The ravishing sci-fi noir 'Ghost in the Shell' is fascinating, and not without its glitches

The ravishing sci-fi noir 'Ghost in the Shell' is fascinating, and not without its glitches, L.A. Times film critic Justin Chang reviews 'Ghost in the Shell,' addressing the whitewashing casting issue while appreciating the film's beauty.

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One of the most striking sequences in “Ghost in the Shell,” a dystopian noir-thriller with no shortage of striking sequences, shows a female cyborg being assembled in mid-air, piece by piece. The circuitry pulses exquisitely. A fleshy pink brain snaps neatly into place. The body, once built, is submerged in a milk-white liquid, forming a hard, glossy shell that splinters open to reveal the impeccably sculpted form and features of Scarlett Johansson.

While this “birth” sequence closely follows the one that kicks off Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated tour de force of the same title, that full-body cream bath can’t help but take on vivid new significance this time around. Talk about a whitewash!

Could the director, Rupert Sanders, be engaging in some sly auto-critique, possibly in response to the Internet furor over the casting of a white actress in a role immortalized by Japanese pop culture? Whether or not he is, it’s hardly the only moment that finds the movie assuming a half-apologetic, half-defensive pose.

But to “Ghost in the Shell’s” credit, its fascination extends beyond the matter of its irksome racial politics. In recombining elements from Masamune Shirow’s groundbreaking sci-fi manga series and its various film and TV reincarnations, and reconstituting them in a CG-heavy live-action framework, Sanders and his three screenwriters have subjected some of the material’s most salient mysteries to a daunting aesthetic test.

Can a ghost retain its identity when implanted in a new shell? In an industry built on synthetic reproductions, can a shred of authentic experience — call it life, or call it art — survive the transplant from one vessel to the next? This craftily fleshed-out movie may not move you to answer with a decisive “yes,” but its ability to inspire those questions in the first place is no small testament to its sophistication.

Not unlike many Hollywood treatments of highly regarded source material, Sanders’ movie is neither a rigidly faithful adaptation nor a bold departure. What it offers is a glossy and accessible user’s guide to Shirow’s world, one that may drive purists mad with its hand-holding narrative approach even as it dazzles newcomers with its luridly beautiful visual palette, awash in eye-tickling shades of “Blade Runner” neon.

The philosophical concepts pondered here — the intersection of mankind and machinery, the troubling, anesthetizing spread of mass technology — are no longer as startling as they were in an era before “The Matrix,” to name the most significant beneficiary of “Ghost in the Shell’s” influence. But in sensitive-enough hands, as this movie demonstrates, they can still prove worthy of an audience’s rapt contemplation. Your head might not be spinning as you exit the theater, but your senses will be deeply and thoroughly ravished.

Some of that ravishment arrives courtesy of the movie’s setting, a stunning pan-Asian metropolis that makes boldly inventive use of the Hong Kong skyline, its tightly stacked buildings tricked out with enormous holographic billboards. (The cinematography and production design, both staggering, are by Jess Hall and Jan Roelfs, respectively.) In a few hallucinatory shots, dazzlingly tactile information streams seem to mimic the flow of water: We’re not just consumed with data, we’re swimming in it.

But the chief source of visual excitement here is Johansson, whose pale complexion, dark hair and otherworldly allure are far too arresting to simply blend into the scenery (except on those occasions when her character avails herself of the latest in thermo-optic camouflage technology). Referred to only as the Major — truncated from the character’s original full name, Major Motoko Kusanagi — this woman-machine hybrid represents a bold and unprecedented feat of engineering from the brightest (and darkest) minds at Hanka Robotics, a leading corporation in the booming field of cybernetic body enhancement.

The Major’s original human body was damaged irreparably in an accident, but her surviving ghost — another word might be “mind” or “soul,” as suggested by Hanka surgeon Dr. Ouélet (a touching Juliette Binoche) — was carefully implanted in a state-of-the-art new body, custom-tailored for heavy-duty fighting and detective work. Now she investigates crimes and shoots bad guys alongside her burly, dog-loving fellow cyborg Batou (a fine Pilou Asbaek) on behalf of Section 9, an elite government anti-terrorism unit overseen by the formidable chief Aramaki (played with an invaluable measure of gravitas by the great Japanese director and actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano).

The murders of several Hanka scientists sends the Major and her diverse team on a series of carefully planned and meticulously choreographed raids, staged with much the same proficiency that Sanders brought to “Snow White and the Huntsman,” if also a bit more razzle-dazzle. The first of these gonzo action sequences pits Section 9 against a few white-faced, red-lipped geisha robots, likely inspired by the sex dolls in Oshii’s magnificently impenetrable 2004 sequel, “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.”

There’s more intrigue afoot, including eerie premonitions, skillfully targeted identity thefts perpetrated by a master cyber-hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt), and some troubling visual and sonic glitches that suggest the Major’s complex hardware is beginning to malfunction. To err is human: Like Jason Bourne or “Total Recall’s” Douglas Quaid in a curvy, flesh-toned body suit, the Major soon realizes that the deeper she dives, the closer she gets to solving the riddle of her true identity and subsequent makeover as a government killing machine.

That personal history lends this “Ghost in the Shell” an emotional surge that its 1995 predecessor lacked, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it had little use for it. Refusing to soothe its audience with easy emotional comforts or narrative footholds, Oshii’s coolly detached movie regarded its largely affectless heroine with a decidedly Eastern sense of equanimity.

The new movie, by contrast, is a Western construct through and through; it’s determined to pump some warm blood into all this moody cyber-abstraction. In gently massaging his movie into submission, Sanders has smoothed over a few narrative bumps and visual kinks (the Major’s nipples, a pert fixture of her past representations, stay under wraps here), and inevitably leached away some of the story’s haunting ambiguity.

Chilly and robotic as it may seem, the movie projects something that few other “Ghost in the Shell” derivations have: a palpable yearning for the audience’s understanding and acceptance.

“I’m not ready to leave. I belong here,” the Major declares, and you can just about hear the defiance in Johansson’s voice, perhaps addressing those who may have prejudged her performance sight unseen. Having now seen it myself, I can express my satisfaction, if not my surprise, that Johansson — after her superb renditions of a disembodied voice (“Her”), a supremely intelligent fighter (“Lucy”) and a voluptuous extraterrestrial stalker (“Under the Skin”) — should rise to the challenge of playing a butt-kicking bionic woman. It’s a near-perfect piece of acting even as it exposes the profound imperfection of the system.

One of the insights of Oshii’s movie was that a cyborg’s consciousness must merge with others, even risking the loss of its own identity, in order to flourish — a lesson that sounds a bit more sinister when filtered through the cruel commercial logic of the movie industry. In the typical Hollywood studio mindset, the casting of a highly bankable, globally recognized white movie star over a lower-profile Asian or Asian American actress requires no justification, especially when the goal is to bring a cult hit into the mainstream.

Putting those economic imperatives aside, the fact that the Major can and does assume different shells throughout the “Ghost in the Shell” canon lends some credence to the argument — one supported by many, including Oshii himself — that she should, theoretically, be able to look however her makers desire. Should it bother us, then, that the face of a white woman was clearly perceived as the most desirable — an upgrade, even?

Or does that add a meaningful layer of subtext about the highly selective commodification of beauty in the machine age? If you thought the whole mankind-vs.-machines binary was tricky to parse, where does artistic license end and representational integrity begin?

“Ghost in the Shell” seems to have spent some time considering these questions before calmly setting them aside. It’s both amusing and faintly troubling that the filmmakers have cooked up a few additional twists, plus a crucial supporting role for the Japanese actress Kaori Momoi, to explain away the Major’s appearance — a solution that, without giving away too much here, feels at once maddeningly evasive and ingeniously self-aware.

The Major’s true form, we learn, has been hijacked and deleted from the system. Presumably her nonwhite backstory was of some dramatic interest, but you won’t see much of it here. Johansson’s face, once an avatar of celebrity privilege, is now presented to us as an emblem of victimhood. Don’t blame her, or Hanka; blame Hollywood.

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‘Ghost in the Shell’

MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: In general release

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