Film review: Ghost in the Shell

Set in a world in which the gap between humanity and technology is shrinking all the time, Mamoru Oshii's beloved 1995 anime gets a respectable if belated live-action reboot here courtesy of British director Rupert Sanders and star Scarlett Johansson. The latter takes the lead as Mira. She's a cyborg/human hybrid whose brain (her ghost) has been rescued from a dying body and transposed into a sleek humanoid shell by a company intent on weaponsing her in the fight against cyber crime at a time when the ability to upgrade humans with technological enhancements has inevitably left them vulnerable to hacking. Known as the Major by her colleagues (led by the wonderfully stoic Japanese star 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano), Mira is the first of her kind, but as she's assigned to investigate a spate of assassinations in the East Asian metropolis in which the film is set, doubts about her own origins, and hints of a vast conspiracy, send her on a quest to find out who or what she really is.

Scarlett Johansson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell
Scarlett Johansson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (12A) ***

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

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Starring: Scarlett Johansson, “Beat “Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbæk

Although all of this is rendered with beautifully sleek visuals, Ghost in the Shell inevitably suffers from two decades of western culture appropriating the ideas of both the original anime and Masamune Shirow’s source Manga, especially in the wake of The Matrix, which the Wachowskis have never been shy in acknowledging was their own attempt to do a live-action version of this story. Johansson, too, has grappled in more thoughtful ways with the existential ideas at the heart of Ghost in the Shell’s post-human vision of the future in films such as Her and the Glasgow-set Under The Skin (and in nuttier ways in Luc Besson’s trashy sci-fi actioner Lucy). But that also makes her well cast. She’s a movie star whose magnetic screen presence as an action heroine has always been enhanced by her inscrutability and she imbues the General/Mira with a sort of opaque, confused tenderness that works well as Mira’s memory glitches cause her to start questioning her fidelity to the corporate culture that’s created her.

As for the racial controversy surrounding her casting – particularly the charges of “whitewashing” – the film addresses this directly in a way that could be seen as problematic, but can also be read as a comment on the way corporate culture’s default vision of a post-racial world tends to skew white. Mira, after all, has grown up believing she’s a western immigrant whose body was ravaged in a terrorist attack, but the truth is more sinister and the revelations about her origins in the latter part of the film reinforce why there’s such a disconnect between her “ghost” and her “shell”. The film sows plenty of seeds for a deeper exploration of this should it prove successful enough to warrant a sequel and while that might frustrate purists, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell works as a solid franchise starter, one that reconfirms Johansson’s status as a bona fide blockbuster star deserving of such headline roles.