Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk opus, “Ghost in the Shell,” was one of the first Japanese anime titles to cross over to Western audiences, and it’s been reissued and repackaged so often since the millennium that it’s scant surprise studio execs seized upon it as reproducible property. Possibly it was a matter of waiting: for digital effects houses to get up to spec, the right deals to be struck, and any accusations of cultural appropriation to blow over. Paramount’s all-new live-action “Ghost,” powered by hefty reserves of American and Asian money, emerges as a dazzling logistical display with a missing file where the human interest might once have been stored.
Fans need not blubber unduly. As overseen by “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders, this transliteration would seem faithful enough to satiate those who just want to see favorite scenes and characters redrawn on the biggest screen imaginable. As that suggests, what’s been tinkered with is the scale. Oshii’s knotty postmodern inquiries into identity — a stopover on that sci-fi continuum connecting “Blade Runner” to “The Matrix” — are here stretched into IMAX-ready, 3D-enabled spectacle. Blown up to this magnitude, ideas already threadbare through 20 years of recycling start to look doubly thin.
Narratively, there’s little to separate this from the original. Again, we open on the creation of a cyborg: Scarlett Johansson’s Major is the human brain, retrieved in the wake of a fatal accident, who’s now set lovingly in a slinky-dinky metal-plastic carapace and evolves to exist at the mercy of multiple masters. There’s the counterterrorism chief (Takeshi Kitano) who dispatches her to investigate a series of assassinations; the female engineer (Juliette Binoche, slumming elegantly) who nurtures her and patches her up; and her corporate manufacturers, embodied by Peter Ferdinando’s brooding Mr. Cutter, who regard her as no more than an asset on a spreadsheet.
More compelling than any of these figures, however, is the realm they pass through. Sanders’ flawed but glitzy “Snow White” rehash positioned him as a facilitator of lavishly visualized, if faintly derivative, worlds. Armed here with the latest modeling software and several skilled analogue collaborators, including production designer Jan Roelfs (“Gattaca”), emergent cinematographer Jess Hall (“Transcendence”), he goes into hyperdrive. Every scene thrusts out something to catch (and occasionally caress) the eye: murky drinking dens besieged by scuttling, arachnoid attendants, a watery virtual limbo where binary ones and zeroes float up like bubbles.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
So yes, it’s the shiniest of kit; whether the emotions are stirred is another matter. Johansson sets the level of engagement, playing the impervious shell rather better than the restless ghost. In 2013’s unsettling “Under the Skin,” the actress was directed into signaling a hybrid’s dawning consciousness (and conscience); here, she’s limited to looking puzzled while convoluted plot elements stream around her. The time Johansson logged among the Avengers means she could perform the role’s ass-kicking aspects in her sleep — but in so many other scenes, she appears to be on autopilot.
Supporting players are defined chiefly by their hairstyles. “Snowtown” ne’er-do-well Daniel Henshall models a mullet that identifies him as an individual of questionable judgement; Major’s sidekick Pilou Asbaek sports a shock of white fluff that might work for manga heroes but turns grown men into Billy Idol tribute acts. As his explosion-blackened corneas are replaced with ophthalmic lenses, you sense a rampant techno-decorousness beginning to consume the performers. That instinct is compounded upon seeing Buddhist monks plugged into a towering cable router redolent of the Tree of Life in “Avatar.” Like much else here, it’s striking but second-hand.
That last image has presumably been designed to chime with a moment when even the Dalai Lama delivers his wisdom in 140-character bytes, yet— like its allusions to corporate overreach and female consent — it doesn’t connect meaningfully with anything else. The data collected from Oshii’s film pings around inside the new film’s circuitry without ever threatening to accumulate critical mass. The result is a “Ghost” for the Twitterati, all flashing lights and pretty colors, at once distracting and distractible, spinning its wheels ahead of a city-trashing finale that recalls … well, every other city-trashing finale of the past half-decade.
The film is not without its superficial pleasures, and non-devotees might soak up some of its stimuli for future repurposing as profile photos, or as the backdrop to a club night. Sanders is becoming increasingly adept at framing the kind of images any 14-year-old would deem cool (Scar-Jo in slo-mo, erupting through plate glass in latex!), which should ensure smooth progress in the modern movie business. Yet whatever philosophical nuggets were lurking amid Oshii’s tangled plotting, they surely merited closer consideration by a filmmaker who wasn’t trading in gloss, and doesn’t merely regard human beings as elements of design.
“Ghost in the Shell” opens in theaters on Friday, March 31.