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"GHOST IN THE SHELL"
(2017) (Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Science-Fiction: In the future, a cybernetic-enhanced woman learns her real memories have been erased in order to make her a more obedient soldier.
PLOT:
In the not-too-distant future, humans can improve their physical and cognitive abilities with cybernetic implants. Major (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) is the first of her kind: a human brain inside of a completely cybernetic body. She was saved from a near-death drowning and chosen to become the perfect soldier, a member of an elite government unit headed by Aramaki (TAKESHI KITANO) and formed to fight terrorism.

Major and her gruff, militaristic partner, Batou (PILOU ASBAEK), are assigned to track down a ruthless, but enigmatic hacker named Kuze (MICHAEL PITT) who has been targeting and killing the top scientists of the Hanka Corporation. Headed by Cutter (PETER FERDINANDO), the all-powerful company has been at the forefront of cybernetic technology for years and is the entity that plucked Major out of the water and "saved" her.

But Major comes to learn that her entire past is a series of fabricated memories, and that Kuze may actually be a rebel liberator. She seeks out the assistance of Dr. Ouelet (JULIETTE BINOCHE), the good-hearted scientist who rebuilt her. She is also the last target on Kuze's list. Soon, Major learns just how far the human brain can be hacked into and how hard it is to fight to keep one's soul, or rather "ghost."

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
One of my favorite stand-up comedians is the very acerbic Anthony Jeselnik. He does this great bit about traveling to Japan for the first time and learning two phrases that he swore would be all he'd need to get by. The first would be "I speak fluent Japanese." And then when someone starts to talk to him at length... The second? "Anime is trash."

I've never been a fan of anime, dear readers. Apologies to those who are. As a result, I really had no experience with "Ghost in the Shell" going into it. Oh, I had heard of it before. I knew it was a comic (or, rather, "manga") and a 1990s-era animated film and a series of video games. Heck, probably half the time I've referred to it in my lifetime, I've said "Ghost in the Machine" only to be slapped back my nerdy pals and said, "That's the 1981 album by The Police, fool! It's 'Ghost in the Shell! THE SHELL!!!"

People really take this franchise seriously, and there were some uber-fans sitting around me at my preview screening earlier this week unknowingly giving me a crash course in the storyline as I eavesdropped on their conversations and did my best to distance myself from the geek spit flying as they raved on. Most were putting a LOT of pressure on the film, using phrases like "They better not have westernized it too much!" and "[Bleeping] Hollywood! Casting a white actress as Motoko! They couldn't have gotten Lucy Liu or Maggie Q or Rinko Kikuchi or Zhang Ziyi or that chick from 'Suicide Squad' who played Katana!"

These are direct, impassioned quotes, friends. And I mean die-rect quotes as I had my notebook and pens with me. Afterward, apparently, some of their worst fears had been realized. To its core fans, the film seemed to have lost the soul of what had made the "Ghost" franchise so appealing to them. They liked the action and the look of the film, did NOT like the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, apparently were ga-ga over the casting of Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, and bagged on everything else, but still hoped it will make enough money to warrant a sequel.

To this non-fan, what did I think of it? Eh ... it's not much of a film. But it's a pretty darn good trailer for "Blade Runner 2049" coming to theaters this October. No, really. I don't know if this has been a knock against the franchise before, but this 2017 film rips off the original "Blade Runner" to the point where you can just change the name of the evil corporation at the center of the film and throw in a couple of flying cars and easily pass this off as a sideways sequel to the 1982 classic. And there's also a heck of a lot of "The Matrix" in there, too, which I am sure gets knocked by some as cribbing off "Ghost in the Shell" and other similar anime.

Johansson indeed stars as Major (the name "Motoko" plays into the narrative late in the film). She is told that she is the first instance of a human brain having been placed into a fully synthetic body. So, what this replicant er, character is trained to do is be a super soldier for the government (presumably the Japanese government) to hunt down terrorists and cyber terrorists. Her latest target is the enigmatic Kuze (Michael Pitt), who is murdering the lead scientists of the all-powerful Hanka Corporation, which "built" her.

But the further Major investigates, the more she realizes that Kuze is less an enemy of the state and more a rebel liberator who may or may not hold the key to her recovering her full memory of who she was before she got turned into this human-machine hybrid. Lots of "Matrix"-style shootouts and fight scenes ensue amidst a future urban cityscape dominated by enormous hologram ads and 3-D billboards.

As a sci-fi fan, in general, the film did engage me for a decent chunk of its running time. And the various humans tricked out with cybernetic enhancements are imaginative and, in some cases, quite haunting as in the instance of an android geisha seizing a Hanka scientist early on and hacking directly into his brain. I also liked some of the throwaway bits sprinkled throughout, like Major's gruff male partner using a men's room urinal alongside a woman cyborg who relieves itself in the same manner he does.

But I didn't feel a thing for any of the characters. I also thought Johansson was the wrong choice for the lead, not because of the whole "White Vs. Asian" thing. But mostly because I've seen her in this part SO many times from all of her appearances in the Marvel superhero flicks as Black Widow to the 2014 mind-trip thriller "Lucy." She's awesome to look at in that full-body "nude" silicon form you've seen in the film's trailers. But she tones down her charisma in a part that mostly just calls for her to move very well.

So, it's a strange final take on the flick. Choices were made to enhance its mainstream box office appeal. But I don't think there's enough in the film to endear it to the general public. And the super die-hard fans of "Ghost in the Machine" are going to be up in arms about all of the tweaks to the original concepts that drew them to the franchise in the first place. So, I rate it a "take it or leave it" 5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed March 29, 2017 / Posted March 31, 2017


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