Scarlett Johansson.Picture: Valerie Macon / AFP

Ghost in the Shell is a highly stylised actioner tiptoeing through the pitfalls of an imperfect future. It melds the balletic grace of bullet-time action sequences to the cold steel and funk of a cyber-punk thriller in which the nature of man throws a spanner into the inexhaustible cogs of progress.

The story is a spirited excursion into a future where humans can upgrade themselves with ever more sophisticated cybernetics. An eye can be replaced with digitised orbs equipped with night-vision and X-ray, for example. 

The pinnacle of this advancement is cyborg policewoman Major Motoko (Johansson), whose brain resides in an entirely synthetic body. If that seems a bit of a stretch of the imagination, consider that this week, an Italian scientist was preparing to conduct the world’s first head transplant. The future represented by Ghost in the Shell is perhaps closer than we would want to believe.

And so, in the year 2029, the quantum leaps taken by science haven’t quite translated into a utopian society. Man in the modern city has outgrown laptops and phones – with every upgrade, our bodies quite literally become the modems that allow us to log onto the internet. 

The algorithm of equality, however, is not so easily solved. Hidden in plain sight, behind the bright billboards brought to life in the shape of walking, talking holograms, are the ghettos and dive bars of an underbelly forever playing catch-up. It is here, among those left behind by the march towards immortality, that the first stirrings of a rebellion are aroused.

Big corporations, with powers rivalling those of the government, have in the form of constructs like Major Motoko, the keys to ever more influence and wealth. She is a marvel of science and ingenuity, but she is merely a weapon. What a weapon though. 

Free-diving off skyscrapers, hacking into security systems on the wing, cloaking herself in invisibility, she just slays in just about every aspect. The title of the film refers to her mind or soul, her ghost, that resides in her bionic shell. 

She’s a bit impetuous and head-strong, but whatever emotions are still swimming about in her brain, her new form gives her little means of expressing it.

Scarlett Johansson. Picture: Jasin Boland/Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks 

Which suits her manufacturers just fine. While her chief creator, played by Juliette Binoche, displays a protective, motherly instinct towards Motoko, she is also concealing a terrible secret. Many lives were tortured and discarded in the process of making the Major, a sacrifice she chalks off as necessary. But her blind devotion to science means she realises too late the consequences of her actions.

Johannssen’s only brief as Motoko is to bring the awesome action sequences to life. Her form allows no space for any kind for characterisation, save for a walk that’s a crew-cut short of butch. She has moments that imply real tenderness and heartache, but hasn’t the means to express it. Robots don’t cry. She does, however, have a pout that could hotwire a thousand mainframes.

        Scarlett Johansson. Picture: Supplied

Her supporting cast have no space for sentimentality either, save for Binoche – the only fully-human being in the Major’s circle. But watch out for Motoko’s police boss, played by Japanese legend Takeshi Kitano, who very nearly steals the show with a wily, understated performance.

The anime on which this movie was based was a massive influence on the creators of The Matrix and it’s easy to spot the visual ties to that landmark film. And like the adventures of Neo, which had people questioning whether the Matrix was real and how they would like to live in it, Ghost in the Shell is a conversation piece: Where does the soul reside? What does it mean to be human? And, oh the things I could do with an X-Ray eye.