It’s somehow only fitting that with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, “Ghost in the Shell” leaves you with the feeling that something has been lost in translation.
By casting her as the main character in a live-action adaptation of the immensely popular Japanese sci-fi manga/anime franchise, Hollywood has carried out an act of cultural appropriation that no doubt made sense from the perspective of boardroom bean counters. If you’re going to spend megamillions on a picture, you want an A-list American star to, you hope, attract a massive global audience. No Japanese actress has anything approaching that kind of box office clout.
But as the character Major, a counterterrorist cyborg operative whose mechanical body is powered by a human brain, Johansson’s performance is, well, robotic. With her face almost expressionless, she delivers her lines in a monotone. The sharp-edged intensity with which the Major speaks in the English-dubbed 1995 anime feature from director Mamoru Oshii, on which this picture is based, is missing here.
Sharp-edged as well are the images in that anime. The lines of the characters and the Asian city in which the movie is set are clean and precise. Not so the images in Hollywood’s version. Seemingly heavily influenced by “Blade Runner,” the dark and densely packed cityscapes in director Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost” are a hodgepodge of twitchy holograms of people and objects, many as tall as skyscrapers, flickering and zapping in a manner that gives the picture a jittery vibe.
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The futuristic society of “Ghost” is awash in technology, and that technology is prone to hacking and malfunctions.
The too-busy production design distracts from the essence of the plot, which has Major grappling with conflicted feelings of whether she’s more human or more machinelike. Her human mind and personality is the ghost of the title and her manufactured body is the shell that contains it.
As she tracks a cowled cyberterrorist though crowded streets and dank subterranean passageways to the accompaniment of lots of gunplay and explosions, an insidious conspiracy with her at its center slowly reveals itself.
The picture re-creates a number of key scenes from the anime version, but introduces a new key plot element that diverges significantly from the original. Like Major, it suffers from an identity crisis. This “Ghost” doesn’t seem to quite know what it is or what it wants to be.
Ghost in the Shell
☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Carmen Pitt, Yutaka Izumihara.
Director: Rupert Sanders.
Running time: 1:47.
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.