GHOST IN THE SHELL

Producer: Ari Arad, Avi Arad, Michael Costigan and Steven Paul
Director: Rupert Sanders
Writer: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samai, Peter Ferdinando, Kaori Momoi, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Henshall, Lasarus Ratuere and Yutaka Izumihara
Studio: Paramount Pictures

C-

A classic Japanese manga title, which had already been the basis of a well-regarded animated film as well as many video games, has undergone a major makeover in Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell,” in which Scarlett Johansson returns to “Lucy” territory as a heroine with very special powers.

In the reworking scripted by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, Johansson plays The Major, a fighter against cyber-terrorism. The Major is a cyborg: the essence of her humanity—her mind, or soul (the “ghost”) has been implanted into a new body (the “shell”), a technological marvel that makes her a superwoman of sorts. In the futuristic society where the story is set, she works for Section 9, a unit headed by a grizzled boss named Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano); her virile partner is Batou (Pilou Asbaek).

The movie begins by showing The Major’s creation by brilliant Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) under the watchful eye of Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), the head of Hanka Robotics, which provides security to the government The circumstances of her “birth,” however, are initially withheld until later. In the meantime the basic plot takes over, which consists of the Section 9 team being deployed to protect Hanka executives against the murderous attacks of a master hacker, a sinister, hooded figure who eventually reveals himself as Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt).

The mission involves them in a string of battles in which automatic weapons and grenades play a dominant role. (One might imagine that fifty years hence, other forms of killing devices might have been devised, but no: the closest we get is a “Spider Tank” at the end, which turns out to be as silly-looking as it sounds. Anyway, “Bring out the Spider Tank” will never have the classic resonance of “Release the Kraken!”)

The two main story threads converge as The Major and her comrades follow a path of incomprehensible clues to find Kuze, who turns out to be connected to her forgotten human past and her former identity. In the process the truth emerges about the plans of Cutter and Hanka, which just might conflict with those of Aramaki and his crew. (The revelations about The Major’s past show, incidentally, that Cutter and his team are about as clueless as Dr. Frankenstein was when he implanted the brain of a killer into his monster. At least Victor had the excuse that Igor didn’t tell him the source. It’s no wonder that The Major turns out to be such a reckless sort of heroine, a supposed minion who regularly flouts authority and disobeys orders.)

In any event, along the way to the big concluding confrontation there are plenty of chases, gun battles, and sequences in which The Major is temporarily incapacitated and threatened by one potential foe or another. There is also a surfeit of scenes showing Johansson striding resolutely down hallways or flying nimbly in the air in a collection of tight-fitting costumes (including one particularly revealing cream-colored body suit). Many of these are shot from the front, as you might expect, but quite a few consist of what appear to be Steadicam footage from the rear. At times the picture seems positively derriere-centric.

Throughout Johansson keeps an impassive expression, in keeping with what seems to be her limited acting ability. She is certainly attractive, however, and director Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall seem obsessed with taking advantage of her considerable physical attributes, the target audience should approve. Among the other cast members, Binoche brings a welcome touch of humanity to what is otherwise a pretty sterile enterprise, and it is enjoyable to watch Kitano doing the tough-guy routine familiar from his Japanese crime pictures again. Otherwise, Asbaek is generically gruff and Ferdinando one-note nasty. Pitt, who was once touted as a handsome leading-man type, is reduced to stumbling about in garb that, for a while, makes him look like the Emperor from “Star Wars” movies before he doffs his hoodie to show his true visage. It’s not the pleasantest sight.

Nonetheless “Ghost in the Shell” works best—if at all—as eye candy, and not simply because Johansson is on screen almost continuously. The production design by Jan Roelf (complemented by Kurt and Bart’s costumes) is designed to fill the screen with stunning imagery—and it largely succeeds, especially when the film is viewed in the large-screen IMAX format. The city landscapes are endlessly busy riots of color and movement, with huge hologram advertisements clashing against moving neon billboards, acting as striking counterpoints to the darker, smaller interior sequences of fights in office, restaurants, bars, cellars and what appear to be sewer tunnels.

Still, as opulent and eye-catching as the visuals are (and as overwhelming as the score by Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell is, particularly in an IMAX room), there isn’t much to them that we’ve not seen before, even in 3D. And as the story that’s unspooling in front of the wild backgrounds is mainly repetitive and obvious, they’re less impressive than they might otherwise have been. After all, there’s a myriad of existential questions at the core of “Ghost in the Shell”—issues of reality, identity and illusion—that earlier versions of the title have raised but this film treats only obliquely, if at all, thrusting them aside in a search for yet more mindless action.

So what we’re left with is a bloated, bombastic and ultimately vacuous orgy of mayhem that—if you’ll permit a play on its heroine’s title—proves a Major disappointment.