Fears about the evolution of artificial intelligence underpin most cyborg stories, but Ghost in the Shell is a little different. Scarlett Johansson plays a human soul trapped inside an artificial body (and there’s certainly a lot of focus on the latter, with the star often stripped down to her synthetic skin), but it’s the identity crisis that stems from having a human brain that gives this kinetic, psychedelic thriller its pulse.
The casting of Johansson as special ops agent Major (aka Motoko Kusanagi) has also prompted a lot of talk about Hollywood “whitewashing”. Given the film is based on a hugely popular manga series, why not cast a Japanese actress in the part?
Of course, the answer is obvious. Johansson is a movie star with global appeal and that’s what is needed here. When we first meet Major awakening in her “shell”, she is a stranger in her own body, and is machine-like in her movement and emotional responses. Only a certain type of A-list charisma can rise above the robotic tics – the way Arnold Schwarzenegger did in The Terminator.
British director Rupert Sanders (who previously conjured a dark fairy tale world in Snow White and the Huntsman) does still give the film a strong Japanese sensibility, not only in the use of native dialogue but also in the look of New Port City. It’s an eye-popping cityscape of bright neon, complete with holographic figures that stand as tall as the skyscrapers, who impose their marketing messages on a population who have access to “mind-comms” (telepathic communications) and are robotically enhanced in other ways, too.
Major is the first of her kind, in that only her brain is human, preserved by Hanka Robotics from a scene of carnage that she can’t quite recall. Juliette Binoche brings a crucial, humane quality to the role of Dr Ouelet, the lead scientist in this endeavour, who handles Major with kid gloves despite the fact that she is built specifically to kick butt for an elite anti-terrorist squad led by Japanese A-lister Takeshi Kitano. He lends a little gravitas, too, steering Major to make wise decisions.
Major is partnered with a platinum blond Pilou Asbaek (from Danish TV series Borgen), who mostly looks on with shiny new eye attachments as Major bounds off tall buildings and tumbles around with feline grace, gun in hand, blowing away bad guys. Her primary target is a hooded terrorist who goes by the name of Kuze (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Carmen Pitt) and can hack into the minds of others and cause them to kill.
Kuze’s victims all work for Hanka and it’s signposted from the get-go that, in hunting him down, Major will come face-to-face with uncomfortable truths about the company that built her.
Major can’t remember anything of her past life, implying a deliberate bit of programming to keep her in the dark. The dull characterisation of Hanka’s head honcho Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) leaves little room for doubt about a cover-up. He can only sneer in the face of Dr Ouelet’s ethical reasoning after Major develops worrying glitches that, for him, mean resigning her to the scrap heap.
When it comes to the plot, there are few surprises. Major’s attempts to reconcile her robotic shell with her increasingly sentient human self are the glue that hold the film together between bursts of stylish violence and shocking encounters with altered human faces.
An image of one gunshot victim fragmented by broken glass, shattered by the fatal bullet, has a definite poetry to it. However, the visual metaphors outweigh the substance of the script, which skirts around the edges of very interesting grey areas, morally and even spiritually, about how far humans are willing to merge with technology in the quest to better themselves.
A clunky finale that echoes an episode of Robot Wars (with a piece of hardware that could have been made by A-level students) reveals where Sanders has veered off track. Its bluntness at times means Ghost in the Shell probably won’t go down as a classic, but it does keep the cogs turning and if the ticket sales warrant it, there’s ample scope for a sequel to flesh out this fast and furious fembot.
Ghost in the Shell is released on cinemas on Thursday 30 March