Ghost in the Shell stars Scarlett Johansson as a future-world cyborg whose human-robot interface has been plagued by glitches.
"Maybe you should design me better next time," she says, to tech support.
The line gets a laugh — Johansson is, by any objective standard, well-designed.
In the Ghost in the Shell prologue, she arises from a vat of white latex that forms her cyborg skin, a birthday suit she wears often in the movie, in a form actually toned down from the soft-core contours of the character in previous incarnations — Shirow Masamune's manga series and the highly regarded 1995 Mamoru Oshii animated film.
The visually dazzling new "live-action" movie (much is computer generated), in fact, spends time literally deconstructing the physical form of Johansson's character. Her only human component is her software-amplified brain, and pieces of her body are removed and replaced as if she were a Lego contraption.
And while we might wonder, under these circumstances, what gender even means (shades of Johansson's Her), the cyborg herself has bigger questions: Who and what am I, and do I have a soul?
Is there a "ghost" in this mechanical shell?
Johansson plays The Major, part of an anti-terrorist unit in some near-future Asian metropolis, itself an amalgam of the real and the virtual. Holograms are everywhere — the pop-ads of the future — and the line between real and artificial is effectively blurred in ways that in director Rupert Sanders' vision feels dispiriting and dystopian (there is a perverse emptiness to his crowded world that is interesting).
The city has lately been plagued by a cyber-terrorist of near-mystical power. He attacks the robotics corporation that built and designed the Major, who is now called upon to fight for a program she's not sure is worth defending.
The Major is the first of her kind, a prototype for a future of technologically "enhanced" humanity, and she's not pleased with the initial results. She has little memory of her life in a human body, does not trust the vague memories she has, nor the evasive scientists (Juliette Binoche) who dodge questions about her programming.
In fact, the only useful information The Major obtains about her true nature seems to come from the man (Michael Pitt) she is pursuing, adding a dash of intrigue to the movie's serviceable storyline.
Ghost in the Shell, though, isn't much of a mystery, and it's not meant to be. Nominal questions about the true nature of The Major are stand-ins for bigger themes — technological intrusion into the human realm, and whether a line can even be drawn between humans and the technology we create.
Here Ghost in the Shell invites comparisons to the classic Blade Runner, and it will come up short. Sanders' vision is often arresting, but his movie contains too many concessions to modern action-movie conventions — the martial arts, the gunfights. Gunfights? Humans have evolved into cyborgs, but guns haven't evolved at all. One guy still uses a holstered revolver. In a world where you might be firing at a hologram, this seems a bit dated.
So the movie is missing the tragic/poetic element of Blade Runner, which is to say that it's missing Rutger Hauer. But Ghost in the Shell is also trying to engage a modern, younger audience, with its famously brief attention span.
You see what it's up against. I sat in front of three young ladies who texted throughout. Probably with each other.