The new Ghost in the Shell channels its visual elements from familiar futuristic sources. The neck jacks, the holograms, the wire-fu leaps and endless dystopian rain are part of a sci-fi tradition that descends from Blade Runner and Neuromancer down through the 1989 Ghost in the Shell manga, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime film, and of course the 1999 cyberpunk landmark, The Matrix. But the new movie does have its own mood—it's a little bit reflective, although not enough to clog the action—and its own look (scruffy CGI) and sound (warm-bath drones and unstable synth garglings). It's an interesting film to watch. It's just hard to care about a single thing that's going on in it.
Fans of the earlier Ghost in the Shell animated film will find many references to check off here: the big garbage-truck chase, the splashy invisible-man smackdown, brief echoes of Balkan-style choral keening. The story has been only minimally adjusted, and the characters remain largely undefiled. Scarlett Johansson, in black leather action gear and black punk-chop hair, plays Major, a cyborg team leader with the government's Section 9 antiterrorism department. She operates in a gaudy postwar world in which just about everybody has artificial body enhancements. In her case, only her mind—her "ghost"—is human; her body, or "shell," is a computerized construct. (This offers a handy dodge for the charge that Johansson's casting constitutes "whitewashing" of a character that was originally Japanese—who can tell if it's only a shell? Later, we are further informed that Major's hardy brain was all that survived after a maritime disaster that killed her immigrant parents while they were bringing her to Japan—they could've been coming from, like, anywhere, right? Sure.)
The movie has two problems, writes Kurt Loder.