Ghost in the Shell (4 stars)

Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson is spectacular in this fantastic live-action take on the classic anime

Cards on the table: any movie with killer geisha robots is fine by us. They are just one highlight among many eye-popping delights in a live-action film based on Masamune Shirow's long-running manga, which spawned various TV, video game and film efforts, most notably Mamoru Oshii's ground-breaking anime feature, released in 1995 and a big influence on the Wachowskis' The Matrix.

British director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) is a surprising choice to helm the first, long-overdue blockbuster adaptation of a Japanese sci-fi anime classic. But wow, does he deliver the goods. Barnstorming futuristic action, incredible production design and visual effects (very striking in 3D), and Scarlett Johansson as the cyberpunk / goddess in existential crisis, what's not to like?

The storyline departs from Oshii's film. In an age when many humans have synthetic enhancements, Johansson's Major is nevertheless the first of her kind: a human brain harvested from a body that cannot be saved and placed in a fully synthetic shell. 'Your mind, your soul, your ghost, it's still there,' she is assured by the maternal doctor (Juliette Binoche) who made her. Viewed as a weapon by the Hanka Corporation who fund the doc, the Major becomes a key asset to elite crime busters Section 9. But while relentlessly pursuing a mysterious homicidal hacker (Michael Pitt as Kuze) intent on destroying Hanka, the Major experiences flashback-style glitches that trigger an identity crisis and a search for the truth of her origins.

There is conspiracy, cover-up and things blow up, a lot. But the heart of the film is the heroine addressing the eternal human mystery – who am I? – along with the cyborg's puzzle, what am I? This is fantastic sci-fi for the 21st century: smart, exciting and absolutely stunning (with cityscapes and images that put one in mind of Blade Runner and, now an influencer itself, The Matrix) and featuring strong set-pieces.

As to the kerfuffle over Johansson's casting: firstly, in anime form, the Major had a shell that was not visibly Japanese or Asian (as anime fans know, a lot of the art-form's characters are rendered to look western). Plus, she's a robot. It should go without saying that Johansson looks fabulous in a black bob and flesh-coloured camouflage suit. And she is spectacularly good, nailing the role's physical and emotional demands. If the character's creators are happy with the choice of a major international star, what's the rumpus? The Section 9 ensemble is a nicely diverse cast from all over the world, with Japanese legend 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano as the boss, and Danish star Pilou Asbæk as Johansson's partner-buddy Batou. So no complaints there, surely. Frankly, we'd swap a clutch of Avengers, all the X-Men, Batman, Superman and Spidey for more of the Major.

General release from Fri 31 Mar.

Ghost in the Shell

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • US
  • 1h 47min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Rupert Sanders
  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche
  • UK release: 31 March 2017

Major (Johansson) is a human brain harvested from a body that cannot be saved, and placed in a cyborg shell to be an asset to elite crime busters Section 9. Barnstorming action, incredible production design, a nicely diverse cast with Johansson spectacularly measuring up to the role’s physical and emotional demands, and a…