Everything that you need to know about Ghost in the Shell you can learn in the film's first five minutes. Or, rather, the first five minutes that Paramount made available online earlier this week.
In the extended clip, Scarlett Johansson's cyborg soldier, a sleek and deadly being named Major Mira Killian, stands atop a skyscraper overlooking an unnamed city that's equal parts Tokyo, Hong Kong and a Blade Runner-esque nightmare. As Major dives into action – literally, she just jumps off the building and begins dispatching various bad cybernetic hombres – we get a taste of what director Rupert Sanders has in mind for the rest of his film: bloodless action delivered via a one-note heroine in an environment that's both aesthetically and creatively sterile.
But what audiences don't see, at least in the studio-sanctioned advertisement released online, is the other half of Major's opening mission, which is guided onscreen by veteran Japanese actor "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, complete with dialogue delivered in his native tongue and subtitled for English audiences. If you end up seeing Ghost in the Shell in the theatre – and, if you do so after reading this review, god bless – you will see and hear Kitano in all his gravelly voiced, steely eyed glory. But if you only see the ad, then he is curiously missing.
Which is exactly what's wrong with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow's classic manga series – it is a product born out of a desire to erase virtually any trace of its foreign origins. Just as Paramount believes that the mere presence of subtitles or foreign actors in a trailer can turn delicate North American audiences away, so, too, does the studio cling to the notion that Western moviegoers just cannot handle their entertainment unless it is sandwiched between the whitest of white-bread elements.
This is how we get Johansson's version of Major, instead of Shirow's hero, who comes with the decidedly un-American name of Major Motoko Kusanagi. This is how we get reports that the studio tested visual effects that would have made white actors look "more Asian," instead of, you know, actually hiring Asians. This is how we get just a few quick appearances from Kitano. And this is how we get 2017's version of Ghost in the Shell, an inert, insulting appropriation of what is one of the 20th century's most influential works of pop art.
Even if you manage to put racial politics aside, though, Sanders and his team present insurmountable challenges to good taste. The director (Snow White and the Huntsman) hasn't met an action scene he couldn't indiscriminately chop up in the editing bay, a performance he couldn't suffocate with inert dialogue, an ambitiously fetishistic set design he couldn't dampen with poor lighting. Somehow, Sanders has made Shirow's thrilling world – cyborgs fighting each other to control a whiz-bang city of the future? Sign me up! – familiar and flaccid. No matter how many nifty shots he inserts of Major's hologram-ridden metropolis, the director cannot shake the impression he simply does not care about his creation.
At least Johansson makes an effort. As Major – basically a brain nestled inside a robotic shell that's absent any biologically feminine features – she is dealt the difficult hand of being alluring, yet literally sexless; powerful, but with only the illusion of agency. It's a thankless role to inhabit, yet Johansson does a better job than anyone could reasonably hope. Her years balancing kick-ass heroics (Lucy, the Marvel movies) and curious introspection (Ghost World, Lost in Translation) serve her well when trapped in Sanders's soulless production. Just like Major, she's fighting a hopeless battle, but her determination is compelling.
The same cannot be said for the narrative, which took three screenwriters (including Transformers expert Ehren Kruger, who's made a business out of writing movies you'd rather forget) to scrape together, pulling bits and pieces from Shirow's original work and its various animated Japanese adaptations. There's a grand conspiracy involving the robotics company that created Major, but it's so predictable that you have probably already guessed its details. There are a host of side characters who flit in and out, but the only memorable one is the guy who gets his eyes blown off, because who doesn't remember that?
The story's only true surprise might be its attempt at a twist ending, which involves a bizarre bit of body-swapping that so closely aligns the film's villain with the filmmakers' own blatant whitewashing tactics that it is either an act of brazen subversion or utter stupidity. Considering how much effort was otherwise put into making Ghost in the Shell as bland a product as possible, it's safe to say it was the latter.
We can only hope Takeshi Kitano at least collected a sizable paycheque for his troubles.