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The Bock’s Office: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ haunted by casting choices, slow development

Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) bursts into action in "Ghost in the Shell." The movie is about a woman whose brain has been transplanted into a robot and fights terrorism in a futuristic society.

Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) bursts into action in "Ghost in the Shell." The movie is about a woman whose brain has been transplanted into a robot and fights terrorism in a futuristic society.

With massive holographic advertisements, mechanical geishas and other embodiments of artifice prominent in the Asian metropolis of “Ghost in the Shell,” you’d think that’d be the biggest example of fakery. But, the inauthenticity goes even deeper, dear viewers.

If you go...

“Ghost in the Shell,” rated PG-13

Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars

Running time: 106 minutes

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt and Juliette Binoche

Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

In the near future, man and machine are more closely intertwined than ever before, with a great majority of the populace fitted with cybernetic enhancements. Technical advancements are being made every day by the company Hanka Robotics, and among their latest projects is Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman whose body could not be saved following an accident, leading scientists to transplant her brain and consciousness into a synthetic robot form.

With greater abilities than she could have ever dreamed, Killian now works for Section 9, a police outfit working against terrorism, though she is afflicted by memories of her past life and hallucinations she can’t explain.

When the staff of Section 9 begins to see more and more acts of violence that can be traced to an unknown hacker, the search is on for the source of such new and dangerous threats. But, as Killian tracks down the perpetrators, she learns of her own ties to the incidents and that her trust in the people who have made her what she is might be unfounded.

With great turns in not-quite-human roles in “Her,” “Lucy” and “Under the Skin,” as well as nearly a half-dozen appearances as Black Widow, it makes sense that Johansson would be on the short list for such a part. And, to her credit, she brings an excellent approach as an aloof yet engaged action heroine, equipped with a body that’s almost indestructible and offers camouflage to boot.

Her wild oscillation between being fully clothed and letting it all hang out — her form covered in a series of flesh-colored panels — never seems to strike anyone as odd, and lord knows producers never mind creating the illusion of nudity without risking losing the PG-13 rating.

Still, you never quite get the sense that the movie star is right for this movie. But, more on that later.

Multi-talented Japanese actor and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano is a better fit as the Section 9 superior, Chief Daisuke Aramaki, a crusty but wise lawman dealing with a society that’s evolving too fast, plus a tech CEO (Peter Ferdinando) breathing down his neck about the erratic nature of Killian, who’s essentially on loan and can have her plug pulled at any time, despite the objections of the doctor (Juliette Binoche) who created her.

Pilou Asbæk adds some laughs as Killian’s down-to-earth, slightly dimwitted partner Batou, whose resistance to trends eventually results in a set of mechanical eyes, but Michael Pitt is deadly serious as an androgynous, buggy mechanical mess named Kuze who’s very well connected in this world and ready to burn it to the ground.

Pitt’s casting raises eyebrows a little as a character who certainly has Asian roots but Johansson does even more so as someone known to longtime fans of the manga series as Motoko Kusanagi. ScarJo, who nails the essence of the woman in question, doesn’t deserve the brunt of the criticism, and it would almost be passable, although still insulting, if studios simply said, “Hey, we want a star. She’s white. Get over it.”

It’s a late plot twist that compounds this issue by clumsily trying to not only explain away but even go so far as to excuse the changes under the guise of advancing the conversation about whitewashing.

What’s especially telling is how this bleeds into the subtext of the movie, which deals with identity, corruption and the ongoing loss of humanity as we march into the 21st century. And, considering the pacing of this whole ordeal, “march” seems to be a generous verb.

There are arresting visuals to be sure in “Ghost in the Shell,” but the entire exercise feels incredibly hollow in trying to bring a beloved cyber-epic to the big screen, unwittingly creating its own downfall by being lovely to look but exhausting to sit through in its entirety with a story that’s getting used up more and more. You’d be better off sticking to old anime episodes or the original “RoboCop,” because in this genre, being unoriginal may be a misdemeanor, yet felony-level charges are in store for the boring.

Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com or follow him on Twitter @TheBocksOffice.

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