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A visually arresting but otherwise tedious 'Ghost in the Shell'

Those who make it their business to keep up with all the Internet bombs lobbed at movie stars will no doubt be well-versed at the arsenal aimed at Scarlett Johansson's beautiful blonde head because she was, in no discernible way, either Asian or Asian-American.

The lead role in "Ghost in the Shell" so clearly called for an Asian or Asian-American actress because Mamoru Oshii's 1996 movie--which is sometimes taken to be something of an anime masterpiece--involved a Japanese heroine.

The obvious reply to that knotty issue is that, sadly, there are no Asian or Asian-American female stars in moviedom who come close to the international recognition Johansson has. To many business types, a movie the size of this version of "Ghost in the Shell" needs a recognizable Big Star known everywhere from Rochester to Rangoon and Johansson filled the bill nicely.

Nevertheless, it would be worth a vigorous discussion, at least, if the movie itself mattered at all. It doesn't. It's close to a crashing bore for all of its 102 minutes.

If Oshii's previous anime version is something of a masterpiece, this baby is something of a monsterpiece, Frankenstein variety -- a Trans-Pacific assemblage of dead movie ideas hoping to create a franchise welcome on either side of America's bordering oceans. The ending of the film clearly aims at that very thing.

Anyone putting their money into such a thing needs serious investment advice.

(L-r) Scarlett Johansson as Major and Anamaria Marinca as Dr. Dahlin in "Ghost in the Shell." MUST CREDIT: Paramount Pictures-DreamWorks Pictures

To be as supportive as possible, Johansson, as always, is fine in the center of a movie. And the film itself is certainly arresting visually. Every couple of minutes or so, director Rupert Sanders and his production designers come up with a nifty visual idea or two.

The action scenes aren't creative in the slightest but they aren't fatiguingly tedious either.

Unfortunately, just about everything else in the movie is.

Johansson plays Major, a futuristic peace-keeper in something called Section 9, who is introduced to us instantly going into battle naked. Or, to be completely accurate, in a flesh-colored body stocking from which all the specific anatomy details have been removed but the general conformation of a female body remains.

Which, in Johansson's case, explains the choice of her as star and a sensible reason for her paycheck.

All this body talk matters because Major is a brain who has been located inside the very first entirely synthetic body. She treats it poorly anyway. She keeps getting it mauled and mangled throughout the movie so that she can bring it back for restoration to Juliette Binoche, playing the scientist who created her.

She may be the first of her kind but as the movie progresses, we learn nasty things about the prototypes. One of them was Michael Pitt who has now decided--after surgery on his signature--to have the name "Carmen" grafted onto his official 21st century moniker so that he is now known as Michael Carmen Pitt.

Should Major be an object of scientific study? Or used as a weapon? That's the movie's big question which anyone who plunked down money at the box office has already answered before even sitting down.

As weapons go, she's dandy in the movie. As human beings go, not so much.

Johansson has been masterfully smooth about being magnetically still in front of a movie camera since "The Girl With the Pearl Earring" but with all of this bloody and dismembering action going on and all the wild production design dazzling one and all, you never get a chance to give a flying petunia about anyone in this movie, including Major.

Whose real Japanese name we learn in the final 10 minutes, unlike the original anime feature.

By all means, see that one. Or zip through this one on cable DVR when you get a chance. Unless you can't keep away from Johansson movies and are a fanatic about movie production design, this one is otherwise best left to all those corporate movie boardrooms all over the world, where everyone thought it couldn't miss.

Guess again.


"Ghost in the Shell"

2 stars (out of four)

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt and Juliette Binoche. Directed by Ruper Sanders. 102 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense, sci-fi violence, mutilated and dismembered bodies and suggestive content.


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