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While waiting for Scarlett Johansson to star in a "Black Widow" movie, we're having to make do with far-out action films like "Lucy" and her latest project, "Ghost in the Shell," a live-action remake of the 1995 Japanese anime film, as a cyborg with a soul.
This falls squarely into Johansson's "sexy artificial intelligence period," which also includes "Her" and "Under the Skin." Based on the manga by Shirow Masamune, the remake is directed by Rupert Sanders, adapted by Jamie Moss and William Wheeler, and suspiciously devoid of Japanese voices at the helm.
The original anime film mused about the nature of memory and reality against a futuristic urban "Blade Runner" backdrop. As source material, its meaty themes and stylistic vocabulary are ripe for remake. In a future where technology enhances the human experience, the Major is the ultimate achievement, a human brain in a fully cybernetic body, fighting crime for the department of defense in a skin suit, which enables digital camouflage.
This might be Johansson's most muted performance as a robot yet. When she's not swan-diving from precipices, she's stiff-legged, stooped, arms akimbo, not at all inhabiting the lithe panther power of the animated Major. Thank goodness for her co-stars. Danish actor Pilou Asbaek surprises in how well he fits as her partner, Batou, a gruff but tender thug. It's also an enormous treat to see the legendary Japanese actor and filmmaker "Beat" Takeshi Kitano as the commander of Section 9, the special operations team on which the Major and Batou both serve.
They're tracking down a mysterious killer murdering scientists from Hanka Robotics, the leader in humanity-enhancing tech. The violent engagements are dull, relying on gratuitous hails of bullets and firepower that seem useless. There are a few inspired bits of exciting spectacle and unique aesthetics, but it all descends into mopey memorializing and sluggish, ridiculous violence.
Before release, many accused the "Ghost in the Shell" filmmakers of whitewashing — casting white actors in a traditionally Japanese story. Unfortunately, it's actually worse than mere whitewashing. Even though the Major is a cyborg with a synthetic shell, the way she is presented does matter. Images always matter.
The Major is the first of her kind, a blend of human and AI that's better than human, better than AI. With a perfect body and face, her beauty is mentioned repeatedly. When the other near-perfect cyborg (Michael Carmen Pitt) reveals himself and also happens to be another puffy-lipped, pale-skinned blonde (despite Johansson's dye job), it becomes unsettlingly clear. If the robotics corporation is creating these "physically perfect" shells for Japanese souls and they both happen to be white, the film is asserting that physical perfection is white. This is a giant, glaring, embarrassing, inexcusable problem.
A half-hearted attempt at a multicultural world is gestured at, with the Section 9 crew, but it's not enough to offset this flaw, especially against a background of predominantly Asian actors in an Asian city. It's so frustrating because there are interesting themes floating around "Ghost in the Shell," about humanity, freedom from corporate exploitation, and what defines us — our memories or our actions? But it all gets bogged down in aesthetics that are stimulating only for the sake of stimulation, seemingly without a flicker of thought behind them. Shell indeed, but there's no ghost at home.

'GHOST IN THE SHELL'
2 stars out of 4
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Juliette Binoche
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.

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