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Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

The 20th anniversary of the original Ghost in the Shell shouldn't go unnoticed. Considered one of the greatest Anime films of all time, Ghost in the Shell burst into the Japanese film market 20 years ago with its groundbreaking visuals, flawless mix of computerized and traditional animation, and deep blending of the police procedural with philosophical thought. In short, it told the story of cyborg police officers in the future--"cyborg" being a loose term, since many of them were nothing more than robots with a human consciousness.  Focusing specifically on Major Motoko Kusanagi, the film dealt with these cops confronting cyber-crimes and discovering deep, disturbing questions about what it means to be human in a post-human society. The original film spawned a sequel and a television series, followed by a semi-rebooted prequel with the Ghost in the Shell: Arise series. The latest offering--now arriving in U.S. theaters just in time for the 20th anniversary of the original--is set in the Arise timeline.  So how does it hold up for fans of the original?

As somebody who hasn’t seen any of the sequels, I can fairly say that I didn’t find this inaccessible at all. Fans of Arise will enjoy this film as a clear continuation of its predecessor. However, there’s no major continuity points that require you to be familiar with Arise to any extent. Additionally, the Arise timeline isn’t so dramatically different from the original film that you’ll be confused as to the differences between them. In fact, without spoiling any major plot points, the final scenes of The New Movie mimics the opening moments of the original 1995 film, implying that this film is effectively a prequel to the original even if it’s in a rebooted continuity. Honestly, the only major distinction is that Kusanagi’s visual design is slightly different from the original series with her hair being shorter and a deeper shade of purple.  The few other characters from the original series still look and sound like themselves, even with a different voice cast from the original.

The difficulty with this movie is the plot, which is much thicker that the original 1995 film’s story. The original Ghost in the Shell was comparatively simpler to follow: a police investigation into a series of cyber crimes uncovers the mastermind’s shocking identity and motivations. In the process, the film touched on deeper questions about what it means to be human in a cybernetic world, where memories can be altered as easily as a computer program. Kusanagi, despite being human, is arguably little more than human consciousness reduced to digitized form. If her memories can be duplicated, changed, or merged with another’s, is she still herself? What defines human identity when memories and consciousness can become so fluid? What worked well in the original Ghost in the Shell was that these questions were incident to the plot, which was overall easy to understand. It left you a lot to chew on when the film was over.

In comparison, the overall story in The New Movie is considerably more complex. Set in the relatively early days of cybernetic advancement, the story opens with Kusanagi’s police team intervening in a hostage situation which turns out to be a distraction from the assassination of Japan’s Prime Minister which is simultaneously happening on the other side of town. The attackers apparently have deep connections to Kusanagi’s own origins as a cyborg, and she’s forced to investigate her own past in learning who was behind the attacks and why. Honestly, I’ll say this: the plot is thick. Viewers are going to have to pay close attention to every detail that’s mentioned in the ensuing investigation to understand who’s behind everything and what their motivations are.

Along the way, the film once again dips into those philosophical issues which drove the original so well: what does it mean to be human in a cybernetic world? If the first film’s main point was to deal with identity, this latest installment touches on security. Cybernetics sounds fun, until you consider some of the more disturbing implications which this film forces upon the viewer. How do cyborgs deal with obsolescence when their parts wear out and are no longer replaceable? Who pays for your repairs and upgrades, and at what cost? Kusanagi has the benefit of effectively being owned by a police outfit–her repairs will come as a benefit of her purpose. However, cyborgs who lose their purpose–as with the ex-military outfit which leads the hostage situation in the film’s opening–are left directionless and often turn to suicide.

The philosophical questions are somewhat unconnected to the plot. The film raises them, but the main characters never really confront them. This problem is, amusingly, illustrated by a scene in which Kusanagi is eating a “cyborgs only” sandwich–not really taking the time to consider the implications of being dependent upon a specific manufactured food in order to survive. One of the ultimate questions the film confronts is whether a cyborg’s consciousness can survive when its body dies–in effect, whether cyborgs go to heaven. Kusanagi’s role as a straight-man police officer prevents her from going deeper into these issues. As a cop, her purpose is to identify the mission and confront it; she doesn’t have time for philosophy. At least in the first movie, she was directly forced to confront some of those issues in the film’s memorable climax.

That problem aside–the animation, visuals, and music are all a delight to look at. Stylistically, The New Movie is no different than the first film, although improvements in computer animation in the last 20 years are used to the film’s advantage here. Even if you’re distracted by the plot, the film is visually a masterpiece and a worthy successor to the original in that regard. If the film’s action sequences bring The Matrix films to mind, it’s a good time to remind yourself that the Wachowskis were heavily influenced by the original Ghost in the Shell and not the other way around. If you like Asian technopunk action with tense synthetic musical scores, then this movie is definitely for you.

Overall, for fans of the original movie, The New Movie (despite its unimaginative title) is worth viewing. It might be worth a second viewing if only to make sense of the convoluted plot, but giving it a go at least once is worthwhile.

Rating: Three and a half cyber-sandwiches out of five.

About Adam Frey (372 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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