Arriving in theaters a bit bruised by accusations of whitewashing and battered by audience expectations ranging from skeptical to sky high, “Ghost in the Shell” winds up being the kind of good-but-not-great movie that does little to live up to the controversy that precedes it.
Scarlett Johansson stars in this moody, visually dazzling adaptation of Japanese director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film, which became a cult classic for its revolutionary mash-up of classical animation and computer generated effects.
Directed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), this iteration of “Ghost in the Shell” streamlines the original story, about a crime-fighting cyborg whose human soul — or “ghost” — begins to flutter to life with unsettling fragments of past memories.
Wearing a razored black hair style, her eyes two smoldering black embers, Johansson delivers a convincing if impassive performance as the “Major,” a somber superheroine who, like her animated antecedent, strips down to her porcelain-colored body suit (her “shell”) before literally diving into the action to perform her most acrobatically impressive derring-do.
In a time when most humans are cybernetically enhanced to live longer and perform better, the Major is simply the most extreme example of how the lines between what’s human and what’s technological have blurred. But she’s haunted by existential questions about her true identity.
Her doctor — a scientist played with motherly concern by Juliette Binoche — told her that her brain was salvaged from a refugee whose parents were killed by terrorists in the harbor of the sprawling Japanese city where “Ghost in the Shell” takes place.
In the film’s arresting opening sequence, we see her brain being transplanted into her synthetic body, which emerges from a final bath of milky glaze that hardens and shatters, revealing the humanlike form beneath.
Sanders evinces a similar fascination with surfaces throughout “Ghost in the Shell,” whether they’re grimy, gleaming, glistening or dissolving into an enigmatic haze of pixels. The movie is often lovely to look at, its ultramodern metropolis setting a hive of holographic billboards, personal-media bubbles, seductive neon and classical Asian design elements.
As the Major and her colleague Batou seek out a mysterious super-hacker known here as Kuze, what passes for a story turns out to be relatively prosaic. But, whether it’s quoting its original source material (as in that birth sequence, or reimagining a squad of “geisha bots”), or creating eye-catching new set pieces, “Ghost in the Shell” is often ravishing — and at a swift 105 minutes, it knows better than to overstay its welcome.
With her chilly, monotonic reserve, Johansson is playing another version of a character that’s become something of a go-to in recent years, in such intriguing speculative fantasies as “Under the Skin,” “Lucy” and the rapidly evolving operating system in “Her.”
Although purists will still no doubt think of the Major as a properly Asian character, Sanders has eased the inherent cultural tensions of “Ghost in the Shell” somewhat by making it a pluralistic ensemble picture: Binoche is French; the Danish actor Pilou Asbaek plays Batou; the Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca plays a key role; and the legendary Japanese crime-film actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano portrays Major’s commander, Aramaki (tossing in an amusingly self-referential moment along the way).
Narratively, “Ghost in the Shell” is rather dull, in large part because of the many movies that have copied the anime original so ingeniously. This version may not break new ground, but it revisits familiar territory with a vibrant sense of style and welcome restraint. It exemplifies the kind of respectable and utterly unnecessary remake that now defines the Hollywood business model.