Although it’s being marketed as the third Ghost in the Shell film, the acronym friendly GitS: S.A.C. – SSS is the most recent (feature-length) episode of the TV series Stand Alone Complex. Based on the same manga by Masamune Shirow that inspired Mamoru Oshii’s two movies, Solid State Society is confusingly being presented as a sequel, although for the casual viewer there are enough connections with the originals both in terms of theme and returning characters to justify this.
SSS is ostensibly a police procedural thriller concerning the special police department Section 9, which investigates cyber terrorism. They are looking into a string of suicides caused by a mysterious character called The Puppeteer who hacks into people’s cybernetic implants in order to control their actions. As such the film seems quite prescient in its interests – as Bluetooth phone attachments get ever smaller and people walk down city streets apparently talking to themselves it taps into some primal fears the more Luddite members of society might have about being controlled by their machines.
Renowned for combining mind-expanding philosophy and jaw-dropping visuals Oshii’s two Ghost movies can be seen as part of the trend of hallucinogenic science fiction running from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Fountain. Being a more faithful adaptation of Shirow’s manga, the TV series has had considerably more time to discuss in depth the various technophobic and technophilic interests of its author. However, while SSS taps into some of the same themes of existential identity crisis as the original Ghost movies, it gets bogged down by plot and technobabble of the kind that makes more narrow-minded audiences flee from sci-fi. What’s more, there’s a streak of misogyny evident in certain scenes where a cyborg girl with shrink-wrapped breasts fights a phallic robot drilling machine and another where a bedridden old man is cared for by nurses in S&M costumes. This is the opposite of Oshii’s movies, which debated the objectifying of women in society as ‘dolls’. While Oshii looked to cyberpunk literature for inspiration, this seems to be influenced by the lurid films of Paul Verhoeven with the drilling machine reminiscent of one from Total Recall and the clunky anthropomorphic battle robots looking like relatives of ED-209 from Robocop. Verhoeven can get away with turning Philip K Dick into camp body horror, but Oshii’s cool aesthetic is what gave Ghost in the Shell its transcendent nature, and it is very much missing here.
While the original films (particularily GitS 2: Innocence) can be confusing because they deal with complex ideas, SSS is confusing because of bad writing. When characters discuss the identity of The Puppeteer or the true nature of the Solid State Society, they just come across as that occasionally annoying person you watch a film with who hasn’t being paying attention to the plot. There is none of Oshii’s philosophical thoughtfulness here and half of the dialogue is simply filler padding out the running time of a shorter TV episode to feature length.
The music is catchy enough to encourage nascent fans of J-pop to go out and buy the album as it is the kind of jazz, trip-hop, funk fusion typical of composer Yoko Kanno who composed the sublime music for the animé series Cowboy Bebop.
Fans of sequels who can put up with the law of diminishing returns may enjoy this film and welcome a return visit to the Ghost in the Shell universe, but if you’re new to the series stick with the much superior original movies instead.