-Review by Paul Ewbank-
When Larry and Andy Wachowski met film producer Joel Silver to discuss the look and style of their new film idea, The Matrix, they showed him the animated film Ghost in the Shell and said “we wanna do that, but for real”. Judging by the finished product, they did just that. I, like most people, probably saw The Matrix long before I knew what Ghost in the Shell was, meaning that the latter will inevitably be viewed with a sense of familiarity and déjà-vu that it doesn’t really deserve. Nonetheless, Ghost in the Shell is still an incredibly good film, rightly hailed as a landmark in animation and cyberpunk fiction. As well as the original 1995 version, a ‘2.0’ updated version of the film was released in 2008 with new visuals using the latest CGI techniques. In this review I’ll attempt to explain why Ghost in the Shell is so damn good and why you need to see it, and then answer the question of which is the better version. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the new one.
Comparisons to the Matrix, Neuromancer and a whole host of other dystopian cyberpunk classics are pretty inevitable when viewing Ghost in the Shell for the first time, and the film does indeed share the aesthetic and visual reference points of most of those works- leather clad badasses, dreary run down cities and a whole load of tinted sunglasses- as well as a certain philosophical obsession with reality and the fusion of technology and the human mind. Ghost in the Shell follows Major Kusanagi and her Section 9 agents as they attempt to uncover the identity of the mysterious Puppet Master who has been using cyberspace to hack into people’s minds and control their actions. Though relatively short, the film manages to include two kick-ass action scenes, some fairly hard to follow detective work, shady government deals and a whole load of existential musings. Most of these come from Kusanagi herself, who at first appears to be your archetypal smokin’ hot anime action babe but is quickly revealed to be a cyborg- her body is almost entirely mechanical with a human mind and soul inserted. As the Puppet Master’s schemes progress she begins to doubt her own humanity and whether there even is a ‘ghost’ in her metal shell at all.
Aside from these reflections on technology, life and death, Ghost in the Shell also takes the time to mess with your expectations of an anime film. Within the opening scene Kusanagi strips off for no real reason, the first of many cases of full frontal nudity in the film. But what appears initially to be rather blatant fanservice ends up being just the opposite; during the opening credits we see Kusanagi being eerily rebuilt from metal components into a human figure, and her generally flat, listless tone, lack of social awareness and the way her body moves in ways it just shouldn’t mean that she ends up being more creepy than attractive. This deliberate dip into the uncanny valley is explored in other ways, too, and the idea of consciousnesses inhabiting other people’s bodies allows for some especially disturbing sights; near the end we see Kusanagi’s voice coming from the body of a pre-adolescent schoolgirl, and at one point the puppet master inhabits the head and limbless torso of a beautiful blonde cyborg. His deep male voice coming from the female body is extremely jarring and some clever shadowing contorts his/her face in rather spooky ways. The idea of finding animated characters attractive has always been pretty suspect, and Ghost in the Shell is fearless in its deconstruction. Other ideas looked at include alienation, loss of identity and the next step of human evolution. It’s all done very well, and squeezed into a very streamlined running time, and underpinned by a dissonant, menacing score and dark, grimy visuals.
The biggest problem Ghost in the Shell faces is that when viewed in 2013 a lot of its ideas and points feel fairly standard. Cyberspace, cyborgs and the like are pretty much the bread and butter of a whole lot of science fiction and whilst Ghost in the Shell may have been one of the first examples to really nail it, and certainly the first anime to tackle such weighty concepts so well, it will offer little in the way of new insight to a modern audience. The 2.0 version’s attempts to modernize the film are unfortunately unsuccessful. Mixing the old anime with then-cutting edge CGI was a plausible idea, but whereas the traditionally animated sequences still retain their timeless quality, the CGI seems incredibly dated even 5 years later. It’s worth a watch but the original is still the definitive version by a long way. And though it lacks a certain visceral punch or newness, Ghost in the Shell succeeds on the strength of its design; it’s a well thought out, brilliantly visualised story with engaging characters, superb action and real depth. A sequel was made in 2004 and a separate anime TV show was produced in 2002 which I really want to see. Unfortunately not as mind-blowing as it probably once was, Ghost in the Shell is still a great film which has all the elements you would expect but gets them all amazingly right.