The list of movies that owe a huge debt to Blade Runner is damn near inexhaustible, but even so, it's been a real long time since the last film that drew upon that film's iconic production design so blatantly and desperately as the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell. More, indeed, than the film borrows from the 1995 anime masterpiece also called Ghost in the Shell, which doesn't line up with this one quite enough for me to feel exactly right in calling this a "remake" of that film. But then, Ghost in the Shell has long since passed on to refer more to a multi-media franchise than just one movie, all connected by matters of theme and setting, so let us merely say that GitS '17 is merely the latest incarnation of that sprawling series. And also the worst.

Anyway, the new film borrows unapologetically from Blade Runner's vision of neon-lit city of film noir futurism to create its portrait of a city that I don't think is ever specifically identified as Tokyo, but let's go ahead and assume. And if the results are decidedly derivative, they're also drop-dead gorgeous: Jan Roelf's production design surely has to rate among the loveliest things to show up in the movies in 2017, and the pairing of this neon heaven with the urban realism of stained, decaying city streets is surely all the justification that Ghost in the Shell needs for its existence.

More to the point, it's all the justification that Ghost in the Shell gets. Gorgeous or not, the best the film can offer is a reheated version of a 35-year-old classic, and even then, you get used to it pretty quickly. Everything else is a dreary grind through a story that assumes that the complexity of the original film means that there's no reason that anything has to make sense, carried off by characters with pedestrian arcs - particularly the protagonist, as spectacular a misfire as you're prone to see.

That being Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), the lone survivor of an explosion, if "survivor" is the word; her body was so badly mangled that her entire consciousness was relocated into a synthetic form. A "ghost" in the "shell", if you will, and on the off chance that you won't, the script by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger is more than happy to keep repeating it for you. The Major has been built to be the perfect cop, and over the course of the movie's thankfully crisp 107 minutes, she ends up investigating the case of a rogue cyberterrorist known as Kuze. It wouldn't be sporting to say what happens from here, though I think it's not spoiling to propose that the difference between this Ghost in the Shell and all the rest of Ghost in the Shell is in large part answered by the differences between the United States and Japan as societies and as consumers of pop culture, of which the casting of Johansson is a mere symptom, not a cause. The Japanese original is largely concerned with issues of "how are we to live and make sense of our reliance upon technology and interconnectivity?" and the American remake is largely concerned with issues of "evil conspiracies and robots, aieeee!" Though I'm sure it thinks it's dealing with the Big Questions.

So anyway, it's dumber, and we surely ought to have been able to guess that it would be dumber. There could still be something good within this, at the level of big, messy spectacle, and I think director Rupert Sanders at least knows where that might lie, though he's not any good at getting us there. Let us not forget, after all, that his only other feature was the glum Snow White and the Huntsman: sucking all the fun out of would-be spectacular adventures is kind of his thing. Anyway, he's excellent at one thing, which is re-staging specific images from the 1995 Ghost in the Shell and having them look generally very excellent with the new film's production design and sleek, glistening CGI. He's not particularly good at doing anything else - certainly not incorporating those beautiful re-stagings into a reasonably effective narrative flow, or indeed doing anything with them at all other than declaring, "do you see, fanboys? I have also watched the thing that you liked!"

The result is a film whose action is slightly good, in a borrowed way, and whose plot is a benighted mess that's simultaneously easier to follow than the 1995 film while also being much less disciplined. Ghost in the Shell was never "fun", but it had a headlong pace that made it exciting even it was troubling. The new film is none of those things.

Weighing it down considerably, I am sorry to say, is Johansson herself. It hardly seems worth crabbing about whitewashing this one part when the whole project has been so mercilessly Americanised at the cost of its brain and soul; though at the very least, casting a Japanese actor in the part would have prevented the film from making its tremendously unwise attempts to justify the presence of a white star - it makes things considerably worse with the final act reveals that feel sort of pathetically earnest, like the writers were all high-fiving each other that they solved this representational problem. But anyway, by any skin color, Johansson is a problem for the film: she's playing the role with the same dead-eyed emptiness of her Under the Skin character, when she very much should have been drawing on the self-awareness that she used in Lucy. Basically, she commits too much to the "robot" half of things, and in the process, completely ruins the point of whatever message the film thought it was offering.

Most of the cast around her are at least solid, though very few of them have any real impact on anything: "Beat" Takeshi Kitano is excellent as the Major's superior, but the character doesn't do enough for that salvage anything. The only time that the film comes alive at all is in the handful of times that Michael Pitt appears as Kuze; his nervous, tense-up performance resonates in exactly the ways Johansson's fails to, and he's the only time that this Ghost in the Shell attains any of the speculative power that its predecessors have.

It's the kind of movie where having one single strength is weirdly worse than having none at all; Pitt being pure, vintage Ghost in the Shell tragic-crazy is proof that that the rest of the movie could have been very good, it just isn't. It is all very boring and slightly depressing in how wholly mediocre it is, but there's at least one silver lining: hopefully the film's implosion at the worldwide box office means that they'll finally stop trying to make a live-action version of Akira.