Movie Review: “Ghost in the Shell” has the look and spirit, if not the originality of “Blade Runner”

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“Ghost in the Shell” is a sensory overload, eye-popping eye candy movie a visual feast of the “Blade Runner” “Fifth Element” variety.

Based on the popular and enduring comic book/anime/Japanese media franchise, it’s dark and dazzling to look at. And whatever side you’ve taken in the “Why’d they cast a white actress as this beloved Japanese assassin?” debate, Scarlett Johansson works in this pan cultural-pan racial filmic universe.

Not that this will surprise anyone who saw her in “Lucy.” Or “Under the Skin.”

But the story, stretching back to the late ’80s origins of this franchise (famously turned into an anime film in 1995) feels worn and dated. And not just because comic writer Masumune Shirow was entirely too enamored of “Blade Runner” for his own good.

Johansson is Major, a trained killer made up of a dead woman’s brain and the best body futurescience can manage, a thinking, problem-solving person in a synthetic shell.

She is the ultimate “enhancement” in an era when eyes can be upgraded, body parts of all types replaced (at assorted price points), livers made hangover proof.

“You’re what everyone will become one day,” her creator (Juliette Binoche) purrs.

And she’s great at what she’s been created for — killing. Her boss, played by Japanese director/actor Beat Kitano, has but to rattle off a command (in Japanese, you can upload any language into your brain, even upgrade to a non-verbal wireless telepathy network) and she dives in to deliver justice and rescue the threatened.

But the company behind her and most of the world’s “enhancement” business, Hanka Robotics, is under threat. A mysterious hooded figure, Kuze (Michael Pitt), is hacking and sending insta-minions, Geisha-bots or humans nobody will miss, after Hanka employees.

ghhost2Major must track him down before he spills more blood, wreaks more havoc in their world, on Hanka’s stock price.

But she has these memories, inadequately illustrated visually in the film, barely-suppressed suggestions of her previous life. Maybe she wasn’t a refugee who drowned on her way to Japan after all.

Every scene is overstuffed with background imagery that grabs the eye — streets filled with sky-scraper-sized holographic advertising, all manner of hi-tech eyewear, backpacks, fashion and the like. This is the Los Angeles of “Blade Runner” transplanted to Asia, ignoring the warnings that a growing chunk of Japan may be eventually rendered unlivable by the ongoing meltdown and radiation crisis of Fukishima.

For some reason, we haven’t enhanced our way out of needing machine guns and big-mag pistols, which is how Major and her team (Pilou Asbæk plays her sidekick) dispatch the legions of masked corporate goods and other bad guys. There are robo-cops on every corner, body scanners at frequent intervals. 

And still, guns are everywhere. Not to worry. If you survive the shootout, 3D printing, electronics and hydraulics can quickly undo the damage.

They’ve cast one of the most famously shapely actresses of her era in the lead role, but “Ghost” is largely de-sexed, a movie with barely a hint of the pervy appeal of the manga.

And whatever novelty there was in this notion that brain (soul) transplants will leave shadow memories of who you used to be has been beaten to death in the decades since “Robocop” (which predated “Ghost”). What’s the sci-fi hook of “Get Out,” after all? It’s a tired trope.

 

Still, I love the yakuza nightclubs, the high-rises, the wearying visual noise of the streets that director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and his team cooked up — stunning electrified wallpaper, manifold variations of functional or fashion-conscious facial gear that has Major wondering, and asking, that big question of every new face she encounters.

“Are you human?”

Pitt earns a nice Roy Batty moment, but the whole enterprise is emotionally flat and arid. The unfamiliar feels overly familiar. And no matter how many shots of a leotarded Johansson Sanders throws at us — he has a “thing” for his leading ladies, remember — “Ghost in the Shell” can’t escape its own ghosts, the movies, stories, characters and even settings of truly original work that predates it.

For all its gory mayhem, it’s a movie as bloodless as it is sexless.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi “Beat” Kitano,  Pilou AsbækJuliette Binoche, Michael Pitt

Credits:Directed by Rupert Sanders script by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, based on the Masamune Shirow comic. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:47

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