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Giving up the ‘Ghost’

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Anime remake “Ghost in the Shell” misfires

While the trend toward remaking preexisting properties continues going strong in Hollywood, that doesn’t mean that every effort is going to be a winning one. There are a multitude of reasons why these movies can go awry. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t.

Based on a classic 1995 anime (which was itself based on a Japanese manga that first arrived in the late 1980s), it’s a near-future sci-fi story in which the line between man and machine have blurred, with cybernetic enhancements becoming the norm. Unfortunately, what was likely fresh 20-plus years ago has become rather stale, and this new film fails to do enough to overcome that (admittedly unfair) sense of unoriginality.

Scarlett Johansson (“Captain America: Civil War”) stars as Major, a robotic being who represents the next step in the blending of humanity and technology; she is a human brain operating an android body – a “ghost” in a “shell” – thanks to the efforts of the monolithic Hanka Robotics.

(And trust me – they take great pains to make sure you know about the separation of ghost and shell.)

Her designer Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche, “Slack Bay”) can only look on as Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando, “Tommy’s Honor”) decides to use this new creation as a weapon. Major becomes part of a shadowy police force called Section 9 that combats technological terrorism. And when a cyberterrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt, “Criminal”) starts targeting Hanka executives, it’s up to Major and her team - including her primary partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek, “The Great Wall”) and team leader Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, “A Living Promise”) – to eliminate the threat.

But when Major discovers some sinister machinations going on behind the scenes at Hanka Robotics, schemes that may well reach all the way to the very top, she’s left to decide which side she’s on, who (if anyone) he can trust … and ultimately, the truth about who she is and how this new life came to be.

I’ll admit to only a passing familiarity with the 1995 anime version of the film; I saw it once maybe 20 years ago. However, even with only that vaguely remembered experience a basis for comparison, I feel confident in saying that it was a far superior viewing experience than this new live-action remake.

Let’s be clear – I love science fiction. I especially love seeing visions of the future; one of sci-fi’s greatest assets is its ability to present a view of what is to come. And “Ghost in the Shell” offers that, but in a less than satisfying manner. The fact that the story was so influential is a double-edged sword; by offering what made the original great, this new film comes off as derivative. We’ve spent the last two decades looking at futures that significantly resemble this one.

The action sequences and effects work are good, but nothing special. The general visual aesthetic fails to impress. The pacing moves in fits and starts without any sense of consistency. All in all, it’s just OK – a bit dull at times, a few strong moments. And “just OK” is not close to good enough with a movie like this one.

Director Rupert Sanders is in a tough spot here. This is a guy who has done exactly one previous feature (2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman”) and is best known for cheating on his wife with Kristen Stewart; recreating a cult classic isn’t necessarily an easy assignment. He’s got a very small, but vocal fanbase on one hand and a majority utterly unfamiliar with the property on the other – the odds of finding the proper balance were never in his favor.

Scarlett Johansson is fine as Major, though the insistence on turning her into some sort of action star continues to feel a bit odd. She’s a talented actress who might want to start giving more thought to her choices. Obviously, she can handle the physical nature of the role and works the lack of affect in her favor, but projects like this one always seem ill-fitting on her. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable – even the wildly talented Binoche – although one could argue that Asbaek does some memorable work in some of his scenes.

(There’s also the whitewashing controversy that surrounds the film and will likely surround any film which changes the nature of its source material by recasting primary roles with Caucasian actors, but that’s far too nuanced a conversation for this space.)

In the end, “Ghost in the Shell” fails because it springs from a source that had a major impact on the world of sci-fi. It was damned by the influence of its previous iteration. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a good one. A forgettable mediocrity.

[2 out of 5] 

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