Alex Casey is a staff writer for New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Movie review: Ghost in the Shell

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Arriving on our shores atop a beautiful wave of whitewashing controversy, sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell has finally opened in New Zealand cinemas this week. Based on a Japanese manga and a remake of the 1995 animated feature film, Ghost in the Shell takes us to an incredibly plausible time in the not-so-distant cyberpunk future. In this morally-murky world, technological advances have meant that humans can freely swap out their shonky old eyes, limbs and organs with robotic replacements. Hanka robotics, the cutting-edge corporation that runs the town, takes this to the extreme in an experiment that seeks to replace an entire body, save for the brain.

The successful result of this weapons-grade science fair is the character of Major, played by Scarlett Johansson. Suffering a serious accident, she wakes up from certain death to find herself in a completely new synthetic superhero body. After some extensive training under Dr Oulet (Juliette Binoche), Major becomes an unstoppable killing machine, tasked with the mission to bring down a dangerous cyber-terrorist named Kuze (Michael Pitt).

Due to computers being a staple component of brains, eyes, and bodies, let's just say that hackers can do a lot more than leak emails.

As Major hits the streets, the eye-wateringly neon artifice of what our future cities may look like is dazzling to behold. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) pulls no visual punches, building a Tokyo-on-acid metropolis of skyscrapers wrapped in hologram snakes, where projections of koi carp swim the streets and looming 3D advertisements dwarf nearby buildings. A visual mix of sci-fi classic Blade Runner with the hallucinogenic brain-fry of Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, it's a world best enjoyed in 3D on the biggest screen you can handle.

Johansson does a decent job of playing what is essentially a brain in a jar. A really toned, strong jar. She prowls the neon world a lone wolf, constantly battling between the titular ghost (her brain) and the shell (her robot body), which has given her a new life, though at an immense cost. After losing the ability to touch, feel and connect like a regular human, Johansson embodies the distance and loneliness of Major's situation from head to toe. Her eyes wander, she walks clumsily, her shoulders go rigid at the slightest of glitches. There's no doubting for a second that her body is not her own, but the constant vacancy in her eyes makes it more difficult to empathise with her as a protagonist.

Despite impressive visuals and ScarJo pulling off a robotic performance to beat Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man, Ghost in the Shell avoids plumbing the moral depths and complexities as far as you might expect. As the title suggests, there's little beyond the shiny surface of the film when you compare it to the likes of Ex Machina, TV's Westworld or even the archaic but essential questions of The Matrix. There's also no shaking the race problem with the film as Major's backstory unfurls, and for all the bright sparkly lights and jaw-dropping effects, Johansson's whiteness in what has been an historically Asian character remains glaring.

All in all, Ghost in the Shell probably won't haunt you for as long as it thinks it will. Perhaps the greatest irony of the film is its commitment to hammering home themes of humanity, without ever really showing us much beyond the flicker of an eye or a wry hint of a smile.

It's slick, enjoyably brutal and beautiful but, just like its protagonist, feels like it lost a little bit of soul somewhere along the way.

Ghost in the Shell
Showing now, rated M

- Spy.co.nz

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