In ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ dazzling visuals support a drab plot

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Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in “Ghost in the Shell.” | Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

Just about every scene in “Ghost in the Shell” is a visual wonder to behold — and you’ll have ample time to soak in all that background eye candy, because the plot machinations and the action in the foreground are largely of the ho-hum retread variety.

This is the kind of movie where the villain tells the heroine, “We are the same,” and of course the heroine says they’re not alike, not at all. How many times have you heard that particular bit of repartee?

To be sure, director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) delivers a beautiful film, from the “Blade Runner”-esque overhead shots of an unnamed Asian city of the future, to the colorfully appointed characters lurking in nearly every rain-soaked corner, to the holographic creations dominating the landscape, to some jaw-dropping POV angles, to some fantastically crazy human-robot melding reminiscent of the HBO series “Westworld.”

In one fleeting shot, a main character is riding in the back of a car with an assistant, who is typing away on a laptop. The assistant has about 15 mechanical fingers jutting out from each wrist. She would be an AMAZING court reporter.

Based on the manga series by Masumune Shirow as well as Mamoru Oshii’s beloved 1995 Japanimation, this version of “Ghost in the Shell” generated loads of controversy before it generated dollar one at the box office, due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the title character, who of course was Japanese in the source materials.

Here’s the thing, though, and this is a SPOILER moment only if you want to know absolutely nothing about the premise of this franchise:

The character of Major has a completely synthetic outer shell, from head to toe. Her brain, her soul, her “ghost” are intact inside that shell — but when we see Major, we’re seeing a robot exterior encasing the mind and the brain and the memories of a human being who might or might not be of Asian descent. Perhaps the Caucasian forces behind Major’s transformation have made her a Caucasian because they believe that’s what a super soldier should look like. Perhaps this movie is making a social and political statement.

Or maybe the backers just wanted Scarlett Johansson in the lead because she’s the most bankable female star in the world — the only woman in the worldwide Top 10 in recent rankings.

My favorite performances by Johansson are in smaller, quirkier films such as “Lost as Translation” and “Match Point” and “Under the Skin,” but she has become a huge action star thanks to the “Avengers” movies and “Lucy,” and she’s in full badass mode here.

In the effective and intriguing opening sequences, we learn Major’s backstory. After a terrorist attack left Major’s parents dead and broke her body beyond repair, she’s chosen for an experimental counter-terrorism program funded by the all-powerful Hanka Corp., in which her brain is lifted into a virtually un-killable cyborg body.

Cue the action sequences, which are filled with “Matrix”-like slo-mo, a seemingly endless variety of shots featuring broken glass or shimmering, splashing waves of water and some wonderfully chilling scenes of enhanced humans losing their technologically advanced eyes or limbs.

Major and her take-no-prisoners, fiercely loyal partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek, who co-starred with Johansson in “Lucy”), are on the hunt for a hacker-villain named Kuze (Michael Pitt), who has been systematically eliminating the doctors and scientists that helped create Major — and has the ability to get inside Major’s mind.

Juliette Binoche, looking as if she wandered onto the set of “Ghost in the Shell” from a classy French romantic comedy and isn’t sure why she’s even there, plays Major’s supervisor and mother figure, who is torn between the quest for scientific breakthrough and her genuine affection for Major. Peter Ferdinando as the cruel and nefarious leader of the Hanka Corp. does a serviceable job playing a forgettable villain. Takeshi Kitano, playing a security chief whodares stand up to Hanka, casually owns every scene he’s in.

“Ghost in the Shell” loses its footing in later sequences, as Major discovers the real truth about her origins and acts accordingly. We see that coming a mile away.

The last few minutes of the film are the least inspired, most clichéd, least creative moments of the entire journey.

Wrong direction.


Paramount Pictures andDreamworks Pictures present a film directed by Rupert Sanders and written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, based on the comicsby Masamune Shirow.Running time: 106minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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