It's been a while since I was keen on anime based on Japanese manga. My initial enthusiasm for the likes of "Akira" (1988) and "Legend of the Overfiend" (1989) waned sharply and by the time I got around to watching the 1995 anime of the above movie I had just about lost interest. Therefore I can not join the legion of fanboys who claim that this new movie is a complete betrayal of that mind-bending original.
Let's be honest, this Scarlett Johansson starrer is not a remake of the anime, but rather a dumbed down, or to be less pejorative, a simplified take on the concepts of the original manga. Johansson plays a hybrid human-android warrior trained to fight against cyber-terrorism in a cityscape of the future -- an imaginatively designed amalgam of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and the L.A. of "Blade Runner". She is the invincible Major, a triumph of design by cyber-scientist Juliette Binoche -- a sexless feminine fighting machine or as the New York Times described her "a giant dream Barbie, hairless pubis and all". (One might note here that the same character in the anime had noticeably prominent nipples). The 'ghost' in her shell are her earlier human memories and her soul. The film's poser is 'what is it like to be human in a synthetic body?'
Her sidekick Batou is played by a beefed-up Pilou Asbaek, who like many of the city's denizens has some cyber enhancements, in his case upgraded eyeballs which I found rather disturbing. Johansson must have a soft spot for this Danish actor since he also had a small part in her recent "Lucy". The biggest name in the supporting cast however is the iconic Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano who plays the Major's aging controller. It's fascinating that all of his dialogue is in subtitled Japanese while everyone else speaks English, but I guess in a cyber-society everyone has the built-in facility for instantaneous translations. There are a few agreeable nods to his own penchant for stylish violence. For example when the big baddy sends his goons to try to assassinate him, he makes short work of them quipping that it is pointless to send rabbits to kill a fox. Otherwise the cast was filled out with little-known players -- but then again it is really Scarlett's show.
Directed by ad-man Rupert Sanders, whose previous film "Snow White and the Huntsman" was singularly underwhelming, he has produced along with a technical staff of thousands a feast of eye candy. With incredibly inventive cinematography and visuals one can predict the movie's winning a number of technical Oscars, but the film itself is far from coherent or thrilling. The nub of the story is that the Major was the first successful prototype after a slew of failures and the corporation behind her are really only interested in her kind as weapons of mass destruction. Johansson continues here with her action roles from the Marvel movies and her idiosyncratic sci-fi roles that began with "Lucy" and "Under the Skin". However, none of these movies do much to spotlight her acting chops.
Another hoo-hah has been that the role should have been given to an oriental actress rather than a dishy Caucasian. This complaint is a little idiotic since the heroines in manga anime seldom look remotely oriental. The writers have addressed the controversy by suggesting that Major's original 'ghost' was in fact Japanese and that she has had false memories implanted, but I doubt that this argument is sufficient to satisfy the nay-sayers.
All in all this was an enjoyable movie to watch largely because of the ravishing visuals. I think a neat little analogy lurks here. The 'ghost' of the first challenging film can be found in the 'shell' of this second simplified extravaganza.