Scarlett Johansson's more than a little curious about the overall importance of our bodies. The lithe and limber actress who endures physical tortures as Marvel's Black Widow, or at the center of Luc Besson's Lucy, likes to explore -- in non-tentpole efforts -- the use of our outer shells, and the perceptions that our bodies and our images have on the reality of our existences. It's true. A conversation that Johansson helped to start in the mesmerizing sci-fi thinker Under the Skin continues in her recent Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of a popular Japanese manga with a main character investigating how her ghost (soul) ended up in a particular shell (body).
Johansson's fascination with this spiritual conundrum has to be the main reason why you'd cast her -- a prototypical Western, Hollywood, A-list movie star -- in a futuristic movie that, in the past, has given a platform to Japanese characters. Masamune Shirow's 1989 epic Ghost in the Shell has been translated on the page and in animated, on-screen form before, but never once prior did the "shell" of Major look like an American woman. Purists may be bothered by this change. (Heck, "may" is an understatement... the outrage over the perceived white-washing has dominated the conversation on Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell interpretation.
In context, however, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major for this updated Ghost in the Shell didn't bother me in the slightest. As the elaborate and visually spectacular opening sequence explains, the story is set in a future where cybernetic enhancements to human bodies are commonplace. Major (Johansson) starts off as a brain rescued from a person who nearly died in a boating accident. The brain is preserved in a synthetic body -- a "ghost" placed inside of a "shell." Once complete, Major is trained to be a police officer, investigating the seedy Section 9.
So really, the "shell" in a telling of Ghost in the Shell can (and almost should) look different every time this story is told. Part of the mystery of this neo-future crime noir is learning the identity of Major's original brain, but once we know who it belonged to, does it change the race of the synthetic casing holding the brain... the casing that happens to look like Scarlett Johansson? For some, it does. For me, if didn't. Major could look like a man, a woman, a featureless drone or a candy cane. The question of the "ghost" -- or the essence that comes with the brain -- wouldn't change. That, I thought, was the moral of the story.
Essentially, though, the debate over casting is the least of the issues plaguing Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell, as the overall package is technically proficient but in desperate need of some personality. Major is, by design, a cool and detached character, a brain operating its body the way that gears would operate a wristwatch. She shows the same level of emotion whether she's mowing down a squad of heavily-armed adversaries or confronting the woman who might have been her mother in a past life. Either Sanders asks Johansson to play every beat on the same note, or she chose to do that on her own, but it doesn't help to raise the pulse of this alleged thriller at any point during its run.
The rest of the cast, however, could have picked up Johansson's slack. Two male characters interact with Major over the course of her central investigation, and neither leave an impression. Pilou Asbaek plays Batou, Major's partner on the police force who adopts Gary Busey's bleach-blonde looks but doesn't attempt the loose-canon swagger that Busey always brings. Michael Pitt, meanwhile, plays Kuze, the villain whom Major is tracking, and he could have chewed a little more scenery (or any, really) to inject Ghost with some needed flavor. Alas, it doesn't happen.
For these reasons, Ghost in the Shell is an unnecessary adaptation of an already-appreciated story that largely glides along on the surfaces of this beautiful nightmare without ever relishing in the grit and oddities that make the source material unique. It lacks even one memorable set piece, an action sequence that would allow me to say, "Yes, see it just in order to witness THAT on the big screen." Numerous times during Ghost in the Shell, I thought of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and the impressive way that Sir Ridley Scott photographed a futuristic world that oozed and dripped with tangible atmosphere. You actually believed that Scott built his worlds, then took a camera crew to them in order to film his action. Every frame of Sanders' effort looks like it was created in a computer, with shiny, unblemished tech that never feels organic or real. And that's a real shame.