Some of the most interesting stuff in Ghost in the Shell happens in the background. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and production designer Jan Roelfs (Gattaca) have created a fascinating future Tokyo that goes the LA of Blade Runner one better: Instead of enormous digital billboards, vast animated advertising holograms crowd the cityscape. Viewers may find themselves distracted by these monstrous ghostly figures — What on earth is that body builder shilling for? Or that retro '60s flight attendant? — to the point where they lose track of the foreground narrative.
Problem is, that narrative is not the most compelling. Based on Shirow Masamune's visionary manga series, which debuted in 1989 and has already spawned numerous TV and feature anime versions, Ghost in the Shell feels like a middling cyberpunk flick that has sat on a shelf since the early '90s. Back then, plots involving cyber-enhanced brains jacked directly into the internet were cutting-edge. Now, they seem like relics of a time before most people actually went online.
That's not to say the premise of Ghost in the Shell isn't still full of potential. Its protagonist, a kick-ass anti-terrorism agent known only as the Major (Scarlett Johansson), consists of a human brain in a synthetic body. Recent sci-fi successes such as Ex Machina and HBO's "Westworld" have gotten plenty of dramatic mileage out of exploring the ever-finer line between human and machine.
But this Americanized version of Ghost doesn't "explore" those questions so much as use them to tell a pretty standard superhero-style origin story. Resurrected by a corporate scientist (Juliette Binoche) after the death of her human body, the Major fights crime with a team of underdeveloped human buddies and a stoic expression. When a mysterious hacker starts bumping off officers of the corporation that created her, the Major pursues him — and learns she may have been sold a bill of goods about her own past.
It's a lot like RoboCop, frankly, if you subtract all the humor and add trippy visuals. From android geishas that crawl like crabs to people coming apart into digital confetti, Ghost is the rare film that explores the unsettling potential of CGI. When the Major goes to work, she throws off her clothes to reveal a Barbie-doll body that replicates its background and camouflages her — an uncanny, mesmerizing effect. If only she had a personality or occasionally cracked a joke, but the comic relief is left to her partner, Batou (Pilou Asbaek).
The filmmakers made a controversial — and, no doubt, market-driven — choice to replace most of the manga's Japanese characters with white Americans and Europeans. A revelation late in the film seems intended to offer a self-aware commentary on that practice, but, like so many intriguing motifs in Ghost, it doesn't lead anywhere.
While the Major's blankness is supposed to be a symptom of her alienation from her former self, her eventual reclaiming of humanity lacks much weight. She ends up posed like Batman in Gotham, ready to defend her city, as if she has resolved the embryonic conflict between her robot body and human mind simply by getting rid of a few bad apples.
While it's a serviceable sci-fi thriller, Ghost in the Shell ends up feeling like just another action-oriented franchise starter, with nothing new to say about the increasingly more feasible prospect of cyber-enhanced humanity. Its shell is a marvel of design, but the spirit isn't there.