Watching Paramount's big-budget sci-fi action blockbuster Ghost in the Shell, the obvious metaphor is impossible to escape: this is a bunch of old parts placed in a shiny new container. Items inside this one include the original manga by Masamune Shirow, the 1995 anime adaptation by Mamoru Oshii, Blade Runner, star Scarlett Johansson's work in the Avengers films, Batman Begins, and in a circular feedback loop, even The Matrix, which itself drew from Ghost in the Shell as one of its many stylistic inspirations. If that recipe sounds like a mess, that's because it is: Ghost in the Shell is likely to rank among the year's worst Hollywood attempts to feed bits of a formula into an established brand name in order to create a hit.
Johansson plays Major Mara Killian, an officer in Tokyo's Section 9, a team of cyber cops who track things like hackers trying to enter people's minds and download sensitive data, a kind of crime that's increasingly possible as humans attach cybernetic pieces onto their bodies, either for enhancement or repair. Mara represents the most advanced version yet: a human brain inside a completely cybernetic body. Although the transplant supposedly saved her life, it comes with a number of strings attached: regular checkups with her "inventor", Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche); the watchful eye of not just her section Chief ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano), but also Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the CEO of the company, Hanka, who supplied her body and the research that made it possible; and now, recurring hallucinations of something she can't quite get her head around.
Anyone who's been following Ghost in the Shell's production has no doubt heard about the "whitewashing" controversy that surrounds Johansson's casting in a role that was presumably Japanese (manga art traditionally contains no racial signifiers, but the character's original name was Motoko Kusanagi). Given the true complaint is Asian-American actors being denied the same kinds of opportunities as white movie stars, no in-film justification will solve the problem, but Ghost in the Shell's attempt to address this in-story actually makes the problem worse. Mara's newest mission involves tracking a mysterious hacker who is picking off Hanka scientists in search of details about the company's research, and the revelations held within connect to Mara as well. Although explicit spoilers will be left for the film, it's probably not hard to guess how writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger have decided to try and incorporate the casting into the plot. There are many reasons this doesn't work, but chief among them is that it doesn't increase the amount of Asian faces on-screen in the film. It's lip service, and poor lip service at that (things to consider: the length of the film's flashbacks, and why Kitano gets to deliver his lines in Japanese when another key character does not).
Worse, this revelation is really all this new Ghost in the Shell has up its sleeve. The secrets that Mara uncovers in tracking her target barely go any deeper than the fact that they exist at all -- the betrayal is mostly that she was lied to. In theory, this is where themes of self and identity would pick up the slack, but between dull sci-fi plot mechanics (for instance, tracing a hack before the line disconnects, a bit of supposed tension that makes no sense given it results in what feels like a necessary encounter between Mara and her target), and mediocre action (one sequence lifts the wall run from the opening of The Matrix as if that stunt isn't nearing 20 years old, and another sequence in a hallway feels like graphics artists just added new backdrops to a fight from Iron Man 2), the film just doesn't have time for much introspection. Johansson appears to have a specific idea of what she's doing, adding a touch of artificiality to her line readings, and she shares one good-to-adequate dramatic scene each with co-stars Huppert and Michael Pitt, but the tension generated in these scenes isn't enough to add up to a character. Instead, director Rupert Sanders devotes time to shots leering at her body whenever she's wearing a skintight stealth suit. The only cast standout is Pilou Asbaek as her partner Batou, whose performance evokes the best qualities of the anime version of the same character, and who has a strong rapport with Johansson.
Sanders is likely to get a bunch of credit from fans for the film's visuals, especially the gorgeous skylines of a future Tokyo overwhelmed by giant living billboards, and a number of sequences which evoke or recreate specific shots and sequences from the anime (the primary example being a fight sequence in a shallow part of a river outside an apartment complex, with Mara in invisible stealth mode). Yet, Sanders is really just trading off of other people's work: the credit ought to go to the people who designed the billboards themselves, and Shirow and Oshii, whose visuals provided a blueprint for Sanders to copy. Unlike Blade Runner, the look of the film doesn't really say anything about the setting, whereas Scott's dark, rain-drenched metropolis outlined a crowded society, evoked a moody atmosphere, and offered flying blimps advertising an expensive paradise off-world. As Johansson, in the movie's closing sequence, stands amid this eye-catching CGI metropolis, with a voice-over monologue explaining things about her character that are never felt or explored, the film is firing on all of its faulty cylinders: a polished but dull echo of multiple better works, done poorly and without much purpose.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.