Scarlett Johansson's Major remake

Ghost in the Shell
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Written by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow
Rated M, 107 minutes
3 stars (in 3D and 2D versions)

Scarlett Johansson gets a new body in this live-action reimagining of a classic manga movie from 1995, set in the near future. In the opening scenes, as the credits roll, we see a lumpy brain inserted into a robot body, which is then immersed in brine and reborn with a translucent, skin-like covering of synthetic flesh. Nobody calls out ‘It’s alive’ but they might as well have: her Franken-body is curvy and almost anatomically correct, and the sequence closely parallels the ‘birth’ of cyber-cop Major Kusanagi in the original 1995 Japanese anime – with one noticeable difference.

Johansson’s cyborg has no nipples, whereas the one in the Japanese film had a perfect woman’s body. That’s probably because Paramount wanted the film to be rated PG-13 – which it is in the US. American teenagers clearly are not ready for nipples – or is it American parents?

It’s supremely odd, given that Johansson’s character appears to be naked in many sequences, or clad in a suit so light as to be meaningless. When she’s about to go into action, she usually strips off her gear – except for a side-arm in a holster. Without clothes she can go into stealth mode – becoming invisible, like the original Predator – after we’ve had a good gawk at her cyber-loveliness.

The original and influential manga by Masamune Shirow came out in 1989 and was republished five years later in an English version. Then came a well-regarded 1995 animated film by Mamoru Oshii, and various sequels, TV series and video games. The live action film is a co-production between Paramount and various Asian partners – very much the way things are trending – but with an English director, Rupert Sanders, whose last film was Snow White and The Huntsman (2012). That makes it an interesting hybrid, in the sense that you can read fairly clearly the way a Hollywood studio has imposed itself on an Asian property that already had its own recognition factor and creative integrity.

The hybridisation gives us more prurience, as I’ve noted, but also more razzle-dazzle and a lot more violence – which one could interpret as less integrity. The effects here, some of them handled by Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop, are diabolically good. Something in almost every scene offers wow factor, and the 3D adds depth and reality, rather than cheap thrills.

The movie is set in a fictional port city that looks something like Hong Kong, and a lot like the one in Blade Runner. Humans have taken to body part replacement, so everyone is ‘augmented’. The Major, as she is known, has been crafted as a weapon of security, with Pilou Asbaek as her devoted punkish human offsider Batou, and Takeshi Kitano doing a memorable turn as her controller, Aramaki, speaking only Japanese (cyber folks can understand tons of languages, so that’s no biggie). Juliette Binoche is the doctor who created the Major for a defence corporation run by the nasty Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). Someone has been hacking supposedly safe robots to kill scientists, so the Major seeks a rogue called Kuze (Michael Pitt in a hood borrowed from the Star Wars wardrobe). All is not as it seems, of course.

The main attraction is the ever-adaptable Scarlett Johansson, whose face here has a blank milky perfection – a combination of the expressionless way she plays a cyborg and a touch of CG burnishing, like her skin has been polished. She suffers a lot of damage, losing a limb in one fight, but comes back like a new pin after visits to the repair lab. It’s hard to judge her performance because it’s hard to know what’s her and what’s CG, but she holds the movie together, even while falling apart.

For all the visual quality, it’s let down by story – partly because Paramount has insisted on shoot-outs, punch-ups and careening cars. Yawn and double yawn. The manga had ideas and brains and not so much violence; the film has action and a slightly queasy perv factor. No surprises there, but a disappointment nevertheless.