Review: Ghost in the Shell - a cyborg in search of a soulScarlett Johansson provides a compelling focal point for sci-fi thriller
There's no two ways about it: Scarlett Johansson is not Asian. This hard fact has not eluded the internet malcontents, who rose as one to denounce her casting as 'The Major' in Ghost in the Shell. However, some manga fans were delighted by a film star of Johansson's status being cast in a classic Japanese fantasy.
Meanwhile, the film is upon us, a $120m sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic city where the line between man and machine has completely broken down. When the Major comes to in a hi-tech medical facility, she has no idea who she is or where she came from, and is horrified to discover that she's trapped inside an entirely synthetic super body.
A kindly doctor (Juliette Binoche) explains that she was the victim of a sea accident that claimed both her parents and left her orphaned and almost dead. Her body could not be saved but her brain could, and her new outer shell has turned her into a fearsome warrior.
She accepts her fate and begins working with Section 9, an elite unit of covert crime fighters who hunt the hackers and cyber terrorists that haunt the fringes of this brave new world.
It's led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), a wily sage who dispenses intermittent pearls of wisdom, and head of their hit list is Kuze (Michael Pitt), a terrorist who has been murdering key scientists from the Hanka Robotics corporation.
It's Hanka who saved the Major from oblivion, and she feels duty bound to defend them. But the more she investigates Kuze's case, the less sense it makes.
Meanwhile she's having problems of her own, most worryingly a series of "glitches" which take the form of incongruous visions. Are these illusions, or memories of a forgotten life?
The original concept of Masamune Shirow's 1989 graphic novel was ingenious, even profound, and used the Major's story to investigate the nature of existence and the ethical pitfalls that robotic advances may yet create. Not all of those high themes have survived this latest adaptation, which values mood and visual aesthetic more than lofty concepts.
The futuristic Asian city the Major and co inhabit is haunted at night by giant, floating, three-dimensional adverts, a tacit acknowledgement of the film's debt to Blade Runner.
It's pretty well designed for all that, and Scarlett's cyber body is splendidly created: when called to action she sheds her clothes and goes into battle in her synthetic buff, making her seem like some sort of avenging robot feminist.
Johansson has reinvented herself as a sci-fi specialist in recent years, and is excellent here as the automaton with a troubled soul. She's the compelling focal point of a film that might otherwise have drowned in a sea of effects, and Juliette Binoche and Takeshi Kitano more than hold their own in the scenes they share with her. Kitano's performance is especially satisfying, and he cuts a dash when he rolls up his sleeves and joins the battle.
Unfortunately, the Major is otherwise surrounded by one-dimensional acolytes who never emerge as fully rounded characters.
Charismatic Danish actor Pilou Asbaek is badly served by his thinly drawn character, who - despite his best efforts -never rises above the status of henchman.
The science is interesting, but hastily sketched: practically everyone has had a prosthetic improvement of some sort or another, but we never really find out how it all works.
Scarlett, though, holds the whole enterprise together, even when it all goes a bit bananas towards the end. And one scene in which she meets an old lady, who seems eerily familiar, reminds us just how good a screen actress she is.
Ghost in the Shell
Films coming soon...
Table 19 (Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant); Going in Style (Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine); Raw (Garance Marillier, Laurent Lucas); A Quiet Passion (Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle); A Dark Song (Catherine Walker).