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06 Apr 2017

Live Action but Not Lively: Despite Scarlett Johansson's Best Efforts, the New 'Ghost in the Shell' Is a Dud

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.

The 1995 film Ghost in the Shell was a groundbreaking, subversive piece of Japanese anime—and now it’s gotten a live-action redo, with Scarlett Johansson sporting a form-fitting flesh suit, and the addition of a bunch of plot enhancers aimed at making the story more humanistic and straightforward.

The results are always good to look at—but the puffed up plot and safe PG-13 rating keep the film from succeeding. It’s largely a boring, misguided affair.

Johansson can’t be faulted for the film’s failures. She could’ve been a solid choice to play Major, a human brain inside a synthetic cyborg’s body who is policing the streets of a futuristic dystopia that makes the Blade Runner landscapes look like modern-day Lincoln, Neb., in comparison. As she has proven in Lucy and as the Black Widow, Johansson is a capable action hero. She also fares well as somebody placed in an artificial body, as she did in Under the Skin. Most importantly, she can play a robot without seeming robotic. She gives Major some decent dimensions.

Unfortunately, Major has a new plotline that involves her past life, a mystery that overwhelms the action and turns the film into a bit of a melodramatic exercise. There are themes from the original anime and subsequent TV series that are expanded upon—perhaps too much—and it all slows the film down.

While the original had a hard-nosed, gritty crime-noir edge to it, in the new film, director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) goes for something softer and a little whiny. He also has a problem injecting humor; the movie is devoid of even the mildest of chuckles.

As far as set designs go, Ghost in the Shell is a visual winner, although it’s a bit derivative. Instead of Blade Runner’s geisha billboards, you get gigantic geisha holograms acting as skyscraper-tall advertisements. There are action scenes that do the original anime justice, and pay homage to films like The Matrix. None of it feels altogether original, but it does look good.

While the plot only mildly resembles that of the original, there are moments from the anime film that are re-created here. They include Major’s liquid birth scene; her diving off a skyscraper; the moment when Major tears herself apart while attacking a tank (although it’s far less gory here thanks to that PG-13 rating); and a scene in which Major battles a bad guy in a lake.

Michael Pitt shows up late in the film as Kuze, an altered version of a character from the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. He essentially replaces the Puppet Master from the original movie as an entity able to hack into other cyborgs and intelligence systems. Pitt, always an eccentric actor, embraces the opportunity to look and act really weird, which he does nicely. He turns Kuze into an interesting, tortured being. He’s one of the stronger elements in the film.

Legendary Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano plays Aramaki, a prominent character in the original who here is given a new spin. Kitano has a scene in which Aramaki dispatches enemy forces while using his briefcase as a shield, and it might be the best action moment in the movie.

There is no doubt that this was being set up as a franchise, but the continuation of the saga seems doubtful anytime soon. Ghost in the Shell cost a lot of money, and it was supposed to be a domestic blockbuster, but it’s getting beat at the box office by a cartoon baby voiced by Alec Baldwin.

The better bet would be to make further animated stories, and continue the saga of Major that way. No live actors are required.

Ghost in the Shell is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

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