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As any movie set in the future lets us know, outdoor advertising is going to be omnipresent and annoying as hell. Ghost in the Shell features this future too, and its marketing campaign made a good go of it in real life: billboards, lenticular standees, colorful banners whose palette, strangely, isn’t shared by the film it’s advertising. Yet even without going into the whole whitewashing problem, it’s a lot of fancy and expensive make-up to mask the fact that it’s mostly an inert movie.

It claims to be an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga classic released in the late ’80s, but let’s be honest here: Its source material is really mostly Mamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation of same, itself a classic of its genre.

When it came out in 1995, it was a benchmark of anime’s growing sophistication and its embrace of new technology and special effects, blending traditional 2D cel animation with CG. It was one of the few anime films that made a mark in non-Japan markets, even getting a 25th anniversary upgrade with slicker, more polished visuals.

It’s had several sequels across different media too, including novels, spin-off TV shows, and video games. When it came out, its exploration of artificial intelligence, transhumanism’s pros and cons, and grappling with the definition of identity felt new and thrilling; heady stuff for what was then still largely seen as a medium for younger people.

In 2017, those topics are still interesting, but you’re releasing them in a world that has Westworld very much fresh in its memory, a sequel to Blade Runner on the way, and video games like Remember Me, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and TV shows like AMC’s Humans. Even underseen work like Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse lives on in the minds of its cult following.

So you need to bring something new to the table, or at least some new angle of attack. Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell… doesn’t. It lets its character ask some important questions, and then… nothing. On to the next step of a largely by-the-numbers Hollywood plot.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major Motoko Kusanagi, who we learn is a unique prototype: a human brain from a deceased body in a synthetic shell. Though having only existed for a year, she is somehow already a Major in Section 9 under the Department of Defense, doling out death in stylish thermoptic gear that renders her invisible when she isn’t fully visible in a skin-tight suit. Some bad guy who’s inspired by the hoodies and hacking in Mr. Robot is taking over people/robots with cybernetic implants/enhancements and having them kill specific targets.

That plot and its accompanying hammy dialogue and lack of subtlety are what sinks this iteration of Ghost in the Shell. Characters keep saying the words “ghost” and “shell.” We get it. The corporate exec who turns out to be the villain—gosh, who saw that coming! At least try to make it interesting.

Another problem is sometimes, it’s too much a copy of Oshii’s film. Entire sequences are lifted—though if you were going to go that route, why not do the awesome convenience store ambush? It also goes to show what a better director Oshii is.

The famed invisible fight scene in shallow water is, in the original, a tense scene where the bad guy is freaking out from not knowing where he’ll be hit next. In Sanders’ hands, it’s an exercise in multiple slow-motion shots ending in a hot pose. The action sequences’ choreography leaves much to be desired; if not confusing, it’s underlit.

Johansson does fine work, but it feels like she could’ve done a lot more had the script given her interesting material to work with. Juliette Binoche plays a sympathetic doctor/handler, and Japanese legend and national treasure “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is largely wasted, though given one good scene. Also, no one ever brings up that he’s the only person in Japan speaking Japanese (must be a weird future).

Michael Pitt’s character looks like Metal Gear’s Raiden, but speaks like Max Headroom crossed with whatever voice program did Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” He, too, is unfortunately not given enough to do. Wasted opportunities abound, in intriguing sub-plots whose surface is only skimmed (like an in-story logical explanation for the whitewashing! The truth about the Major in a departure from the source material!), favoring instead the lackluster villainous cover-up.

While featuring some lovely special effects and some interesting designs, the dazzle and flash of this new Ghost in the Shell is not matched by its story and execution, leaving viewers wanting more. You’ll probably find it in the original 1995 version.

Photos: IMDb


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