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Movie Review: #GhostInTheShell

The competent but unremarkable Ghost in the Shell is nothing you haven't seen before.

Review by Matt Cummings

At what point do all movies feel like you've seen them before? When I look at some of my fellow reviewer colleagues, I see their fatigue on display and with good reason. In their decades-long evaluation of cinema, they've seen better versions of every film in theaters right now, including Director Rupert Sanders' big screen American adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a competent but all-too-familiar Frankenstein of every important Sci-Fi film of the past 30 years.

Set in a dystopian future in which everyone seems plugged into the Internet with enhancements, Ghost in the Shell introduces us to Major (Scarlett Johansson), a humanoid whose brain is real but whose body is totally synthetic. This gives Major incredible strength and intelligence, as demonstrated by the film's first ass-kicking sequence. Her boss Armaki (Takeshi Kitano) has surrounded her with an elite team that includes the bruiser Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and Han (Chin Han). But that might not be enough as Major's greatest challenge arrives in the terrorist Kuze (Michael Pitt), who's determined to destroy Hanka Robotics and Major's team. But she's got other problems as well, including a powerful memory from her past that randomly appears in her data stream, which eventually leads her straight to Kuze. Faced with a stunning revelation, Major must decide if her bosses - including the slimy Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) and her creator Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) - can be trusted, just as Kuze's reign of terror leads right at Major's feet.

If that plot summary sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Ghost in the Shell is a derivative of at least 5 films: Blade Runner, Robo Cop, The Matrix, Speed Racer, and Tron: Legacy. That's not uncommon these days (see Hell or High Water or The Nice Guys), but add in a paint-by-the-numbers bad guy and this mixture is just merely competent, not screwing things up but not exactly hitting it out of the park either.

There are plenty of things to like about Ghost in the Shell: it paints a gorgeous picture of a future filled with enhanced human beings, surrounded by massive structures and billboard advertisements. Its heartbeat pulses to a good score by Composers Clint Mansel and Lorne Balfe, pushing out the sequenced keyboards like he owns the place. The costumes and set decoration are also very good, but you'll feel like Rick Deckard should emerge from the shadows on his way to wasting another Replicant, or Speed Racer's Mach 5 should come tearing down these streets of Hong Kong. There's so direct suggestion here by Director Rupert Sanders that either of these worlds is a part of Ghost, but does everything he can to nudge us in those directions.

Sanders has always had a good eye: with Ghost in the Shell, he proves that he can navigate the Medieval world of Snow White and The Huntsman just as well as Major's, planting his feet firm and even doubling down on his vision. But what we get isn't remarkable or unique in the slightest, and that won't play well with its key demos: anime fans who are used to see big things from their genre. Ghost in the Shell has some of that, but it's unlikely they'll walk away feeling like they've been done right.

Part of that lies in the film's casting, which again is competent but spends too long with Major. Having never seen the series or the 1995 film, I can't quite relate but can tell you this is all Major with her team playing a distant role. The only one who gets even moderately close is Asbæk: his relationship to Major is the closest thing she has to a work husband, but that isn't the best thing about his appearance. I kept gawking at Asbæk because he looks like he's auditioning for Fox's upcoming Cable movie. But Sanders doesn't exactly gift Batou with impressive credentials. The same goes for Han, although Kitano emerges as a boss bad ass near film's end. Pitt is interesting for a time as Kuze, but there's just not enough time with him and Major for us to give a damn about what happens. His Max Headroom stuttering is kind of cool - making him a sort of defective - but his menace quickly cools into wanna-be sympathetic bad guy.

Part of Ghost in the Shell's problems started way back when Sanders cast Johansson, effectively white-washing what should have been a role offered to an Asian actress. It's likely that the studio balked at this because they couldn't guarantee a box office draw with a relative unknown. And while Johansson is quite good as Major - and even looks somewhat like her - the fact that we didn't get a proper female for this role will plague Johansson's portrayal. Based on her performance, I hope that Marvel will rethink their decision to not produce her in a standalone Black Widow movie, because she creates about the same aura for Major and largely succeeds. It's also likely that male audiences will absolutely forget about this controversy once they see Johansson naked, nearly naked, and donning clothing so tight that she might as well be naked. In some ways it deprives the movie of its soul, objectifying her rather than creating a conflicted assassin whom which we can empathize. Sure, that's the nature of anime, but it can also ring hollow with audiences who these days might want more from their female leads.

If the exuberance of our test audience prior to the showing - and then the smattering of applause by the same group afterwards - tells you anything it's that Ghost in the Shell faces an uphill battle at the box office. Beautifully sculpted and scored, it's also a Frankensteined affair of at least 5 movies that you'll easily pick out once things get going. Most characters are submerged in a hail of gunfire and the story fails to ask the big questions about existence that Blade Runner achieved so elegantly. But you also might enjoy this mixture for what it is: a big, action-oriented Sci-Fi flick that tries to be great at lots of things but only manages to not screw them up.

Ghost in the Shell is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images and has a runtime of 107 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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