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‘Ghost in the Shell’ fails to live up to its influencers

May 5, 2017 GMT

Hollywood’s attempt to bring to life the 1995 cult-classic “Ghost in the Shell” has continued to prove how difficult it is retain the raw energy and adventurous spirit of Japanese anime in live-action. While marginally better than shameless cash-grabs like “DragonBall Evolution” and “Street Fighter,” Rupert Sanders’ vision for this project is too calculated and pedestrian to evoke the wild, cyberpunk imagination of its source material.

Scarlett Johansson — barely distinguishable from her other roles in which she runs around with a gun in a skin-tight jumpsuit — plays Major, a government cyborg police officer whose job is to track down cyber terrorists in future Tokyo. While on the hunt for a past agent who’s able to hack into the brains of other soldiers, she discovers more about her human past and the dubious nature of the government that created her. In the tradition of every super-soldier, spy movie, the huntress then becomes the hunted.

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Sanders, who previously brought us the equally feckless “Snow White and the Huntsman,” is foremost a visual filmmaker and a stylist. He’s far more concerned with production design, costume, effects and cool looking slow-motion music-video moments than he is character motivations or emotional storytelling. Luckily for him, he’s fairly good at those cosmetic details, and the aesthetics of the film are stimulating enough to momentarily distract you from how stale and lifeless the movie often is.

The performances all around are mediocre to bad. Scar-Jo in particular seems uninspired in her odd turn as a character originally written as Japanese. Pilou Asbæk as her brutish partner Batou is seems more comfortable in his cartoonish role, but even he seems constipated by the screenplay’s awkward, wooden dialogue. Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano plays a sleepy police chief through most of the runtime but he’s given the movie’s best action sequence in which he has to defend himself single-handedly against a much larger group. It’s a rare moment in the film that feels grounded and dangerous rather than distancing the audience with the slick gloss of expensive Hollywood production.

In Sanders’ defense, there’s a long and unfair legacy to live up to within this genre. The original anime was largely inspired by both Ridley Scott’s cyber-noir “Blade Runner” and the break-through anime classic “Akira.” In return, The Wachowskis’ sci-fi/action game-changer “The Matrix” was extremely influenced by all of the above. So when watching this, it’s difficult not to compare every choice made to a string of better movies that helped redefine science fiction for a whole generation. But it’s not just that “Ghost in the Shell” 2017 feels a lot like warmed-over “Matrix” riffs, it’s that its core reason for being as a corporate entity has none of the personal drive, the political charge or idiosyncratic charm of its influences.

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There’s a fine line to tread between archetypal and stereotypical, and unfortunately this remake falls into the latter camp. It’s true that this kind of detective story has been told many times in many different ways, but what Sanders fails to do is invest our interest in the character’s emotional arc and personal struggle. This kind of direction cannot be accomplished by special effects and clever camera placement alone, but by tapping into a shared human experience with the audience, and ironically this film is the least interested in its own humanity.

Grade: C-

Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.

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