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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Ghost in the Shell  (2017)
2 Stars
Directed by Rupert Sanders.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Peter Ferdinando, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Kaori Momoi, Daniel Henshall, Anamaria Marinca.
2017 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 30, 2017.
In a futuristic metropolis called New Port City, Major Mira Killion (Scarlett Johansson) has found her surviving human brain transplanted into a manufactured body. One year removed from this procedure, she is an all-business field commander for a counter-cyberterrorist unit, her latest mission sending her to investigate the recent killings of scientists working on a special project for artificial intelligence technology company Hanka Robotics. With Major edging closer to the shady corporate bigwigs and android servants responsible, she also closes in on a painful truth about her past. As she begins to reconnect to the existing humanity within her synthetic frame, "Ghost in the Shell" gains the soul it has been missing during the emotionally chilly, curiously uninvolving opening hour. Unfortunately, this upswing is of the too-little, too-late variety in a would-be sci-fi noir dazzler lacking imagination and immersive world-building.

In adapting the Japanese manga by Masamune Shirow (previously made into an eye-catching 1995 animated feature), director Rupert Sanders (2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman") and screenwriters Jamie Moss (2008's "Street Kings"), William Wheeler (2016's "Queen of Katwe") and Ehren Kruger (2014's "Transformers: Age of Extinction") have made a reasonably cohesive picture, but not a particularly memorable one. Offering not quite enough about which to think, captivate, or thrill, the film goes through the motions at a sluggish clip. It all feels too familiar by a half, from a premise which reminds at key junctures of Alex Proyas' superior 2004 thriller "I, Robot," to a tone that recalls Steven Spielberg's 2002 pic "Minority Report," to set design and art direction clearly inspired by—but far less vivid than—"Blade Runner." How is it that Ridley Scott's 1982 classic frequently has better special effects and a more immersive handle of its flashy, virtuoso city surroundings than 2017's "Ghost in the Shell?" An introductory CG aerial shot, for example, appears less photorealistic than 2014's "The LEGO Movie."

Sanders wastes little time dropping viewers into the thick of the story and manages to convey a lot of exposition without feeling the need to hold anyone's hand. What his direction lacks is energy. Those expecting dynamite action set-pieces and pulse-pounding fight choreography will be left wanting. Even as his canvas is potentially immense, the film too often plays on a small scale, missing the mark on satisfactorily exploring its post-modern reality and fictional, Asian-infused locale of glittering skyscrapers, bustling elevated byways, and holographic ad displays.

If one never gets a feel for the city as a whole or its intermingling populace of humans and robots, a bit of solace comes in the form of Scarlett Johansson (2014's "Under the Skin"), as Major Mira Killion. In recent years, Johansson has become a go-to action star, playing Black Widow in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe and the title role in 2014's "Lucy." Believably tough and feminine, she is able to hold her own in onscreen death-defying circumstances while always digging deeper to find the layers underneath her fierce exterior. Johansson does that again here, and as she begins to piece together her former life it is the character-focused moments in the narrative's second half—including her poignant connection to a lonely older woman, Hairi (Kaori Momoi)—which work best. In a key supporting role, the suddenly middle-named Michael Carmen Pitt (2012's "Seven Psychopaths") brings intensity and even speckles of gravitas to middling screen time as Kuze, a cloaked android gone rogue who shares more in common with Major than she could possibly predict. Juliette Binoche (2014's "Godzilla") is also better than the project calls for as Major's creator, sympathetic scientist Dr. Ouélet.

Paramount and Dreamworks Pictures' hope for "Ghost in the Shell" is that it will be the start of a new franchise. The ingredients are all in place to expand its mythology and further explore its lead character, both before and after her artificial intelligence transformation, yet the enterprise barely shifts out of first gear. Whether viewed as a standalone piece or the start of a series, this is underwhelming science fiction, neither creatively alive enough to catch more than a spark nor thoughtful enough to pack an emotional punch. In spite of the occasional effective moment, when all is said and done there isn't much to grab hold of or remember. "Ghost in the Shell" travels on a straight, narrow, oft-mediocre line, escalating tension negligible as Scarlett Johansson tries, and frequently succeeds in, rising above the murky fray.
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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