I have been a fan of Masamune Shirow for a long time—nearly thirty years. The cyberpunk and technological themes of Appleseed, Dominion/Tank Police, and Ghost in the Shell are obvious influences on my own work. The presence of strong, capable, female lead characters … Deunan Knute and Matoko Kusanagi were vastly different than other female heroines of the time, both earning ranking positions in elite police units through their range of skills and bold thinking. Because of this fandom, the trailers prepared me to strongly dislike Scarlett Johansson Ghost in the Shell. (Is that not the official title? That’s the way the announcer always says it.)

Do I hear something beeping?

The film bears uncanny resemblances to the animated movie Ghost in the Shell (1995). So much so that they likely used the same story boards for several key scenes. I don’t know if that was intended to be fan service, or if the director just couldn’t think of anything better, but it was like watching the exact same sequence with different textures. If you haven’t been exposed to the earlier work, you’ll be treated to some delightfully cool sci-fi action sequences. There are a few cringe worthy CGI moments, where it looks like they hired the animators from Daredevil (Ben Affleck version), but if you blink at the right time, you’ll miss them.

The story is decent and coherent (in a way that Shirow sometimes wasn’t), but it is definitely Americanized. Like every superhero movie, it has to be an origin story. Like every thriller, something has to be a lie. These conventions hurt the film by introducing the most unbelievable element. Instead of a highly trained military officer who transferred her “ghost” into a prosthetic body, the Major (Scarlett Johansson) is some runaway turned anti-technology protester who was abducted and murdered by a robotics company which wiped her memory and installed her brain in a weaponized body as an experiment. Starting from zero, on a heavy course of memory suppressants, she obtained the rank of major and became team leader of the elite Section 9, in one (off camera) year. I guess they promote fast in cyberpunk Japan; such a lack of experience might explain her team’s pronounced delay in reacting to beeping bombs and grenades.

Scarlett Johansson does a good job playing the robot body. The script gives her a few moments of reflecting on humanity, but it doesn’t resolve these scenes. Pilou Asbæk brings life to Batou’s balanced mix of tough, sensitive, carefree, but professional. Takeshi Kitano stands out as Chief Aramaki. The cast is not as Hollywood white-washed as it was reported. The main character is a Japanese girl in a robot body; the Chief speaks Japanese throughout; and Togusa—the most American looking character in the source material—is played by the most “Chinese looking” member of the cast, Singapore native Chin Han.

All in all, the movie is good, but avoids most of its potential. The visuals are (mostly) as good as they were when we first saw them in 1995.