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'Ghost' glitch

Big-budget remake whitewashes an anime classic.

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A 'MAJOR' MISS: Rupert Sanders' remake of the 1995 anime cult classic is already facing a backlash from online geek culture communities for its identity crisis.
  • A 'MAJOR' MISS: Rupert Sanders' remake of the 1995 anime cult classic is already facing a backlash from online geek culture communities for its identity crisis.

With any luck, we've got to be coming to the end of the white-as-default era in cinema, and when we look back years from now, we'll see "Ghost in the Shell" as a death knell. Not because it wasn't an exciting piece of cinema — you want pretty colors and flashing lights, you know where to come — but because a big-ticket live-action remake of a beloved 1995 anime with a built-in fan base just got utterly smoked on opening weekend by none other than "The Boss Baby."

A $20 million opening ain't bomb territory, but it wasn't what was forecast or certainly hoped for when Paramount and Dreamworks laid out $110 million plus a bloated ad budget to put the likes of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. The shorthand for "Ghost in the Shell" is sexy cyberpunk Japanese Robocop; she plays an agent who goes by Major, whose brain a robotics company salvaged after a fatal accident and dropped into an experimental rad robot body. We're in the future in urban Japan, where everyone is dabbling in various cybernetic enhancements, invisibility cloaks and holography have gone mainstream and the question "are you human?" is more practical than philosophical.

Major's one hell of an anti-terrorism weapon. She can shoot and fight and jack into networks of all sorts, and has a partner, a frosty-haired bruiser named Batou (Pilou Asbæk). Things go sideways when a robotics executive is assassinated by a shady hacker sort who goes by Kuze (Michael Pitt). Major sets out to find and stop him while fighting the gnawing sense that she's experiencing some sort of residual memories that keep appearing to her as glitches in her surroundings.

On its own merits, "Ghost in the Shell" might arrive as one of those slinky, stylish sci-fi flicks that get a devoted cult following ... if not for the fact that it already did. Twenty years ago. The first thing one might set about doing, were one in the position to make an otherwise faithful update to beloved source material, is not piss off the fan base. And yet, they did, knowing full well that fans of the original were expecting to see an actor of Japanese descent play a character that is, in effect, a Japanese brain inside a Japanese android. This isn't a case of overlooking Major's provenance as a Japanese girl — put it this way (mild spoiler): When she does manage to find her mother, the woman looks nothing like how you'd imagine Scarlett Johansson's mom. Instead it's a case of a studio swapping in an A-list white actress on the assumption that moviegoers are more excited to see a familiar white face than someone who has been in fewer "Avengers" films.

This, it turns out, is the wrong move. Domestically, movie audiences contain more people of color than the country at large. Internationally, the standard-issue white stars aren't towing box offices the way they used to. And the rise of geek culture online — where the fates of movies are thrashed out for months before their release — has made fealty to source material all the more important to a film's credibility.

Director Rupert Sanders has taken harsher criticism for "Ghost in the Shell" than merely retrograde casting or whitewashing: This live-action version, glossy and visually seductive though it is, falls somewhere shy of a true emotional resonance, or a fully inhabited vision of the future. But the easiest thing to ding this remake for is talking past the people who made it a hit in the first place, by assuming they wouldn't notice, or wouldn't care, about the details of identity. Which is weird, considering this film is literally about ripping the brain out of a beating-heart human body and dropping it into a synthetic new form. If anyone was going to care that you built the story around the wrong brain, it was "Ghost in the Shell" fans. Slowly, failure by failure, studios will get the picture.

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