GHOST IN THE SHELL | ★★★½

Is it criminal to say that the remake is better than the original? Isn’t it high time Scarlett Johansson should be considered an Oscar-worthy actress? Will I be damned I said yes to both? These are some of the questions the new “Ghost in the Shell” poses - at least in my mind, which I imagine you anime lovers out there may want to hack into for asking such bold questions. While it does not ponder nearly as much as Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s popular manga series, there is enough to admire about this version to distract you from its shortcomings. It may not be brainy, but it certainly isn’t lame either. What’s more is that, in terms of ambition and construction, this is the kind of remake we should be seeing more of; a film refreshingly unbound from Hollywood’s incessant desire to capitalize on viewer nostalgia through cheap references to past treasures. Through this lens, “Ghost in the Shell” is a remarkable, if not entirely compelling, endeavor in the annals of franchise do-overs.

In the future, the line between humanity and technology is blurred as advances in cybernetics allow humans to upgrade traits like vision, strength, and intelligence. Major Mira Killian (Johansson) is the latest advancement that blurs the line even further; a fully mechanical body that integrates a human brain salvaged from a mangled body. Working for the anti-terrorist bureau known as Section 9, Major tracks a mysterious hacker known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt) while simultaneously struggling to determine who she really based on what little memory she has of her past.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. While I do believe that all artistic expression should be free of politics, whitewashing is indeed an epidemic that must be cured. It’s unfortunate that an actress as invaluable as Johansson is now subject to this controversy, which I fear will take away from the fact she is damn good here. No stranger to the female übermensch (i.e. “Lucy,” “Under the Skin,” and “Her”), ScarJo imbues the Major with an existential angst that distinguishes her from cinema’s other fembots. It also helps that the Major is an actual character this time instead of a megaphone for the film’s big ideas in the original, granting Johansson a little more introspect than thematic exposition.

This deepening of the film’s central figure, however shallow some might find it, is welcome, even if it sacrifices the original’s cornucopia of existentialism. Some of the core ideas are retained, though many are tossed aside in favor of a more straightforward plot. Kuze’s vengeful crusade is more generic than the Puppet Master’s quest for evolution in the anime, but the way in which Pitt communicates the antagonist’s menace and anguish through physicality is quite exceptional. What this remake lacks in intellect, it makes up for in pure feeling, world-building and good old-fashioned action, which is arguably more effective than the concept-driven aesthetics of Oshii’s film. It’s “Blade Runner Lite,” but not necessarily to its detriment.

“Ghost in the Shell” may not be as heady as some might hope for, but in the process of simplifying its philosophical contemplations, it finds a couple new and timely ideas that flesh out this interpretation of Shirow’s world. There’s significant attention paid to the idea of corporate possession of the human mind. Technology and its marketability have evolved so much that corporations’ desire to own and manipulate minds for their benefit has skyrocketed as well. This is seen not just in the context of the Major’s journey, but also in the setting. Holographic advertisements cover the city’s tallest buildings, encapsulating living and working spaces to ensure corporate influence on the population. The city is a beautiful nightmare, a vibrantly melancholic of the future that holds faithful to the source material.

However you look at it, there’s no denying the impeccable visual craftsmanship at hand. CGI blends seamlessly into every setting and the people who occupy them. Exquisite cinematography, employing stylistic lighting and striking contrast, successfully recreates the haunting glamour and grit of Shirow’s world. Even callbacks to Oshii’s version are not as hollow as anime fans might fear. Slow motion does become a bit distracting after a while, but at least it’s not on Zack Snyder levels of gratuitous. If ever the look of a film could hold its own power without servicing story and theme, the spectacle of “Ghost in the Shell” fits the bill. It may not be perfect when it comes to living up the brilliant mind of its predecessor, but it is atmospheric and dazzling enough to grab the attention of those looking for a serious-minded break from the quippy mentality of the modern blockbuster.

(7/10)