Unless they’ve actually been living in a shell for the last couple of years, most moviegoers probably are aware of the controversy swirling around “Ghost in the Shell.”
Based on Mamoru Oshii’s pioneering Japanese manga series with a large and devoted global following, this tale about the adventures of a female human-robot hybrid has been tossed computer-chip-deep into the swirling cross-currents of the debate about race and image in Hollywood.
In print and in the 1995 anime movie version, the protagonist — Major Motoko Kusanagi — is a strong and heroic Japanese woman. In this $110 million makeover, while the setting remains Asia, the character is now just called Major by friends and foes alike and she’s played by the very non-Japanese Scarlett Johansson. Charges of “whitewashing” have dogged the film since the cast was announced in 2015.
The thing is that this argument — and the larger, behind-the-screen discussion about how Asians and Asian-Americans are portrayed, or perhaps more accurately not portrayed, in American media — is far more interesting than most of what’s on the screen in “Ghost in the Shell.”
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Often visually stunning and with intriguing questions about where humanity ends and robotics begins at its heart, it nevertheless devolves into a generic action movie.
At the start, the brain of Major is being transferred from the human body in which she was born to a cyborg body with super-human skills. The people behind it work for Hanka Robotics where Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist responsible for Major, feels very protective of her creation.
But she can’t stop Hanka honcho Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) from letting Major be put to work as a fearsome “weapon” for the Section 9 intelligence agency as it goes about its business of uncovering percolating plots and terrorist villainy.
Then the mysterious ultra-hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt) starts picking off Hanka higher-ups, one by one. It’s Major — and her squad of ever-ready soldiers led by Batou (Pilou Asbaek) — to the rescue.
As directed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), from a screenplay by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, “Ghost in the Shell” has some well-staged and entertaining action scenes. And, as she showed in “Lucy” and “The Avengers” movies, Johansson can more than hold her own as an action hero.
Also, it’s great to see veteran Japanese actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who plays the head of Hanka with his usual no-nonsense gruffness, getting exposure to a non-art-house audience who may be unfamiliar with him.
It has to be said that “Ghost in the Shell” is ravishingly gorgeous. Kudos to Sanders, cinematographer Jess Hall and production designer Jan Roelfs for their impressive vision.
The soaring nighttime skyline of their Asian megalopolis is a hallucinogenic, fever dream of urban density, aglow with a super-charged LCD and LED-lit street life and large, moving holographic ads. Think of the visuals of “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” or the cityscape of Las Vegas or Tokyo times 10. Yet, by day, there’s the decaying, rain-sodden feel of a high-rise shantytown, all hinting at a place with a million stories, both fascinating and frightening, to tell.
That city and the legacy of the original manga creation deserve a better story than this beautiful shell where the ghost has long since vanished.
Ghost in the Shell
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Rupert Sanders
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano
Rated: PG-13 (intense sci-fi violence, suggestive content and disturbing images)
Running time: 107 min.