Ghost in the Shell (1995)

A fantastic, thoughtful, very atmospheric cyberpunk film.

It’s obvious from pretty early on just how much later works of science-fiction (particularly “The Matrix”) have taken and adapted from this film (of course, it also owes a legacy to works like “Neuromancer” and “Blade Runner”), but the film absolutely retains a very specific, unique sense I haven’t seen replicated anywhere else. That unique vibe is down to a few elements – the arresting score by Kenji Kawai, approaching typical cyberpunk concerns through the lens of biological reproduction, and the high focus on atmosphere above plot, to the point where the film feels outright languid and unhurried at points.

There’s a specific moment, around a third through the film, where it basically pauses to do an extended montage of the city that lasts for a few minutes. This was remarkable to me not just because of the very impressive animation and visuals, but as a signifier of the director’s approach. It reminded me of “Blade Runner” more than anything else, in just how disinterested it was in rushing through its plot, and how much more interested it was in exploring the world and the concerns within it. The action scenes suddenly seemed to me not the key material, the important plot scenes, but just one among a long list of ways the film explores its world and concerns.

Those concerns are pretty interesting. A lot of the ideas the film raises have the inevitable “been there, done that” vibe now, which just comes with following the genre, but as the film moves towards its conclusion, it begins to wrap around a more specific view. Instead of just the standard cyberpunk questions about identity and belonging, things morph to a much more specific view concerning gender and reproduction. The protagonist, the Major, suddenly comes into sharper focus – both her earlier reference to menstruation (cut, oddly, from the English dub, but present in the subtitles and original audio), her blasé attitude towards nudity, the way her outfit often looked like a naked body anyway, and so on.

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The Major’s earlier speech to her friend and coworker Batou about the need for divergences, even inefficient ones, from the ideal and norm suddenly snaps into focus in the context of not just human cloning and reproduction, but digital organisation of data as well. The script neatly seeds ideas in easier-to-understand situations early on in the film, so some of the more esoteric events and situations later in the film make more sense. The film never dollops out information in an overly expository way though, it’s all done in ways that make sense for the characters and feels natural enough. I was quite surprised (and impressed) by how the film never stops to explain its jargon, expecting viewers to pick up the meanings of terms through context clues.

Although many aspects of the film have been replicated, it retains a very unique approach I haven’t really seen elsewhere. I really liked the whole aesthetic and vibe of it, but also the restraint and deft hand behind everything. I give it four ghosts, and (what else?) a shell.

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