By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Say what you will about A-lister Scarlett Johansson, but in the projects and roles she chooses – Lost in Translation, Match Point, The Prestige, The Avengers, Under the Skin, Her, and Lucy represent just a taste – she is all over the map.

Whatever the opposite of playing the same role over and over is, she qualifies.

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In the live-action (and computer-generated) remake of the 1995 Japanese anime original, Ghost in the Shell, based on the influential Japanese manga of the same name, Johansson stars as a woman in the near future who has been saved from a terrible crash, and her brain has been preserved within a cyber-enhanced body that renders her a perfect warrior.

She is Major, a cyborg policewoman attempting to thwart a dangerous computer hacker as an elite fighter in Section 9, a government counterterrorism group funded by a corporation called Hanka Robotics, whose scientists are being targeted.

 

(2 stars out of 4)

 

“Her” brain is the ghost in question – although “ghost” is at one point equated to the soul – while her body is the shell.

The first of her kind, she performs her duties in a bustling Asian metropolis that’s littered with neon signs and advertising holograms, part of a society that mixes the real and the virtual in ever-new ways that continue to obscure the line separating them in this bleak, dystopian world.

But Major has begun to question whether the program that she’s fighting to save is really worth saving.

And she’s not getting much in the way of useful intelligence or information from the scientists in charge, including the one played by Juliette Binoche.

The terrorist she is pursuing, played by Michael Pitt, actually offers more insight into her situation than anyone else whom Major encounters.

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Shallowly and obliquely, British director Rupert Sanders, who established himself as an adroit visual stylist in 2012 with Snow White and the Huntsman, “explores” the elusive man-machine interface in a wafer-thin script by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler that’s based on the comic book by Masamune Shirow.

But the film seems to have been structured to cater to a flagrantly impatient, action-craving audience.

That is, Ghost in the Shell is forever stopping in its tracks to give way to a gunfight. And those bullet-riddled set pieces are frequent enough and prominent enough and lengthy enough to suggest that the film is as much a shoot-‘em-up as it is anything else.

The technical wizardry on display is admittedly nothing less than eye-popping. But it begs for context that never arrives.

This is a film you observe from a distance with a minimum of emotional engagement, one that recalls such memorable films as Blade Runner and The Matrix and its 1995 predecessor. But, unlike them, it just doesn’t make much of an impression.

Not for the first or last time, style simply squashes substance.

And as for the ready, willing, and able Johansson, she’s given but one note to play and she plays it well. But she’s absolutely underemployed.

So we’ll pursue 2 stars out of 4 for Ghost in the Shell, a breathless sci-fi action drama that encourages us to look, but not to think or feel.

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