In a future city where cyborgs are commonplace and brain-hacking is a constant threat, top cop Major (Scarlett Johansson) is faced with a threat that goes far beyond regular crime.
Watching the western adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s original Ghost in the Shell anime is a strange experience, and not always in the ways intended. The whole “whitewashing” debate around the casting of Scarlett Johansson is another matter entirely; the story itself addresses it for a result that’s thematically appropriate, if perhaps not completely satisfactory to all. But even 22 years ago cyberpunk as a genre was edging past its prime, making even the initial adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga something not quite cutting edge. Now in 2017 seeing a future world where cybernetic limbs and organs are commonplace but mobile phones and the Internet barely get a look in creates a weird mix of SF thrills and déjà vu. Then again, mixing the old and new to create a sense of the uncanny was one of the main goals of cyberpunk; perhaps this is more futuristic than it looks.
Starting how it means to go on, the opening harks back to the original but with a twist. Like the 1995 film, we start with the physical creation of Major (Johansson), only now she has a backstory: a refugee whose body was damaged when her boat arrived in the harbour of this hologram-heavy Asian metroplex, she became the first (and so far, only) recipient of a completely robotic body. It’s a superhero origin, putting a new slant on her traditional rooftop leaps and light-bending camouflage. Now employed as the pointy end of the sharp stick that is covert police unit Section 9, her latest case involves a mysterious hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) who is killing off employees of the cybernetics corporation that built her body; no prizes for guessing where that trail leads.
Led by Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano, speaking only Japanese here), Section 9 is a noticeably international squad, with Danish actor Pilou Asbaek as Batou (if you ever wondered how he got his lens-like eyes, they have their own origin story here), Singaporean Chin Han as the unit’s traditional sole pure human, and if you think you detect a New Zealand accent from one of the support team you’re not wrong. Johansson has a narrow line to walk here, but she has form playing not-quite-human types (even some of the bright lights during Major’s creation scene hark back to her characters “birth” in Under the Skin) and there are just enough scenes where her emotions break through to make her blank affect seem like the character’s choice to shut herself off rather than a performance that’s a little bit too restrained.
Visually director Rupert Sanders (Snow White & The Huntsman) sticks close to the original. Surprisingly close at times, with sequences like the chasing down and pummelling of a brain-hacked dump truck driver being duplicated almost shot for shot. That’s probably a good thing: his action scenes are merely good rather than great and he can’t lighten the heavy load of characters standing around delivering exposition, especially early on. But there’s enough striking imagery here - some from the original, some original to this – to keep things interesting, if only on a superficial level. The trouble is that too often this doesn’t delve much deeper: visually impressive and with a solid central performance, it’s the soul-deep melancholy that animated the original that this version lacks.
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