Ghost in the Shell is a largely humourless affair: all slums, skyscrapers and holograms

This adaptation of the influential anime, starring Scarlett Johansson, is short on thrills.

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Scarlett Johansson’s languid beauty is so unreal that film-makers have had to think outside the body when casting her. She was a computer operating system in Her and an impassive alien in Under the Skin; in the thriller Lucy, she ended up on a USB stick (long story). So it’s not much of a leap from there to Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of the influential anime, in which she plays Major, a “cerebral salvage” whose brain was saved after an accident and stored in a state-of-the-art synthetic body. Whatever your opinion on the ethical implications, that’s going to save a fortune in gym fees.

Now she has become the perfect soldier, used by the government of the future to fight terrorists who are hacking into people’s brains. She simply strips down to her flesh-coloured bodysuit, dives hundreds of feet from her rooftop perch and – bam! – she can drop a rampaging, spider-legged GeishaBot at ten paces and still have time go deep-diving in her adversary’s circuit board before tea. However, all is not well in her mind. Or, as she puts it, “I’ve been having glitches.” As her doctor, Juliette Binoche pulls a concerned face. (Either that or she’s thinking: “I went from Three Colours Blue to this?”) But then she knows the truth about her patient. And Major is about to discover that her employers have been telling porkies about her past.

Ghost in the Shell is a largely humourless affair that draws from the usual reference points, not least Blade Runner: the city is all slums, skyscrapers and holograms. But its fidelity to the idea of a woman with no idea how “real” she is, or even what constitutes reality, is admirable, even if this makes for a movie short on thrills. The most effective scenes are between Johansson and Michael Pitt, who plays Kuze, a reject on the cyber scrapheap. Lying in the dirt together, he is missing his legs and she is one arm down, but they embody the film’s message rather touchingly: “When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then do we find peace.”

Free Fire is a shoot-’em-up comedy filled with can’t-shut-’em-up characters. They assemble one night in the late 1970s in a Boston warehouse to execute an arms sale, only to get caught up in trading insults and bullets as the film descends into a protracted gunfight. Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer can be glimpsed amid the smoke and dust, but in the absence of any distinguishable characters it scarcely matters that we have a hard time working out who is firing at whom.

The screenplay, by the director, Ben Wheatley, and his wife, Amy Jump, is good for the odd era-specific quip (“Charlie must be missing an Angel”), though it also routinely forgets its own period setting by using phrases such as “take a chill pill” and “bling”. Perhaps authenticity doesn’t matter because the film itself is about performance. The costumes (polyester suits, wing collars, oversized glasses) have come straight from the 1970s dressing-up box and the dialogue emphasises the role of play-acting in the gangster life. “I don’t wanna miss my cue,” says a driver who is waiting to make his big entrance. “Why, what you gonna do?” asks his accomplice. “High-kick your way in there with a top hat and cane?”

Those familiar with Reservoir Dogs are likely to feel they’ve been sold a pup. There’s the same comic friction between base criminality and highfalutin language, as well as the incongruous use of cheesy pop hits at gruesome moments. One crucial difference is that the bloodletting in Free Fire is only ever comic; a gunshot wound here causes no more pain than a wedgie.

So, if the violence doesn’t hurt and the characters don’t matter, what exactly is at stake? Nothing much except Wheatley’s reputation. Six films in to his career, he is still turning out pastiches and coasting on the “gifted newcomer” tag. Variety magazine recently declared him “the most exciting thing to hit British genre cinema since Guy Ritchie”, which surely represents a new low in backhanded compliments and faint praise – a bit like being called the biggest sex symbol since Reg Varney.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition