Ghost in the Shell wants to use its cutting edge visuals and marvellous production design to distract you from its rote emotionless narrative and the stain of racism that taints its production.

As far as an adaptation of famous source material goes, I was fully willing to give the film a chance and meet it on its own terms, as I have done with so many other remakes and reboots in recent memory. To my dismay, the problematic nature of a white American actress in a distinctly Japanese role was actually worse than I expected. Moreover, It was disheartening to see an iteration of one of the most groundbreaking pieces of modern science fiction, acclaimed for its combination of high octane action and deep dives into philosophical and ethical quandaries, exhibit so much talent and technical craft in the service of saying absolutely nothing. With that said, there is value in examining the result of this long awaited project as a case study in the problems that continue to plague contemporary blockbuster film-making.

Ghost in The Shell is set in an unnamed city in the not too distant future, where technology has integrated into society to an unprecedented degree in the form of advanced cybernetic enhancements. Scarlett Johansson stars as Major Mira Killian, an operative in the counter-terrorism cyber warfare special operations force known as Section 9. The major represents the next step in humanity’s advancement, a human mind transplanted into an entirely synthetic body.

When personnel working for the mega-corporation that holds a monopoly on cybernetic implants (and who hold the rights to Mira’s artificial body) start being systematically murdered by a mysterious hacker known only as Kuze, Section 9 is put on the case to bring him down. However, as the manhunt and investigation brings them closer to the terrorist mastermind, the Major begins to uncover a conspiracy that holds the key to her mysterious past.

It’s worth emphasizing outright that the Ghost in the Shell intellectual property already exists as a collection of adaptations that vary in substantially different ways. The original manga by Masamune Shirow that first appeared in 1991 mixed down & dirty cyber punk with high-minded philosophical and sociological musings. The famous film adaptation directed by Mamoru Oshii debuted in 1995, which leant even heavier into philosophical diatribes with a more cryptically esoteric tone. This was followed by the well-regarded police procedural animated television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which was released in 2002 and ran for two seasons with the addition of the made-for-TV movie follow up Solid State Society. In 2013, the next iteration of the franchise came in the form of Ghost In The Shell: Arise, a series of 5 OVA movies established as a prequel to the mythology that culminated in yet another feature length film titled Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie.

The 2017 live action adaptation borrows liberally from all these sources in plot points and imagery, not unlike the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe and DCEU films which weave elements from a multitude of famous published comic book runs into their overarching shared universe narratives. However, rather than becoming a fully functioning work of art in its own right, Ghost In the Shell is more of a twist on Frankenstein's Monster, a pastiche that is beautiful on the outside but fundamentally broken underneath.

The MCU, for example, makes attempts towards deeper philosophical and moral issues. Although at times the films can’t quite follow through with that lofty goal, they at least have great character work and the drama of interpersonal relationships to fall back on. Ghost In the Shell fails on both counts: Johannson’s take on an emotionally detached soldier dealing with past trauma comes off as disinterested and unengaging, while the themes of post/trans-humanism, deep seeded political corruption and post-war socioeconomic strife are practically thrown out wholesale and replaced by a boilerplate revenge tale revolving around the vague notion of terrorism, as if making terrible ’80s Chuck Norris movies was suddenly back in fashion.

Ghost in the Shell is essentially another Total Recall remake, though it also appears to pull from other more recent failures. The film most immediately brings to mind Gods Of Egypt and the 2014 reboot of Robocop. While it boasts dynamite visuals, it also forces a bland and contrived western story into the body of an eastern tale, and in doing so exorcises the exponentially more fascinating mythology and spirit of its source material. At the same time, the pieces are in place for an incisive exploration of political and social topics relevant to our time, but that ultimately falls by the wayside in favour of bombastic spectacle, with any hope for pointed commentary crushed under the weight of big budget filmmaking business as usual.

For another point of comparison, one could actually turn to the 1995 film Judge Dredd, an adaptation of the famous comic book of the same name. Ghost In The Shell shares several plot points as well as conceptual aesthetics with that film, but like Judge Dredd that came before it, this movie is a valiant effort that seems to fundamentally misunderstand the point of the source material.

Although the Major is the centerpiece character of the Ghost In The Shell property, her teammates and colleagues have always held varying degrees of significance in both the development of her character and the advancement of the overarching story. Once again, that integral element is almost completely erased from this adaptation, though it is not without its bright spots. One of the most important and recognizable characters in the GitS mythos is Batou, the Major’s second-in-command military strongman who often serves as a grounding element for both the characters and the audience. He is arguably the heart of the team, a close confidant who keeps the Major connected to a greater sense of humanity, and an audience surrogate of sorts who displays the most relatable reactions to all the complicated philosophical concepts at play.

The terrific Danish actor Pilou Asbæk plays the role with aplomb, properly presenting himself as a dangerously imposing figure while radiating an effortless charm and sense of warmth. Asbæk has a pretty hefty list of acting credits under his belt, including lead roles in the excellent films A Hijacking and A War. As it turns out, it almost seems like he turns down his own acting skill, in an effort to not outshine the less than spectacular talents of Scarlett Johansson.

Another character integral to the proceedings is Section 9 Chief Aramaki, a brilliant, experienced and fiercely loyal leader who often fends off the encroaching hands of government bureaucracy while not being afraid to get his own hands dirty when necessary. The live action adaptation gives the role to none other than the legendary Japanese superstar “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who imbues Chief Aramaki with his one of a kind cold blooded yakuza/hard boiled detective aura. Kitano is by far the most decidedly Japanese element to this originally Japanese story, and though it’s a welcome and enjoyable concession, it ultimately cannot ameliorate the toxic effects of the movies most offensive aspect.

******Spoilers Follow From Here Onward*******

There has been significant outcry against the choice to cast a white woman in a traditionally Japanese role, and most of the dissent has been met with paltry excuses from the studio and production company about the foreign market desire for big name American actors and the “blessing off” by the original creator and Japanese fans. None of that prepared me for how shocking the actual reveal is executed. Mira Killian is in fact Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese runaway and political activist who was captured by the Hanka cybernetics corporation and brainwashed with a new identity and false memories. Kuze himself was also Japanese and a companion of young Motoko, now out for revenge against the scientists and engineers who stole their lives.

There is a mountain of sub-textual and metaphorical content that could have been mined with this premise, but the movie is either spinelessly unwilling or moronically unable to do anything with it. They could have chosen to make a vital meta-commentary on the very notion of whitewashing Asian identities (the villainous CEO character Cutter could be easily read as a blatant stand in for American influence in general or greedy apathetic movie executives in particular), or decided to give a Japanese/Asian actress the time to shine as the “true” Kusanagi and let her take off with the rest of the story. Instead, the movie insinuates that the addition of her new white skin and western identity somehow makes her “evolved” and ready for what's next. What is next, a race war? The Ghost In The Shell referenced in the title of this movie is the ghost of a socially conscious politically minded strong willed Japanese woman murdered by foreign profiteers that is then stuffed into a buxom Terminatrix crafted in the mold of fetishistic ideals of western white beauty who in story and in reality is literal weaponized sex appeal.

If this movie were outright terrible from every other technical standpoint, it might actually have been better in the grand scheme of things. People would probably recognize it for the trash that it is and forget about it weeks later like so many other forgotten reboots. But no, the worse thing about this film is that it actually is not only structurally functional for the most part, but that it is dazzlingly pretty to an almost hypnotic degree, blinding everyone to its insidiously disgusting morality.

The Ghost In The Shell property has had the honour and distinction of being one of the most mature, complex, and provocative pieces of art in late 20th/early 21st century media and showcased one of the most important and powerful women in the history of fiction. The Ghost in the Shell live action adaptation lobotomizes that fascinating body of work and contorts that limp husk into the most basic bitch of a movie.