“GHOST IN THE SHELL” (Rated PG-13)  By Tim Riley  

 If you accept Scarlett Johannson as a Japanese cyborg, then there’s a good chance that the relevance of “Ghost in the Shell,” derived from its Japanese manga source material, in a post-racial world of artificial intelligence is not constrained by any contemporary preconceptions.

 On the other hand, it may be a debatable point as to whether a Nordic beauty, altered as she may be as a robot with a human brain, should be the lead character in an Asian animated-inspired action film where the setting is unmistakably patterned after a futuristic Tokyo.But then, protests have already been lodged that not only Johannson but other non-Asian actors have been cast in leading roles in this science-fiction action picture.  The unsettled view is whether “Ghost in the Shell” merits serious discussion on this argument.

Does Scarlett Johannson bring authenticity as well as depth to the role of the cyborg Major that talented Asian actresses like Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Q could not? The answer might be in negative when you later realize that Major’s true identity is Motoko Kusanagi, and her Japanese mom is still alive and residing in a tenement.

 I don’t think it’s worth quibbling that much about a character’s ethnicity in a futuristic world that eerily resembles the post-apocalyptic vision of “Blade Runner” in which a dystopian Los Angeles could just as easily been a major metropolis on the Asian continent. Fans of the manga genre may find that “Ghost in the Shell” has the visually stunning appeal of the Japanese animation made popular with its roots in a science-fiction fantasy world that is now enhanced by the cautionary tale of technology run amok. Ostensibly saved from a terrible crash, Major’s brain was transplanted into the shell of a robot, thus becoming a cyber-enhanced perfect soldier enlisted by her handlers at the Hanka Corporation to hunt down the world’s most dangerous criminals.

 Teamed up with the physically buff Batou (Pilou Asbeck), Major is molded by Hanka scientist Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) to be the key enforcer in the Section 9 anti-terrorism unit charged with hunting down bad guys. The number one target is Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), the mastermind behind attacks on Hanka executives.  Oozing menace and rage, Kuze is the kind of villain who appears like he just escaped from a mental institution. In other words, he’s near perfect for the role. The most interesting thing about Kuze’s wickedness is that he hacks into the brainwaves of his victims to turn them into killing machines for his evil deeds.  Before too long, Major starts to figure that her own past has been distorted.

 “Ghost in the Shell” could tap into more cerebral thoughts about the misuse of technology and its dehumanizing power to corrupt individuals into thinking their actions are for the greater good. Alas, this science-fiction adventure is more about drawing upon the unique visual style of Japanese manga and running with the type of action set-pieces that are the staple of the genre.  The results may be fun to watch, but opportunities for more creativity were missed.

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