Ghost in the Shell -- super-human, super-beautiful, super-violent
Set in a near-future world on the brink of the Technological Singularity, where high-tech enhancements to the human brain have become commonplace, the film deals with the next logical step -- transplanting a human brain into a mechanical body of human appearance but far greater than human capabilities. In this case, though, the cyborg thus created ("the Major") is intended for use as a superweapon against "terrorists", complete with false memories to provide motivation.
The best part of the movie is the visuals, which are amazing. The future urban setting is perfectly realized as a clean, bright, colorful anti-version of the dystopian world of Blade Runner, with giant animated billboards replaced by even more intrusive giant moving hologram advertisements, a sort of beautiful migraine of a city. It raises the issue that computer-enhanced brains might be subject to hacking just as computers are -- a problem more plausible, and scary, than the cliché of robot insurrection. It asks whether memory or behavior is the essence of identity (though it doesn't really answer the question). It also serves as a warning to technophobes who hope that the Singularity can be stopped by inhibiting technological progress -- it's obvious that in a world where some nations or groups embrace machine-brain enhancement, others which renounced it would be left in the dust, utterly unable to compete.
In this clip, the Major intervenes in an attack in progress:
It's not without flaws. How is a private company able to get away with murderous experiments on human subjects, and using hugely-destructive weapons in an urban environment? I also was confused at first whether the setting is China or Japan, since both languages appear on signage and the urban setting looks more like Hong Kong (where it was largely filmed) than like Japan.
It has surprised me a bit to see Ghost in the Shell compared with The Matrix, which it somewhat resembles aesthetically but far less thematically. It's more comparable with Blade Runner, which dealt with machines so humanlike that treating them as less than human raised daunting ethical problems. But it also reminded me of Robocop, an early (1987) effort to deal with the integration of mind and machine, with the integration being done in a similarly unethical manner. Ghost in the Shell also resembles Robocop in being full of highly-kinetic violence which tends to blast the philosophical issues right off the screen -- there are probably more shooting deaths in this movie than Japan actually has in a decade. Movies like this do do some service in the sense that brain-machine integration, and the blurring of the line between human and machine, are issues we will actually be confronting within a decade or two (whereas the universe turning out to be a computer-generated illusion probably isn't).
I should also address the most idiotic criticism of the film which has been making the rounds on the internet, which is the objection to a non-Asian actress (Scarlett Johansson, who does a great job) playing the Major, who is eventually revealed to be Japanese. What Johansson is portraying is an artificial body into which the brain of a Japanese person has been transplanted, which would not necessarily resemble that person's original human appearance (Mamoru Oshii, the director of an earlier anime film of the story, made the same point). Since the Major's implanted false memories include being a member of a family who arrived in Japan as refugees from elsewhere, it would make sense to give her artificial body a non-Japanese appearance to fit the memory. It's striking that several other major characters are also non-Japanese, and I'd be curious to know what nationality characters like Ouelet and Cutter were in the original story (if they were even in it), but it seems to be common in manga and anime to depict multinational teams of characters working in a future Japan (Silent Mobius being another example).
Finally, it seems odd that Ghost in the Shell is already being described as a box-office failure based on disappointing results within the US, when it seems to be doing better globally and hasn't even opened yet in Japan or China, probably the most promising markets for a film of this sort.
A minor point I found particularly satisfying occurs near the end. When the malignant Cutter's fate is in the Major's hands, she consents to his death without hesitation or phony moral qualms, asking only that he be told it is justice.
Here's an assessment by a critic more familiar with the source material:
I can kind of see, though, why it's not being well-received in the US. It's a bit too weird and doesn't really fit the standard action-movie formula. (Blade Runner, probably the greatest SF movie ever made, got mixed reviews and mediocre audience share when it opened here.) Given US ticket prices these days, people probably prefer not to take a chance on anything they're not already sure of. It's their loss, though.