Ghost In The Shell film review: does the anime translate into live-action?

Can Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost In The Shell live up to its source material?

Arriving just as the wider whitewashing debate seems to be reaching its fiery apex, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost In The Shell remake needed to make one hell of an impression to rise above the noise of the criticism, let alone assuage the concerns of the hardcore fans of the original. Unfortunately, despite some impressive visuals, this live-action adaptation doesn’t offer much in the way of life at all.

Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, whose brain has been transplanted into a complex, badass cybernetic body, making her the property of her creators Hanka Robotics (personified by Peter Ferdinando’s oily corporate bastard). She has no real memories of her previous life, but troubling flashback glitches are becoming more and more frequent.

When her anti-terrorism unit Section 9 come up against a revenge-driven hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), the truth about her past will rise to the surface.

Fans of Mamoru Oshii’s anime will no doubt recognise the bulk of the action sequences, many of which have been recreated with loving attention to detail and a lot of slow-motion. The Major plunges off rooftops and through windows in a second-skin skin-coloured suit, guns blazing and totally emotionless.

Johansson is directed to a robotic performance during the film’s first half, which makes her gradual humanisation in the second quite affecting, but it does contribute towards the glum atmosphere that smothers the opening hour as Sanders and the writers try to get everyone up to speed.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue is so brutally perfunctory. Juliette Binoche is on hand to voice the film’s “human being or machine?” moral dilemmas as efficiently as possible as the mournfully shifty Dr Ouelet, the very watchable Pilou Asbaek works hard to add a bit of wry humanity as the Major’s right hand man Batou, and Anamaria Marinca’s coroner is a fun scene-stealer, but the focus here is clearly on the visuals, not the script.

Sanders’ vision of a future metropolis does offer some truly impressive imagery, but there’s not much personality to the blend of the anime, Blade Runner, The Zero Theorem and everything in between. Scott’s influence riddles the story as well as the landscape, and it feels like the chance to create something more distinctive, or, ideally, more weird, has been passed up.

It should absolutely be noted that the production design, costume, effects, make-up and hair (especially hair) teams have done wonderful work. There’s a brilliant creepy-crawly robot geisha and Batou’s enhanced eyes work very nicely, but the stand-out flourishes don’t make up for the leaden whole. Even Pitt’s shuddering, fractured, glitching Kuze feels like he should be making more of an impression.

That being said, the second half is a big improvement. Once the Major’s awakening begins, Johansson finds the emotional depths to the character, which helps enormously. There is an affecting scene with the excellent Kaori Momoi late in the film, and it’s obviously a joy when the legendary ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is allowed to get up from behind his desk and grab his six-shooter. However, it can’t last and the finale arrives with a crushing thud.

Ghost In The Shell certainly isn’t dire, but it is dull. Yes, it looks great, and Johansson definitely knows her way around an action sequence, but given the source material, this can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity.