By Leah Greenblatt
March 30, 2017 at 01:41 PM EDT
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Every hero needs an origin story, though the weight of this one may be too much for even the steeliest cyborg shoulders to bear: Ghost in the Shell isn’t merely a movie where Scarlett Johansson slips into a sinuous (yet somehow, miraculously nipple-free) skin suit and sets out to destroy a shadowy syndicate of underground thugs and baddies; It’s an ongoing narrative unavoidably fraught by two-plus decades of cultish devotion and cultural appropriation. The elephant in the cineplex is that history: A tale that began with the landmark 1989 Japanese manga anthology, then carried on through a 1995 animated feature, a 2002 TV series (followed by another extension film and TV series in 2015), and numerous video games before arriving—sleek, streamlined, and suddenly much more Caucasian—in theaters this week.

Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) doesn’t quite know what to do with the backstory he’s been handed, but he sure knows how to make it shiny: His Ghost is visually stunning; a glittering, menacing dystopia set in an unnamed Asian metropolis that looks like Blade Runner with a billionaire’s budget and the benefit of 30 additional years of film technology. And it has the post-humans to match: Specifically Major Mira Killian (Johansson), a scientific marvel who emerges from a pool of alabaster goo like a white-chocolate Cadbury crème egg, unblinking and sublime. “You are the first of your kind,” she is told by her tender, lab-coated creator Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). “A human mind in a cybernetic frame.”

But she’s not just a showpiece; very quickly Major is put to work, hunting down Kuze (Michael Pitt), the mysterious figure who has employed an army of bionic geishas and yakuza-looking lowlifes to hack a massive government-contracted tech firm. Who is he, really? Who is she? Her pristine, wiped-clean consciousness is marred by flashes of memory (a.k.a. the cognitive drag that gives the movie its title), and increasingly, these glitches don’t seem to match the tale Major’s been told: that she is a survivor of a refugee-boat disaster in which her parents perished and only her brain survived—heroically rescued from her ruined body to be planted in her current, flawless form.

No doubt in response to the loud cries of whitewashing that the casting of Hollywood stars in a fundamentally Japanese product has justifiably provoked, Sanders takes care to make his supporting players conspicuously pan-racial: Dutch actor Pilou Asbaek, Tokyo superstar “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, and Kurdish-Polish ingenue Danusia Samal join a cast whose nationalities are nearly as varied as their “enhancements”—the android add-ons future citizens buy for themselves the way bored commuters upload the latest Candy Crush Saga to their smartphones in 2017. (There’s also a fresh plot twist that addresses the problematic turn in its two main protagonists’ ethnicity, though it’s hard to say whether that will soothe the critics or enrage them further.)

If there’s anything Sander’s ravishing set pieces fail to sufficiently color in, it’s the story’s emotional stakes. Major’s search for her identity; the reason the bad guys are bad and the good guys do good; the future they’re all fighting for: None of it matters much, beyond that we’re told to accept that it does. The deep-dive mythologies and intriguing moral quandaries raised by the script aren’t so much explored as exploded in a flurry of high-gloss action sequences and vaguely deep koan-of-the-day dialogue. Eventually the movie gives up the Ghost, and settles for a gorgeous shell. B