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MOVIE REVIEW: A Mostly Hollow ‘Shell’

The Major (Scarlett Johansson) stands over a vanquished foe in “Ghost in the Shell,” the big-budget adaptation of the Japanese classic. (Paramount Pictures)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment

(Warning: Contains spoilers)

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the new big-screen adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” the Japanese futuristic contemplation of humanity revered as a landmark of anime and cyberpunk vision.

The lessons include – but certainly are not limited to: huge budgets are wisely spent on story as well as special effects; Hollywood whitewashing is proving more trouble than it’s worth; and for goodness sake, never, ever get into a gunfight with Beat Takeshi.

Based (somewhat) on Masamune Shirow’s original 1989 manga and the watershed 1995 animated adaptation, this live-action iteration finds a near-future society with dystopian overtones, in a Tokyo-Hong Kong city hybrid.

Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the latest specimen of Section 9, a government agency that finds value in “cerebral salvage” – the harvesting of fully functioning brains from destroyed humans and implanting them in cyborg bodies. Of course, the agency’s prime objective is to weaponize these beings, and Major (whose human name is initially uncertain) is the newest, most advanced model off the production line.

After a few loud shootouts, Major learns that some ne’er do well has a grudge against anyone involved with Section 9’s activities and has set about on a campaign to eliminate them all.

The directive takes a detour when Major begins to question her past, her origins and why she has only fragmented recollections of her mortal former existence.

There’s a decent movie hiding somewhere in this Hollywood vision of “Ghost in the Shell,” but it is beset by problems of its own creation, not the least of which is the casting.

The ink wasn’t yet dry on the announcement that Johansson would play the lead, and the avalanche of criticism began. Yet again we have a story from Asia, set in what appears to be Asia, and cast mainly with white actors. In this case, Johansson’s plays (what’s left of) a runaway named Motoko Kusanagi – yes, she’s Japanese.

There is the entire back story about how her brain was recovered from the woman’s battered body and how the cyborg is not intended to represent any particular race, an opinion shared by Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 anime classic.

Johansson has said she accepted the role as vehicle to project a strong female lead, and that she would never consider playing someone of another ethnicity.

The movie gets a much-needed boost from international action star “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, as the head of a secret government agency. (Paramount Pictures)

Of course, there is the rationale that the success of the movie depends on a bankable star, and it should be noted that much of the funding came from Chinese production companies, who almost certainly want a “big” Hollywood name attached to their investment.

These arguments, however, have a fundamental counterpoint that cannot be ignored, that the net result is people of color being removed from the screen. Longtime fans of the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise have great affection for the character of Motoko, and in this version, it’s inescapable that she is reduced to a sacrifice, to allow for the creation of a white hero.

What Hollywood needs to learn is that whitewashing characters of color out of prominence simply isn’t worth the controversy. The backlash over this film has been robust since well before its release, and the producers have alienated much of their potential audience via the casting.

Putting hard numbers on the impact the controversy has had on the box office is difficult, but one thing is clear: it’s been disappointing. For a movie that reportedly cost some $110 million to make, it pulled in a paltry $19 million domestically in its opening weekend, and as of early Wednesday, just over $59 million worldwide, according to Market Watch.

There is a lesson here, staring us all in the face: in 2017, the casting of Mickey Rooney, David Carradine, Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton or Scarlett Johansson as Asian characters is flatly unacceptable.

Moreover, Johansson is not the best choice for this role, regardless of race. She is relatively bland and unconvincing for most of the film. Rinko Kikuchi or even Zoe Saldana would have been far more intriguing – and yes, commercially viable – choices.

Another issue hampering the movie is how it not only seems aimed squarely at adolescent boys, but how much of feels as though it was written by adolescent boys. There’s plenty of cyber hacking, Johansson is clad in a nude-colored skin-tight suit for much of the film, and the dialogue spares no action film clichés: She’s not a human, “she’s a weapon”; “You lied to me.” “I was trying to protect you.”

In one glaring gaffe, a senior technician in a highly sensitive and presumably sterile robotics lab completes her work, then immediately lights up a cigarette. Really? Is that supposed to be cool?

Most of the action sequences are sparkling, yet there is a pall cast over all of them. In this highly advanced world, in which people can purchase “enhancements” to correct minor or major flaws, or to give themselves instant understanding of any language, they have yet to move beyond the engagement of guns as the weapon of choice. In a cyberintegrated environment inspired by the lush, complex worlds of “Blade Runner” or “Metropolis,” the crude, unimaginative pistol is glaringly out of context.

The story gets a boost ahead of its climax, thanks to the inclusion of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, the comedian and international star of action flicks like “Sonatine,” “Brother” and “Hanabi.”

With a hairdo like it was lifted straight out of Dick Tracy comics, Kitano spends most of the movie as a mumbling, grumbling, cardboard caricature. That is, until the baddies try to rub him out and find themselves on the business end of his antique six-shooter.

From that moment, “Ghost in the Shell” seems to find some much-needed life.

Shirow’s original tale was a cautionary one, about losing one’s humanity in the crushing advancement of technology, and how protecting that humanness is perhaps the most important battle of all. In the latest version, the heroine is told that she is hardly human anymore, that her resurrected soul is simply the ghost of someone who has died and been forgotten. No one will miss the person buried inside this robotic vehicle.

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, this aspect of the story is swept aside in favor of flash and flair. The idea that “memories don’t define a person, actions do” is repeated at predictable plot points. Smartly incorporating the human themes could have made “Ghost in the Shell” something truly special, but like the super-secret government agency in the movie, the creators have directed much of their focus to the outer shell, failing to fully contemplate any worth of what’s inside.

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