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Ghost in the Shell (2017) Movie Review

Ghost in the Shell (2017) movie poster Ghost in the Shell

Theatrical Release: March 31, 2017 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Rupert Sanders / Writers: Masamune Shirow (comic Ghost in the Shell); Jamie Moss, William Wheeler (screenplay)

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Major), Pilou Asbæk (Batou), "Beat" Takeshi Kitano (Aramaki), Juliette Binoche (Dr. Ouelet), Michael Carmen Pitt (Kuze), Chin Han (Han), Danusia Samal (Ladriya), Lasarus Ratuere (Ishikawa), Yutaka Izumihara (Saito), Tawanda Manyimo (Borma), Peter Ferdinando (Cutter), Anamaria Marinca (Dr. Dahlin)


The 1980s manga turned 1990s anime Ghost in the Shell was heralded by many, from critics to The Matrix makers the Wachowskis to the entertainment-loving public.
Now, more than twenty years after the Japanese animated film, Ghost in the Shell is a live-action American one, a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson in the vein of 2014's Lucy.

Johansson plays Major Mira Killian. She has had her human brain, all that survived an incident, attached to a cyborg body. That's not as unheard of in near-future Japan as may sound to you. Opening text explains that the line between man and machine has blurred. Still, Major represents an advance and one that some who oversaw her engineering would like to weaponize as part of the task force Section 9.

After the president of a company is "hacked" by cyborg geishas (i.e. murdered), Major and her partner, the white-haired, dark-bearded Batou (Pilou Asbæk, "Game of Thrones") set out to find and capture the responsible parties.

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, a part-human, part-cyborg agent in "Ghost in the Shell."

From the moment it was announced as a ScarJo vehicle, Ghost has attracted some controversy. Here was a landmark piece of Japanese entertainment being turned into an aspiring international blockbuster with an American actress in the lead role. If you start typing "Ghost in the Shell w" in search engines, they'll suggest "whitewashing" for finishing that phrase.

It's an understandable concern. For all the hoopla of "#OscarsSoWhite", the subject of diversity is often reduced to African-American representation. And there was plenty of that at this year's Academy Awards,
fortunately for worthy cinema (and the fairly harmless, albeit somewhat revisionist Hidden Figures). But what of the many other ethnicities that are underrepresented in American cinema? Like anyone whose heritage can be traced back down to anywhere in Asia. Sure, Asia has its own lucrative film markets and they are increasingly significant to the global bottom line. But that hasn't raised the profile of Asian-American actors or turned them into movie stars. It's mainly manifested in Hollywood greenlighting movies that are Asian market-friendly, which means setting some action there or assigning some secondary heroics to Asian governments. That's resulted in movies that pander to the foreign dollar, from Cars 2 to the Transformers saga, which knows it's easier to sell clanging metal giants than subtitled dialogue overseas.

Like the wretched recent Matt Damon flick The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell wants to win over moviegoers in Asia, but it also wants to be a draw in North America and other parts of the world. Thus, we get a Caucasian lead in Johansson. Anyone who has spent any time looking at domestic and foreign box office numbers should know that it wouldn't make sense commercially to go any other way.

The reason why I've spent slightly more time addressing the casting controversy than the movie itself here is because Ghost does not invite a whole lot of reaction. It's sort of interesting visually, in that you'll wonder why in the future people would want to see looped video of ordinary people doing ordinary things projected largely over buildings in colorful holograms. I guess you could also find some interest in what the movie has to say about the nature of a soul and humanity. Or maybe you'll just want to ogle at Scarlett Johansson in the "looks kinda naked...wait, this is rated PG-13" body suits that she repeatedly summons on the job.

As for me, I couldn't even stay awake during the movie, some 18 hours after watching the '90s animated film. I just couldn't find anything interesting here, from Johansson's deliberately mechanical performance to the action sequences throughout that effects-laden urban setting, which looks kind of like if David Fincher had made Blade Runner. Ghost is not as bad as some of the other low-intelligence movies released earlier this year, like the aforementioned Great Wall, but I can't think of a single level on which it worked for me. Because it really didn't work for me. I didn't find it exciting or fun or thought-provoking in any way. Then again, I can't confess to expecting any of that coming into an action movie from the director of Snow White and the Huntsman.

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Reviewed March 31, 2017.

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