Ghost in the Shell looks great, sounds great and has a gaping hole at its center -- where its emotional core should be. This big-budget adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime classic (Masamune Shirow's comic premiered in the late 1980s, Mamoru Oshii's highly influential first film version in 1995) has managed to replicate the surface trappings of the captivating, nearly post-human world of the source material. But gone is the unsettling mixture of melancholy and possibility, replaced instead by a canned, by-the-numbers narrative that plays like someone mixed together Skyfall and a Jason Bourne picture.
Despite the whitewashing controversy that has hounded the film -- with many taking understandable exception to the casting of Scarlett Johansson instead of an Asian actress -- Johansson should have been able to nail the part of "Major," a military operative whose very human brain has been implanted inside a lifelike robot. This is an actress who can express worlds of emotion with just the barest of facial movements, and the story demands that skill, since robots aren't known to over-emote -- even if this one has a soul (or a "ghost") hovering inside her synthetic "shell."
But the filmmakers don't do her any favors. Johansson looks bewildered most of the time, when she's not carefully and suggestively posing for the uninspiring action scenes. Gone too is the element I always found so striking about Oshii's film: its bracing willingness to drop us into the middle of its very strange world and to let us figure things out for ourselves. This version holds our hand to an embarrassing degree.