Reeling it in: More than a machine in ‘Ghost in the Shell’

In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Scarlett Johansson appears in a scene from, “Ghost in the Shell.” (Jasin Boland/Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures via AP)

“Ghost in the Shell”

 

Paramount Pictures

1 hour, 47 minutes

I read an article recently where the author postulated that Scarlett Johansson is at her best when she plays someone who is only partly human, or someone masquerading as human. Examples were her performance as a disembodied voice in “Her,” Lucy in “Lucy” and the Female in “Under the Skin,” as well as, of course, this week’s big screen anime adaptation, “Ghost in the Shell.”

Admittedly, I haven’t seen “Her” or “Under the Skin,” but “Lucy” was terrible, and “Ghost in the Shell,” though entertaining, does not boast Johansson’s best performance. This actress can be so charming, so electrifying, I think it’s a disservice when the script calls for her to play it blank.

That said, “Ghost in the Shell” is not the whitewashed disaster that some critics have been declaring it is.

“Ghost in the Shell” has been awaiting the big-screen Hollywood treatment for quite a while. The classic Japanese anime tells the story of a cyborg cop named Major who gradually comes to realize that she is more than just a machine, that there is a “ghost” or soul in her shell.

In the film, Major works for Section 9, ostensibly a government agency, but in reality acts as security for Hanka Robotics, seen by many as the most important company in the world, especially with so many people taking advantage of robotic enhancements. When a terrorist starts murdering Hanka scientists, Major and her team are on the case. But when Major starts peeling back the layers of mystery, she realizes that nothing is as it seems.

Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role and it caused all kinds of controversy, the same kind of whitewashing claims that were made against the recent “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” remake, “Exodus - Gods &Kings.” Scarlett Johansson, in the role of Major, is said to be taking on a role that would ordinarily go to a Japanese actress.

I have to say, I sympathized with the complaints about “Exodus” and “Ben-Hur” to some extent, but in this case I feel like it’s unfounded. It would be like suggesting that “Speed Racer” needed to star a Japanese actor because the original project was Japanese. Yes, “Ghost” takes place in Japan, and yes, the main character has a Japanese name, but it’s in the far-flung future, in that kind of pan-cultural urban landscape that “Blade Runner” takes place in.

Also, I watched a bit of the original anime, and if you want to complain about whitewashing, that’s where you should point your finger. The style of anime characters has always struck me as bizarrely, almost deliberately Anglo. And Scarlett Johansson looks just like the character from the cartoon, so I think this is a little bit of a tempest in a teapot.

“Ghost in the Shell” works because, though it does offer lavish production design with endless possible side stories, it never falls so deeply in love with the landscape that it forgets the story. The noir-esque murder mystery and Major’s inevitable voyage of self-discovery is front and center and the film is refreshingly brisk — never a slog.

The characters are fairly surface level, aside from Major, but the side characters and the villains are at least interesting. I especially liked veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano who plays Aramaki, Major’s boss, and a formidable character in his own right.

“Ghost” is probably not for everyone. It’s pretty deep into the sci-fi genre so if geisha robots and gunfights aren’t your thing, maybe skip it.

One thing I will note, and this doesn’t have anything to do with the movie, but the showing I attended played a “red band” trailer for Johansson’s next movie, “Rough Night” before the feature. If you don’t know what a “red band” trailer is, it’s basically an R-rated trailer, where they include swearing, nudity, or violence that you wouldn’t normally see in a “green band” trailer. The basic rule is that these red band trailers are only supposed to play before R-rated films. “Ghost” is, appropriately, PG-13.

I don’t know if that’s an oversight, or the result of an overzealous studio trying to promote their latest big actress, but if I’d had kids with me in the theater, I wouldn’t have been pleased.

Grade: B+

“Ghost in the Shell” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and “almost” nudity. Major, being a robot, isn’t anatomically correct, but is vaguely female, and her preferred fighting attire is none, so it seems like she’s naked even though you’re not seeing anything. Think Mystique in the “X-Men” movies.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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