GHOST IN THE SHELL (12A, 107 mins)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbaek, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Lasarus Ratuere, Danusia Samal. Director: Rupert Sanders.

BASED on a cult Japanese comic series, Ghost In The Shell is an action-packed futuristic thriller that poses tantalising questions about our reliance on memories to define ourselves as human beings.

We cling to the past like a frayed security blanket, haunted by crushing failures rather than approaching each day as a fresh opportunity to learn, grow and behave differently.

Director Rupert Sanders' visually arresting film is hard-wired with big philosophical questions about the fragility of the human condition and the ripple effect of our actions.

Regrettably, he conceals these meditations on mortality behind a sensory overload of digital effects and eye-popping set and costume design reminiscent of Blade Runner that gradually bludgeon us into submission.

On a purely technical level, Ghost In The Shell is an impressive achievement - especially in IMAX 3D - but all style and scant substance threatens to reduce the picture to a wearying test of endurance.

Thankfully, Scarlett Johansson is luminous in the demanding and highly acrobatic lead role.

It's hard to think of another actress who can switch effortlessly between frenetically choreographed scenes of gravity-defying, kick-ass physicality and wordless close-ups of aching solitude.

In a bleak futuristic world where holographic advertising clutters the skyline and physical imperfections are remedied with hi-tech implants, government-funded Hanka Robotics is at the forefront of a highly lucrative cybernetic revolution.

Hanka head honcho Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and brilliant surgeon Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) pioneer secret experiments to create the perfect human-cyborg hybrid, giving birth to a fearless warrior called The Major (Johansson).

Ouelet is full of maternal pride for her creation - "You're what everyone will become one day!" - and she oversees The Major's transformation into an obedient killing machine.

This perfect weapon is entrusted to Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), commander of the Section 9 security division - a fearless band of sharp shooters, who neutralise the threat posed by cyberterrorists.

When an elusive criminal called Kuze (Michael Pitt) begins to assassinate Hanka's scientists by hacking into the brains of enhanced citizens, The Major somersaults into action flanked by comrades Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Togusa (Chin Han), Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere) and Ladriya (Danusia Samal).

Their daredevil mission uncovers tantalising evidence of a wider conspiracy that compels The Major to piece together fragmented memories from the human brain inside her sleek engineered body.

Ghost In The Shell requires a software upgrade to Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger's script in order to enrich characterisation and expand back stories.

Supporting cast are largely overwhelmed by the technical wizardry, even Academy Award winner Binoche, who is charged with delivering key speeches about free will and destiny.

Johansson remains beguiling throughout.

She is the anguished, delicate soul in this polished and exceedingly expensive machine. 6/10