This is shaping up to be one of those movies that's more notable for the Outrage! and Fury! generated by its casting decisions than for its actual merits as a film. Should an actress as demonstrably white as Scarlett Johansson be cast in a role that was originally Asian, specifically Japanese, in the original comicbook source and 1995 animated version (full disclosure: neither of which I'm familiar with)? Every so often the whitewashing controversy surfaces again, be it Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange or Gerard Butler as an Ancient Egyptian deity in Gods Of Egypt, and while no-one appears to be going as far as Mickey Rooney's "hilarious" Japanese in Breakfast At Tiffany's (a characterisation that makes Benny Hill's forays into racial stereotype look like models of cultural sensitivity), the question remains of how far you can actually go with it. Should only British actors play Richard III? Should only Danes play Hamlet? Ridley Scott's justifications for casting Christian Bale rather than "Mohammed So-and-so" in Exodus: Gods And Kings were incredibly badly phrased, but was he reflecting studio reluctance to spend hundreds of millions on a film with an unfamiliar star, or the audiences who are unlikely to bother seeing it, thus making it a bad investment?
The real pity is that the star casting in Ghost In The Shell is ultimately going to be the most memorable thing about it: it's an oddly drab, murky movie which, for all the eye-popping visuals and action sequences is curiously joyless. Sometime in the near future, when humans can be augmented with any number of cybernetic implants, Mira (Johansson) has been thoroughly converted into a cyborg superagent in the anti-terrorism unit, and her team is up against a superhacker (Michael Pitt) with his own superaugmented abilities. But Mira's mind is glitching, as the deleted memories of her pre-conversion past are starting to surface...
The dense, bewildering cityscape with its giant advertising logos and bright coloured lights all over the place obviously recalls Blade Runner, though the robots starting to turn human and act on their own instincts harks back even to Westworld (Mira's was supposed to be a "clean brain", according to one line from the trailer that I didn't notice in the film itself). But this seems to be much less interested in what it means to be human and much more of a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson to leap around in her flesh-coloured cyborg suit that's absolutely not supposed to look like she's spending half the film naked, no sir. And given the substantial amount of leaping about, it really should be a lot more enjoyable.
Sure it's good looking with its immersive, detailed future. The action sequences are decent enough, there's some fun to be had from Takeshi Kitano and his weird hair, and they even throw in a giant mechanical spider towards the end, just because. It doesn't have any real emotional connection, and there's not enough to make you care whether Mira discovers how she became a cyborg in the first place. So it's a mixed bag: a superbly designed world but strangely, surprisingly unexciting things happening there. It's watchable enough, but there's the nagging sense throughout that it's not as enjoyable as it should be (certainly less fun than Lucy, for example), and it just didn't knock me sideways the way Blade Runner did. But few things do.