Scarlett Johansson is on the move in the sci-fi ‘Ghost in the Shell’
Within the first few minutes of the new “Ghost in the Shell,” the main character emerges from a milky bath, every inch of her sleekly nude, cybernetic body covered in blinding whiteness.
It’s a copy of a shot from the original 1995 anime classic. But it also feels like a middle finger raised at the film’s early critics.
Since the remake of the Asian film was announced, they’ve been protesting the casting of a Caucasian actress. And with that one image, the movie both acknowledges that issue and brushes it aside.
Yeah, we’ve whitewashed the character. Literally. And, um, your point being?
But once you get past the fact of that character re-configuration – and certainly many people won’t – you’ll also see a movie filled with gorgeous visuals, and good actors. (And one that even addresses – and somewhat answers – that racial re-alignment later in its plot.)
It’s not an improvement on its trippy inspiration. But it’s not a desecration, either.
The story – changed a bit from the original – has Scarlett Johansson as the Major, the victim of a terrorist attack who’s been reborn as a government-agent cyborg with an almost indestructible body now protecting her own, sharp human brain (the “ghost” inside her “shell”).
She and her small team are told to solve the murder of a prominent tech executive. But his murder only leads to more murders, and the pursuit of a mysterious hacker known as Kuze, who has his own complex agenda, and a complicated past.
Johansson is certainly believable as the Major, yet also predictable – counting “Lucy” and her various Marvel appearances, this is at least the sixth time she’s played some sort of super-efficient killer. Is this really all she wants to do these days?
It’s peculiar because 15 or 20 years ago, the young actress was having a truly interesting career – making “Ghost World” and “Lost in Translation,” working with Woody Allen and Brian De Palma. And she continues to do great work on stage.
Those tough films have gotten rarer, though. In fact, her most challenging film this decade was (the terrific) “Under the Skin” – and even in that avant-garde dream, she played a murderous extraterrestrial.
Still she’s probably having fun. She’s certainly making money. And she kicks and karate-chops her way through “Ghost in the Shell” with calmly ironic efficiency — not easy to do when you’re sewn into a nude, curve-cramping bodysuit.
She’s ably partnered by Pilou Asbaek as her best friend on the force, Juliette Binoche as her personal Dr. Frankenstein and the great Takeshi Kitano as her boss (clearly trying to make up for casting a Hollywood star, the filmmakers have worked hard to fill the movie with an international array of performers).
The film, though, doesn’t draw its power from its acting, its plot or even its over-edited action scenes. Instead it comes from director Rupert Sanders’ wild use of imagery – the artificial body parts that people snap on like accessories, the tubes that directly connect brains to the web, the giant hologram ads that hover over this Asian city like Godzilla.
It’s great fun, although it’s hardly novel. When the first “Ghost in the Shell” arrived, it was already drawing on Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and “RoboCop”; in the more than 20 years since it was released, it’s inspired almost too many cyberpunk movies to count (“The Matrix” being the biggest, and boldest, of them all).
And because this version is a big-budget, low-risk version of something that took risks and set standards, it can’t avoid disappointing. It avoids delving into the really intricate discussions of self and duality the first film did. It doesn’t have its haunting music, or astonishing ending.
It’s a gorgeous copy of an original, but a safe copy all the same – a careful, calculated “Bland Runner.”
But every so often, like the glitches in a computer program, something real, or surreal, breaks through.
Like the Major’s visit to a mourning mother, full of unspoken regret. The yakuza sang-froid of Kitano, as he strides into honorable battle. A lovely, lonely encounter with a streetwalker (which feels censoriously, cravenly, cut short). Or – in another borrowing from the original film – the scuttling, screeching spider-tank.
And for those moments, the movie becomes something more than a flashy cash-in.
And the ghost in its own shell comes to life.
Ratings note: The film contains violence