Even for those who haven't seen the original Ghost in the Shell, it's pretty easy to pick up what's going on as cyborg future cop Batou plunges into the strange neutral zone between humanity and machine in a future where the definition of neither is certain. He pines for his lost love and former partner, referred to as The Major, who at the end of the previous installment left her body for good and became a part of the electronic ether - a ghost in the shell - and has not been heard from since. Batou's own grip on humanity is shaky at best, as he's a full-conversion cyborg who looks human but is brimming underneath with armor, weapons systems and a tactical computer brain that looks at everything as a potential target.
The plot kicks in as Batou and his new partner investigate a series of murders of high-profile individuals at the hands of their "gynoids" - female androids built for sexual pleasure. Their search takes them across a bewildering array of different worlds, including Yakuza holdouts, an ancestral mansion where reality itself is questionable, electronic no-man's-lands and a floating fortress.
Haunting and evocative, the animation (by the same crew that provided the animated sequences of Kill Bill) is a stunning blend of CGI and traditional cel animation. At times, especially early in the film, the mix is clunky and awkward, but around the half-hour mark, when it really cuts loose with broad futuristic vistas, it is nothing short of breathtaking. The movie takes its time establishing place with long tracking shots of luscious technofutures constructed with countless layers of detail. Director Mamoru Oshii doesn't skimp on the action, either. Two extensive action scenes, particularly the nail-biting final infiltration, match up with anything John Woo or Quentin Tarantino have ever put on screen.
Though only rated PG-13, the themes are pure adult, pondering the nature of what it means to be human. Make no mistake; this is a grim, grim movie that makes its live-action antecedent Blade Runner seem a laugh riot by comparison.