Ghost in the Shell

★ ★ ☆

Can you steal someone’s life? It’s the question at the heart of “Ghost in the Shell,” in more ways than one.

Based on the Japanese manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, it centers around a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, turned into a weaponized cyber-human after an accident by the scientists at AI robots manufacturer Hanka. “Your body was damaged,” says Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). “We couldn’t save it, only your brain survived.” Named The Major (more on that later) after her cerebral salvage she leads task force Section 9 who take down cyber terrorists and hackers by any means necessary. “We saved you,” continues Dr. Ouelet, “and now you save others.” The life the Major once knew is over but as the doctor says, “Your mind, your soul and your ghost, that’s still in there.”

On another level “The Ghost in the Shell” steals away the essence of its main character. The Major, or Major Motoko Kusanagi as she was referred to in the 1989 manga series and beyond, is a Japanese character in this case being played by the very western Johansson. Director Rupert Sanders dismisses the whitewashing criticism saying, “I feel that [Johansson] channelled the Major better than anyone else I could have thought of. She was my first choice and remains my first choice. She's the best actress of my generation and her generation and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role.”

I think Sanders forgot to insert the word “bankable” in there somewhere.

I’m not suggesting that Johansson isn’t a talented actor or capable of pulling off believable and exciting action scenes. In movies like “Lucy” and “Captain America: Civil War” she has credibly occupied the action space, bringing both toughness and acting chops to her roles. That’s not at issue. What is at issue here is that the character is decidedly Japanese. As a human brain in an entirely synthetic body, she is far from, as Johansson claims, “identity-less.” In fact she is the very embodiment of a culture’s fascination with technology and how that technology interacts with humankind. In this case the technology actually becomes human, or perhaps it’s the other way round. Either way, the cyberpunk heroine is a key figure in Asian science fiction and the new “Ghost in the Shell” conveniently ignores that fact.  

More thought has been put into creating the world The Major interacts with. A mix of the original anime, “Minority Report,” and “Robocop” with a taste of “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix” thrown in for completists, it’s a sleek near future environment, dense with activity, like in New York City in Hong Kong had a baby.

It is also a place where it’s now possible to control people by hacking directly into their minds. To combat this invasion of the mind, the Major and Co. have their sights set on Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), a shadowy cyber terrorist who is targeting Hanka scientists. Complicating the mission are nagging memories of The Major’s former life that manifest themselves through a glitch in her wiring. She sees strange visions, sort of sensory echoes that hint at memories just out of reach. They are the ghost in the shell. She’s sort of like a high tech Jason Bourne, deadly with little recall of the past. “Who are you?” asks a woman who may or may not be The Major’s mother. “I don't know,” Maj says with a faraway look.

To get to the bottom of the artificial intelligence technology conspiracy that landed her with Handa Robotics, The Major goes rogue. “They created me,” she says, “but they cannot control me.”

One of the most popular Japanese animated series of all time, “Ghost in the Shell” is a beautiful looking movie, which, like its main character, is in search of its soul. Director Rupert Sanders has an extraordinary eye, whether he is visualizing the hacking of The Major’s mind, creating a nightmarish nightclub sequence or bringing surreal cityscapes complete with video statues and future world architecture to vivid life. The movie is never less that entertaining for the eye, passing the time in a wild swirl of colour and movement.

It’s a shame the story isn’t as entertaining. Filtered through a Hollywood lens, what was once a seminal work of cyber punk is reduced to a superhero origin story with action scenes aplenty. Most are beautifully staged even though the odd shot feels like out takes from an upcoming Black Widow spin off.  

Johansson pulls off the cold efficiency of a machine tempered with emerging human feelings. She’s a killing machine but never more human than when she explores what it feels like to be flesh and blood, not synthetics and wires. Its territory she’s tread before, most notably and more effectively in “Under the Skin” but it’s an otherworldliness that suits the role.

Binoche as the empathetic AI specialist and mother figure is terrific and the legendary 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano isn’t given much to do, but does it with aplomb.

“Ghost in the Shell” is a gorgeous looking film that will engage the eye but not the brain.

2 ½ STARS