Music, Visuals Can't Redeem Otherwise Odious "Ghost In The Shell"

Warning: moderate “Ghost In The Shell” spoilers below.

The instant Scarlett Johansson (“Under The Skin”) was announced as the lead in Hollywood’s live-action adaptation of 1989 Japanese manga and 1995 anime feature “Ghost In The Shell,” the knives came out. Accusations of whitewashing clanged around the Internet, loudened by ultimately unfounded rumors that Johansson, a white actress, would be made to appear Asian in the film. For the first hour and change of the finished film, the casting controversy seems a blessing in disguise for any Asian actress that might have had to shoulder such a mewling dud. Director Rupert Sanders’ sci-fi actioner comes off like a pained imitation of genre jewels “RoboCop” and “Blade Runner,” unduly proud of its gamut of glitzy establishing shots, airtight in its disinclination to charisma.

But then, the movie does something remarkable. It hands off its own whitewashing – its own insistence on having a bankable white actress on its one-sheet – onto the narrative itself. Johansson isn’t just playing anti-terrorist super-cop Major Mira Killian, human brain in a cybernetic body. She’s playing a Japanese girl whose brain has been non-consensually placed in a white cybernetic body. In passing the whitewashing buck onto the text, Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger pull off the triple Lutz of cynical studio filmmaking. It would be astounding if it weren’t so shameful.

Once past the racial overtones and some admittedly impressive imagery that, like a gumball, loses its flavor within minutes, the film is only noteworthy in that it’s Johansson’s fourth to take on the same subject matter: What it means to be human. Accordingly, the actress seems kind of over it. She lurches through the movie like a robot might lurch if robots starred in movies and were capable of being uninterested in the movies they were making. And she delivers her wooden dialogue with the same kind of indifference. But as a genuine movie star with built-in appeal, she’s a relative bright spot among the cast, the rest an abyss of charisma.

The worst transgressor is Danish actor Pilou Asbæk who co-stars as Batou, Major’s right hand. His resemblance to a young Stephen Lang is the only discernible skill he brings to the table, yielding a performance that could have only been improved by the likes of the oft-maligned Jai Courtney or his ilk. Michael Pitt (“Last Days”) turns in an appropriately confused performance as would-be villain and fellow Asian-turned-Caucasian cybernetic organism Hideo Kuze. And then there are Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki and Juliette Binoche as the doctor responsible for Major’s transformation, two excellent actors tasked with carrying scenes dead before arrival.

It’s with good fortune that the producers secured the talents of composer Clint Mansell. He teams up with Lorne Balfe to lift the movie out of the narrative doldrums on musical ability alone, their synth-based score threatening to convince us that we’re watching something vital, something with something to say. Eventually, though, the screenplay and acting and nonstop visual trickery can’t be processed as anything more than digital noise, revealing the true form of “Ghost In The Shell” 2017: a two-hour flatline, best experienced in the form of its trailers or its soundtrack or anything but the film itself.

Instead of the movie’s creative team owning their desire for a white actress to headline a Japanese property, they got cute – or convinced themselves that they were being cute – expecting moviegoers to swallow their race-based twist as a clever bit of subverted expectations; to use their public relations nightmare to prop up a resolutely dull screenplay. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. And they have. The trouble is, it’s a really shitty, offensive cake.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 31, 2017
Studio: Dreamworks Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenwriter: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Kaori Momoi, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Yutaka Izumihara, Tuwanda Manyimo, Rila Fukushima
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)