"Ghost in the Shell" is 40% a modestly effective update of the iconic Japanese manga and anime series, 60% studio assembly-line product. One can squint and see traces of the 1995 film's moody, mesmerizing tone, as well as a genuine attempt to build on the lore of the series rather than simply recreate it. It is mildly more ambitious than the average tentpole release without ever being especially good.
The film is set in the futuristic New Port City, where a vast majority of humans are augmented with cybernetics. Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) becomes the first human whose brain (or "ghost") is transplanted into a cybernetic body (or "shell") following a terrorist attack, and goes to work for a counter-terrorism outfit. She's charged to take out a mysterious hacker (Michael Pitt) who's killing the scientists behind the technology, only to learn that the company who saved her life may not have given her the full details about him or about her past.
The new version of "Ghost in the Shell" has been surrounded by controversy over the casting of Johansson, a white actress, as a traditionally Japanese character (though one could spend eons talking about anime's complicated history with representation, as critic Emily Yoshida does in The Verge). Either through their initial design or as a retroactive way to justify the casting, the filmmakers have come up with a fairly clever way to address this that ties into the series' themes of shifting identity. I will not spoil the conceit, but will say that it's a fascinating idea that's more potent in theory than in the film's execution, which spends too long hiding it in a standard "hero searching for a past" storyline that ultimately makes it feel primarily like a workaround for a problem the filmmakers created.
Still, while it's impossible to separate her casting from the cultural problem of whitewashing, Johansson's performance is, in a vacuum, very good. The actress has become both one of the most daring and dependably great major stars in Hollywood, choosing roles that comment on or complicate her image. Like "Her," "Under the Skin" and "Lucy" before it, "Ghost in the Shell" sees Johansson as an advanced being, someone halfway between humanity and a higher plane of existence forced to live among it. Appropriately, there's a spectacular quality to her voice and face in this film that's simultaneously deadpan and deeply expressive.
Much of the supporting cast is underserved, with Pilou Asbeck, Chin Han and Peter Ferdinando barely making impressions as Major's partner, her only non-augmented human colleague and the obvious bad guy, respectively, while Pitt is badly miscast. Two notable exceptions: Juliette Binoche, who, like in her earlier blockbuster cameo in "Godzilla" (another update of Japanese popular art), establishes an emotional connection with our protagonist in only a few scene as her creator and primary caretaker; and Japanese actor "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, speaking in his native language (in a neat detail, all of the characters understand him perfectly), instilling gravity to the proceedings, and earning the film's best action scene (and best line).
But aside from Kitano's late-film showcase, that's part of what's missing from this "Ghost in the Shell." Never a particularly lucid piece of storytelling or expression of ideas, director Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film was most notable for its expressive animation style and contemplative mood even in its most kinetic action scenes. Sanders attempts to get part of that here, but his film is more designed than directed, his action clumsily staged and generically edited. There's an unmistakable feeling of everything being just slightly off, a facsimile of Oshii's film, its precursors ("Blade Runner," "Robocop") and its derivatives ("The Matrix") without being its own thing. The shell is here. The ghost — the spirit — not so much.