JKM’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of the great tragedies of Blade Runner--an obvious, but essential point of comparison to this--lies within the dissonance of a detective with nothing to offer, exercising relentless brutality without ever being acknowledged. A stillborn moral ambiguity is generated, distinctly resultant of its own context and, yet, inconsequential because of it. The grim hunt that pits man against machine is rendered perfunctory by the chugging bustle of its world's economy, manifested by a city where nobody ever sleeps and the sun never rises. The film presents a Kafkaesque society, complicating sentiment and empathy before disposing of them entirely, while still deeming the viewer a pedestrian, left to witness the visceral displays of terror, desire, and awe that beat underneath the rain and concrete, personhood already defeated yet functioning all the same.
Scott's film displays a devastating dystopia, but Oshii's Ghost in the Shell represents the abyss that lies at the end of Blade Runner's rainbow of emotion, extracting all the arteries and replacing them with wires. Here, conflict is economy. The film skirts around amoral--a term too often confused with sadism and cruelty--never demonstrating self-awareness nor offering an intimate glance to the viewer. It simply, dutifully plays, images flowing from one to the next, entirely unconcerned with its audience's ability to grasp, follow, or relate to its contents. The plot isn't ambiguous--really, it's rather straight-forward--but its events are consistently obscured by dense, deadpan conversations, many of which fly off tangentially and drift into the distance.
Bodily sensations simply do not register. A man can get slammed against the ground and roll back up within seconds to be interrogated. Everybody is a replicant here and, yet, some more so than others. Major tears off limbs, jumps off of buildings, and repossesses another body without blinking once. Pain is incidental, perhaps nonexistent, as is sexuality (the lack of genitals). Caught between story and society, Deckard was everything but nothing. Major is the total inverse, fulfilling every duty without leaving a trace of an emotional imprint. She has been enhanced to the purity of function, missions being endlessly assigned and completed. She only shows recognizably human behavior when discussing the technology that she has ingrained into her identity with Batou, but even this intimate conversation is haunted by the possibility that it is a performance by an algorithm, calculating the correct facial features necessary for a sufficient imitation.
The story ignores its political context and concerns itself with mere fulfillment, but how Oshii crafts around that conceit, doubling down on expository conversations and brilliant demonstrations of dominance, transforms the film into an empathetic experience; however, the perspective presented is unrecognizable and inscrutable. The film offers the shoes of a higher being, a star child, a melding of myself and the computer I'm writing this on; but they cannot be stepped into, much like Cinderella's glass slipper. Characters interact in a manner beyond our immediate grasp. Their nonsensical cadences, hopelessly entangled in sci-fi Proper Nouns, baffle and bemuse, but conversations are so blunt that nothing is discussed for long, and the film ends up clocking in at a swift 78 minutes.
And yet, that glass slipper still has the appearance of a shoe, waiting to be filled by the viewer's foot. I keep returning to the montage of the metropolis in the middle of the film. It is the only sequence where the film pauses, but it doesn't seem to ponder. It's dead space, a hazy gaze outward occurring while awaiting the arrival at the next narrative event, much like staring out the window on the bus. The portions of the city seen are either decrepit or vacuous. Gray, windowless skyscrapers erupt from flooded streets, while posters of an indeterminable age sit on walls for nobody. It is a dead, unappealing place, yet it remains incidental, the dilapidated air serving as a polar opposite to Major's sleek, acrobatic capabilities. But the montage haunts me, its aesthetic features echoing current civilization, representing a modern landscape that was enhanced, nurtured, and abandoned once humans no longer had to live outside their ever-updating bodies, leaving the less privileged to accumulate in slums.
This sequence is what withholds the film from being wholly alien, a brief moment of extended harmony between myself and a world existing dimensions beyond this one. Its relatability could tease and betray, but its riveting banality is genuine: a truthful moment reflecting the imperfections that persist in an inimitable society. It renders Major, consistently framed as a deity until this point, as an extension of modern humanity, transforming her into something recognizable without sacrificing her hyper-competence. Immortality becomes an evolution of mortality, and an impenetrable film becomes a puzzle box. Of course, there is the chance that none of these thoughts are utilizable in the long-term. I have spent ten times as much time thinking about Ghost in the Shell as I have watching it. The only thing I remain entirely convinced of is that is by design.