaged from a single round but successfully shield another from an explosion or knock bruisers through the air with general ease. Many of these moments are thanks to a source material set in a slightly different place in the lore’s timeline, but their preserved purpose means that things that things felt under-considered.
As a result, Ghost in the Shell exists in a weird space. For fans, there are a lot of seemingly arbitrary changes to support a conflict that feels unworthy of the material it’s put alongside. For curious onlookers, the visual splendor is supported only partially by a plot that has more moving parts than it uses. For watchers in between, it’s an enigma of a film that’s a decent way to pass an hour and a half, but clearly has potential it never taps.