National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - CHRIS KNIGHT

Scarlett Jo­hans­son was mem­o­rable if in­vis­i­ble as the voice of an op­er­at­ing sys­tem that falls in love with Joaquin Phoenix in Her. She was all phys­i­cal­ity in Jonathan Glazer’s alien thriller Un­der the Skin. And so, ac­cu­sa­tions of white­wash­ing aside, she seems the per­fect ac­tor to em­body Ma­jor, the cy­borg-hu­man hy­brid at the cen­tre of the ex­is­ten­tial scifi ac­tion flick Ghost in the Shell.

Ma­jor com­bines a hu­man brain in a ro­bot body. In an open­ing se­quence that bor­rows lib­er­ally from West­world, Blade Run­ner, The Ma­trix and more, we learn that her orig­i­nal body was killed in a refugee cri­sis; her new one be­longs to the Hanka Cor­po­ra­tion, which means that, legally, so does she. “My name is Ma­jor Mira Kil­lian and I give my con­sent,” she rat­tles off when­ever the com­pany wants to mod­ify her, but the line is de­liv­ered with all the in­tro­spec­tion of some­one click­ing “ac­cept” at the bot­tom of a 27-page iTunes agree­ment.

Hanka is run by Cut­ter (Peter Fer­di­nando), but per­son­i­fied by the more kindly Dr. Ouelet (Juli­ette Binoche), who has a maternal re­la­tion­ship with Ma­jor. But she mostly takes her or­ders from Ara­maki (Takeshi Ki­tano), a Zen se­cu­rity chief. In a nice touch, he speaks only Ja­panese, while his un­der­lings re­spond in English; ev­ery­one seems flu­ently bilin­gual. Ma­jor’s clos­est com­rade is Ba­tou, em­bod­ied by the won­der­fully sym­pa­thetic Dan­ish ac­tor Pilou As­baek.

As imag­ined by direc­tor Ru­pert San­ders (Snow White and the Hunts­man), the fu­ture is a busy, scary place. Gi­ant advertising holo­grams tower over the un­named port city where the ac­tion hap­pens; the ef­fect is like Blade Run­ner on steroids, and the film skirts dan­ger­ously close to cre­at­ing sen­sory over­load in its view­ers. (Don’t sit too close, es­pe­cially if it’s in IMAX.) Dig­i­tal fish prowl the streets, as though a ’90s screen­saver had bro­ken out of its mon­i­tor.

Ma­jor’s brain-in-a-ro­bot ex­is­tence is only the most ex­treme ex­am­ple of fu­ture tech gone wild. Hu­mans go in for “up­grades,” whether nec­es­sary — Ba­tou’s new eyes, which re­call Mor­pheus’s sun­glasses from The Ma­trix — or purely gra­tu­itous, like the char­ac­ter who boasts that his new synth-liver means “It’s last call ev­ery night.” There’s an app for telepa­thy, and ro­bot geishas. Oddly, how­ever, no self-driv­ing cars.

But the story, be­neath all the sci­ence-fic­tion and ac­tion-movie trap­pings, is fairly sim­ple. Some­one is threat­en­ing Hanka, and Ma­jor and the rest of her team have to fig­ure out who is do­ing it and why. The first ques­tion turns out to be easy; it’s Kuze (Michael Pitt), who in a de­li­cious throw­back stut­ters like Max Head­room. (The orig­i­nal Ja­panese manga is from the ’80s, af­ter all.) His rea­sons turn out to be more com­plex than I should prob­a­bly let on.

But the film­mak­ers have opted for flash over con­tem­pla­tion; im­age over re­flec­tion. Ma­jor is trou­bled by life­like vi­sions that come un­bid­den into her con­scious­ness – or as you and I would call them, memories. And more than one char­ac­ter re­marks that we are de­fined not by our memories but by our ac­tions. That’s a great philo­soph­i­cal leap­ing-off point, but the screen­play, by Jamie Moss and Wil­liam Wheeler, leaves it hang­ing, un­de­vel­oped.

The film’s slick pack­ag­ing al­most makes up for its lack of thoughtfulness — cer­tainly it pro­vides a dis­trac­tion on par with Jo­hans­son’s flesh­toned com­bat suit, which ren­ders her semi-in­vis­i­ble, em­pha­sis on the semi. But this Ghost in the Shell, like the var­i­ous books, films, video games and TV se­ries that have pre­ceded it, owes a debt to the mind-body prob­lem, as raised by René Descartes and cri­tiqued by Gil­bert Ryle, whose phrase “the ghost in the ma­chine” in­spired the ti­tle.

There is some food for thought in this it­er­a­tion, but by the time Hanka’s CEO rolls out the spi­der-tank (pretty much what you’d imag­ine), it’s clear that this am­bi­tious ef­fort has be­come a shell game with too much shell and not nearly enough ghost. ∂∂1/2

Scarlett Jo­hans­son in Ghost in the Shell.

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