In Rupert Sanders’ agile, visually resplendent live-action reimagining of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime masterstroke Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson plays Major Motoko Kusanagi, a character who, in both the anime and the 1989 Masamune Shirow manga on which it’s based, is clearly Japanese. The issue of whitewashed casting is significant not because we shouldn’t have a white American Major—if Johansson can capture the spirit of the character, why not?—but because we still live in a universe where there isn’t likely to be, say, an Asian James Bond. Rigid ethnic tiers already cause more problems in the world than we can count. Movies give us the chance to blur divisions—a challenge that Hollywood films, especially, has been slow to meet.
But Johansson isn’t a liability in Ghost in the Shell. She’s its great strength. The picture is set in a future world where humans can be physically cyber-enhanced, made stronger and more intelligent than before. Even within that context, Major is an anomaly. After an accident that nearly destroyed her body, she was saved from death and wholly rebuilt by benevolent scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Now she’s a cyborg with a human spirit, though her new life isn’t her own, and her memories aren’t either. She’s groomed as an anti-terrorist soldier, a tool of the company whose technology resurrected her, Hanka Corp. Her job is to fight dark forces with the ability to hack not just into computer networks but into human brains.
The genius of Ghost in the Shell is that you don’t have to care about cyborg-anything to enjoy it. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy it more that way. Hardcore fans of the original are bound to have problems with Sanders’ version, even though it borrows plenty of visual inspiration from the earlier movie, particularly the sequence in which Major’s new physical self is created: She’s a featureless naked form rising from a pool of water, her body seemingly coated with something like eggshell. When that cracks apart, pieces float off like feathers. Major carries herself like a riot grrrl descendant, her haircut borrowed from both Joan Jett and Louise Brooks. She’s part of a squad known as Section 9, and her second-in-command is Batou, a fierce soldier and hulking softy (played, with musclebound grace, by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk) who understands Major better than anyone else. Both answer to Daisuke Aramaki (the great Japanese actor and director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), an old-school type who prefers an engraved revolver to modern cyberweapons. He treats Major with fatherly benevolence, though he never condescends to her—she’s so fierce, he couldn’t get away with it if he tried.
Major’s work takes her to the streets of an unnamed futuristic Pan-Asian city, a jagged array of glass skyscrapers that’s a little Tokyo, a little Shanghai, a little New York. At night it’s aglow not just with neon but with oversized holographic images in translucent jelly colors—they float above and between its buildings, like half-heard visual whispers. Are they advertising, or are they glimpses of the people—or cyborgs—who inhabit the city? That’s unclear, but the images are mesmerizing either way. A translucent young woman applies lipstick to her pout, as if getting ready for a date. A giant koi or two slither between the buildings as if swimming through the air. It’s an operatic updating of the riotous multi-level city of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element.
Yet for all the film’s dazzle—particularly if you opt to see it in I-Max 3-D—it’s not particularly noisy or assaultive. Even the climactic fight sequence stands apart from the megabooming excess of most modern comic-book movies. It’s swift, compact and doesn’t depend on the destruction of a whole city for its kicks. Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) may not be 100 percent faithful to every existential idea introduced in the original material, but the film he’s made is still laced with pop melancholy. When Dr. Ouelet, her eyes glowing with science-person pride, tells Major, “You’re what everyone will be one day,” Major responds with a howl from the soul disguised as a plain declarative sentence: “You don’t know how alone that makes me feel.” Later she declares, “Nothing I have is real.” Yet her eyes look more alive than those of anyone around her.
Johansson is a fine actress in general. But why is she particularly terrific when she’s playing a futuristic cyborg, as she is here, or a sexually predatory yet anguished alien (Under the Skin), or a regular human whose capabilities have been enhanced by sci-fi fantasy drugs (Lucy)? Maybe it’s because she has the kind of face you might find inside a Victorian locket. She’s so out of time that she’s of every time. As Major, she embodies defiance, not compliance, but there’s a mist of doubt in her eyes, too. At one point, she approaches a city prostitute, and the two sneak off to a room. Major traces the contours of the woman’s face as if she were searching for her own selfhood. (The scene is beautiful—it ought to have been much longer.)
Major is working every minute to figure out who she is, and that’s got to be draining—it must be a relief for her just to move. This brainwave warrior has an amazing wardrobe of tough-girl gear, from padded bomber jackets to parkas that look to be made of papery silk. (The costumes are by Kurt & Bart, the wild duo who designed for the Hunger Games films.) But when Major strides into battle, her outfit of choice is the thing that passes for her own skin: It’s like a pieced-together bodystocking made of latex, with the color and luminosity of opaque milk glass.
If that body is just a shell—then what a shell! But it’s Johansson’s face, with its shifting lunar phases of tenderness, confusion and resolve, that holds the movie together. Her Major is a citizen of nowhere and everywhere. Yet her ghost belongs to no one other than herself.