An identity crisis lies at the heart of “Ghost in the Shell,” starring Scarlett Johansson as a government agent called The Major. Even in a world where cyber-enhancement is the norm for humans, Major is unique — a brain transplanted into a skin-covered robot shell. Though Major has only flickering memories of her past and a limited capacity for emotion, her handler, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), assures her she is human. “Your mind, your soul, your ghost,” she says, “it’s still here.”
The identity question is ironic given that “Ghost in the Shell,” based on the Japanese comics franchise, has drawn criticism for transplanting the caucasian Johansson into what should be an Asian role. Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton have also come under fire for such “whitewashing” in recent movies (“The Great Wall” and “Doctor Strange,” respectively). But there was some wiggle room in the way those roles were written. Here, the charge sticks, and because of the way “Ghost in the Shell” eventually reveals Major’s true origins, the movie has only itself to blame.
Political incorrectness, however, is the least of this film’s problems. The 1995 animé version, though hugely popular, was never more than an incremental twist on 1982’s “Blade Runner,” and this live-action version feels much the same. In terms of its concept, its backdrop of a Tokyo-esque dystopia and its computer-aided action scenes, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before.
That’s too bad, because as any Marvel fan knows, Johansson is a proven action-heroine. And it must be said: With her choppy haircut, perfect eyebrows and flesh-colored suit (glued to her metal frame like a jigsaw puzzle), Johansson fits the role of Major to a tee. She also has sturdy support from Pilou Asbaek as Batou, her goggle-eyed human colleague, and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (a cult hero among Japanese action buffs) as her supervisor, Aramaki. Michael Pitt is enjoyable as Kuze, a botched cyber-experiment with the robotic-yet-husky voice of an aroused MacBook.
Director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) doesn’t offer much new in the way of action — it’s the usual shootouts and parkour — while the script (a three-writer effort) consistently fails to surprise us. The most memorable scenes (including one in which Major pulls her own arm loose to save a friend) are lifted directly from the animé, while the rest of the movie is a cluttered-looking jumble of hologram effects and computer-generated filigree. Even die-hard fans of the franchise may find “Ghost in the Shell” rings hollow.