Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In Theaters: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

(US/China - 2017)

Directed by Rupert Sanders. Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Peter Ferdinando, Chin Han, Michael Wincott, Danusia Samal, Kaori Mamoi, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Henshall. (PG-13, 107 mins)

Based on Masamune Shirow's legendary manga and previously filmed as a classic 1995 anime directed by Mamuro Oshii, the live-action--relatively speaking--Hollywood version of GHOST IN THE SHELL was a long time coming, being in development as far back as 2008. The end result feels like it could've been made in 2000 on the heels of THE MATRIX, and it might've seemed dated even then. Director Rupert Sanders (SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN) hits all the dystopia/cyberpunk tropes: the dark BLADE RUNNER cityscapes with images projected on skyscrapers mixed with the garishness of THE FIFTH ELEMENT; the action choreography of THE MATRIX and RESIDENT EVIL; and a badass hero in Scarlett Johansson, playing the kind of role that's been owned by Milla Jovovich for at least the last 15 years. The ideas and the look of Shirow's influential manga have been co-opted by so many other pop culture offerings over the years that this fashionably late big-studio take on the subject can't help but come off like the JOHNNY MNEMONIC or AEON FLUX of its decade. That's ultimately a much bigger problem for it than any SJW "whitewashing" outrage over Johansson being cast in the lead.

In the aforementioned dystopian future, almost all humans are cybernetically enhanced to a certain degree thanks to the groundbreaking technological work done by Hanka Robotics, run by unscrupulous CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando). Under Cutter's direction, Hanka scientists led by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) have successfully accomplished the first transplant of a human brain, taken from a survivor of a terrorist attack, into a synthetically created being, christened Mira Killian (Johansson). A year later, under Ouelet's objections, Killian is a major with a government-run anti-terrorism bureau overseen by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (the great "Beat" Takeshi), partnered with enhanced human military vet Batou (Pilou Asbaek). A number of Hanka scientists, including Dr. Osmund (Michael Wincott) and Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca) have been killed in intricately planned terrorist assaults, with Ouelet presumed to be the next target. Cutter orders Aramaki's team to find and kill the leader of the cell, who turns out to be Kuze (Michael Pitt, now going by "Michael Carmen Pitt" for some reason), a discarded Hanka project from years earlier who informs Mira that she's not the first of her kind and that Cutter and the Hanka scientists have been experimenting with brain transplants into synthetic bodies for years, all for the purpose of engineering the perfect military killing machine. When Mira rebels against Hanka and Aramaki takes her side ("I answer to the Prime Minister, not to you," Aramaki tells Cutter), Cutter orders Mira's termination.

GHOST IN THE SHELL makes for nice eye candy, even if the imagery is something you've seen hundreds of times before. Johansson is well-cast, looks terrific in a flesh-colored body suit, and she has a nice rapport with Asbaek, but there's just nothing new, fresh, or innovative here, with the third act feeling more like a cyberpunk Jason Bourne outing once Mira dives into her past as she discovers her brain belonged to a woman named Motoko Kusanagi, even going so far as meet Motoko's mother (Kaori Mamoi), who's still grieving over her daughter running away from home and allegedly committing suicide. Ultimately, the film can't overcome its stagnant familiarity (note how much Johansson looks like Alicia Vikander in EX MACHINA in the scenes where she's A.I. natural) and some occasionally rushed-looking CGI, with Johansson looking a lot like a FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN character in some shots. The best moment in GHOST IN THE SHELL is when Sanders finally gives Takeshi something to do other than sit behind a desk looking solemn and concerned. When Aramaki is ambushed by three Cutter goons and immediately turns the tables on them, quipping "Don't send a rabbit to hunt a fox," blowing all of them away as Takeshi gets his signature twitch going on the right side of his face (a partial facial paralysis resulting from a 1994 motorcycle accident), it's practically a stand-up-and-cheer moment for fans of the Japanese cult icon.

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