Looking up my Sight & Sound review of the 1995 Japanese animated film – based, of course, on a manga – I find I wasn’t much taken with it, which probably explains why I remember so little about something that has gone on to found a franchise and be accepted as a classic of its type. Watching this two-decades-on big budget live action version, directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White & the Huntsman), I found the story still oddly rote and hard to get involved with – the cyborg, brain-in-a-robot-body heroine’s trauma is less affecting than RoboCop’s for instance – but the visuals sumptuous and seductive, whether it be a rainy city dominated by giant holo-adverts or the stolen brain’s sexy (but technically sexless), deracinated barbie body (Scarlett Johansson).
It has its astonishing set-pieces, and fun with spiderwalking tanks, but its actual story – which boils down to the not-exactly-unprecedented concept that no one should ever trust a robotics corporation that wants to move into law enforcement – and is full of great bits of art direction and incidental gadgetry, but there’s a robot heart at its centre. We can now get nostalgic about the cyberpunk hell futures of the 1990s the way that, say, Tomorrowland, is nostalgic about the optimistic visions of flying cars and silver walkways – which means that this doesn’t just evoke the look of Japanese cartoons but also films from Blade Runner through Strange Days (note the uncredited Michael Wincott cameo) to The Matrix. The casting of Takeshi Kitano as a boss figure even stirs dim memories of Johnny Mnemonic, which must be the first time anyone’s done that deliberately.
A lot of pre-release controversy had to do with the ‘whitewashing’ of reimagining a Japanese character, Major Kusanagi, as a caucasian – though it’s not that clear if the original Major (a robot, after all) was supposed to look Asian, and the film actually stands as a critique of the practice in that the backstory reveals that a runaway Japanese girl, Motoko Kusanagi (Kaori Yamamoto), has been murdered for her brain, which is now put into the internationally-appealing form of Johansson, who retains her Under the Skin/Lucy knack for appearing unearthly even as she suffers extreme damage in combat. Of course, embedding a critique of the practice of filing the serial numbers off Japanese products for the global market in a big-budget science fiction film isn’t quite as radical as, say, casting Rila Fukushima (seen as the spider-limbed robo-geisha hit woman) in the lead might have been.
As if to put up a front against criticism, this assembles one of the most diverse, international casts ever to appear in a popcorn film – with Dane Pilou Absbaek, French Juliette Binoche (ScarJo’s Avengers dance trainer), Singapore’s Chin Han, London-Kurdish Danusia Samal (who really ought to be co-starring on Doctor Who), American indie angelface Michael Pitt (as a broken-down Frankenstein), Zimbabwean/Kiwi Tawanda Manyimo, British Peter Ferdinando (standard baddie) and Romanian Anamaria Marinca (with disturbing eyepiece) appearing in an interesting variety of cyber-enhanced roles. The script is by William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe, The Lego Ninjago Movie) and Jamie Moss (one of many hands on Street Kings), and rewrite meister Ehren Kruger – who probably had the job of gluing together all the pieces. Though it operates at the other end of the budgetary spectrum from Under the Skin, it has the same basic fascination – watching the weirdly dissociated Johansson simply being strange, though this time round there’s more jumping off buildings for no apparent reason and strutting about in a CGI-assisted skinsuit.