Ghost in the Shell is visual perfection; if only the story were less focused on Scarlett Johansson's self-doubt [Review]

Wong Tsui-kai |

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The nigh legendary cyberpunk work Ghost in the Shell has come to the Hollywood big screen, for better or worse.

Originally a manga first drawn in 1989, the story is set in a future world where cybernetic augmentation is commonplace, and the lines between man and machine are blurred is. "The Major" (Scarlett Johansson) - we're keeping her real name quiet for genuine plot reasons - is a full body cyborg, a "brain in a robot body", anti-terrorist commando, struggling with her own self-image, and her ideas of what it means to be human.

The film is largely what you'd expect. However, setting this up as an origin story brings the issues of self-doubt and what it means to be human to centre stage instead leaving it shimmering in the background as it was in the original material. The movie focuses on the fundamental issues of having so much of your flesh and blood - and even memories - replaced that you doubt your very own existence.

Somehow managing to function as she gradually unravels the mysteries of her cyberization, and fights a terrorist hacker known only as "Kuze", Johansson portrays The Major as a lost woman with deep-seated doubts about herself, in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis.

Of course, the movie makes all this struggle obvious and very much in your face. This inner turmoil is shown though broad strokes and high-handed dialogue. There are small details here and there where the filmmakers take a more subtle approach, but they are few and far between. Johansson plays her role expertly, but seems constrained by the script.

The visuals on the other hand, are done to perfection. The dearly beloved cyberpunk aesthetic, with gaudy, bright plastic clothes and glowing AR (augmented reality) signs, fit the conventions of the genre exactly. Many set pieces are recognisably Hong Kong; the tall glass and chrome gleaming city contrasted against low wooden, smoky market stalls, are a treat for local viewers. But if you can, skip the 3D: you'll just be paying extra for no good reason.

Overall, Ghost in the Shell is all right; it's just hamstrung by the limited running time and too much story to tell. To its credit, it checks all the essential boxes. Nods to iconic characters and scenes from the manga and anime, check. Cyberpunk people with freaky implants and augs, check. Evil corporate CEO as a villain, check. But it could have been so much more: there are only glimmers of soul within this movie that is a hollow shell of what it could have been. 

Edited by Karly Cox