Scarlett Johansson saves “Ghost in the Shell” from clunky writing

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Adaptations of beloved franchises are bound to invite criticism from die-hard fans. This year’s live-action “Ghost in the Shell,” based on a Japanese manga and anime series, incited controversy and more with DreamWorks’ decision to cast Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.

Accusations of whitewashing have marred the film’s release, and these criticisms have merit. Yet, despite the criticism surrounding her, Johansson ends up being one of “Ghost in the Shell’s” best elements as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg cop who leaps from Tokyo skyscrapers with near-reckless abandon. She’s supported by a team from Public Security Section 9, led by Batou (Pilou Asbæk), a down-to-earth operative with robotic eyes, and the aging Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano)

While the Major excels at law enforcement, she’s unsatisfied with her life. She doesn’t remember much of her past before joining Section 9, but vague memories that do resurface contradict the official story that she was the survivor of a bombing. These loose ends send her on an adventure to rediscover her true identity.

Previous adaptations of “Ghost in the Shell” have not been as concerned with the Major’s past as this one, which is an origin story. While director Rupert Sanders and the screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger retain much of the anime’s spirit, the film avoids retreading old ground. Unfortunately, the actual story this “Ghost in the Shell” tells proves inferior to the anime feature’s nebulous and thought-provoking tale. Gone are the Major’s musings of what separates her robotic self from a real person — they’ve been replaced by a more cliched journey that gets resolved by beating the bad guy instead of understanding him. 

“Ghost in the Shell” attempts to match its source material’s introspective meditations on identity, memory and technology elsewhere as well. However, its efforts are ultimately uneven. The characters tend to become mouthpieces for the writers, and themes are more often stated through dialogue than shown through the narrative.

Where this remake does improve on the original is the pacing: This movie is brisk, and the Major’s emotional tether to the plot gives it a strong sense of purpose as she unravels the mysteries surrounding her creation. 

The action fares better, with great choreography and a great physical performance from Johansson, who executes her moves with confidence and grace. Those looking for straight translations of fights in the original animated film will be most satisfied here, as set pieces such as the spider tank fight and the water brawl serve as important beats. “Ghost in the Shell” nails the look and feel of the universe as well, serving up spoonfuls of eye candy whenever the camera sweeps over futuristic Tokyo.

The Major, Batou and the Chief all find ways to shine thanks to their talented performers and some genuine development. Batou provides some laughs and lends the movie some levity. The Chief owns the film’s best moment, when he gets pinned down by a group of thugs in a parking lot and seemingly has no way out. 

Nonetheless, “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t rise to the heights of its source material. It admirably tries to pay tribute to the original anime while forging its own destiny, but the path it has carved is a less exciting one. There are many times when Johansson takes down goons with deadly gracefulness. If only the rest of the movie around her was as smooth.