4 Reasons Why ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Was A Box Office Malfunction, Despite Scarlett Johansson

Yes, whitewashing played a factor, but weak marketing and a confusing plot were even bigger problems

Last Updated: April 2, 2017 @ 10:54 AM

“Ghost in the Shell” is on path to be one of the biggest box office bombs thus far in 2017.

Against a reported budget of $110 million, the American adaptation of the critically acclaimed manga/anime franchise is going to make an estimated $18.6 million in its domestic opening weekend. That will fail to even reach the low expectations of independent box office trackers, who had the film making around $25 million in its first days in theaters.

That budget doesn’t include the costs of its marketing campaign, which was marked by billboards and posters featuring the face of its lead star, Scarlett Johansson. The hope was that her reputation as one of the top action actresses in Hollywood — built mostly by her run as Black Widow in the Marvel movies — would be a major draw.

But as it turns out, that has not been the case. So, what happened to “Ghost in the Shell”? Here are the reasons we think it flopped.

1. Whitewashing

Yes, the whitewashing did play a role in the film’s demise, as it became the major point of conversation surrounding the film leading up to its release. The storm of bad publicity began a year ago, when the first images of ScarJo as Major Motoko Kusanagi were met with hostility and jokes about a white actress playing a Japanese character.

It has only gotten worse since then, with anime fans hijacking Paramount’s viral marketing campaign to make jokes about Johansson and other white actresses who took on Asian roles, like Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Emma Stone in “Aloha.” In the few interviews Johansson did to promote the film, she defended her casting by saying that the Major’s body is merely a cyborg shell that houses her human consciousness, and that she is essentially “identity-less.”

But that defense did not fly with the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, who noted that the plot of the remake establishes the Major as originally Japanese, proving that the actress had indeed taken on a role of another ethnicity.

But while the whitewashing claims damaged the film’s publicity, we have seen other recent films — namely “Doctor Strange” — overcome the controversy for a successful box office yield if the rest of the film was strong enough to earn critic and audience praise. Instead, “Ghost in the Shell” left both bewildered.

2. Poor plot explanation

While “Ghost” promoted Johansson hard with pictures of her determined face and clips of her fighting and jumping off buildings in her nude-effect camouflage suit, it did a poor job explaining its premise to mainstream audiences who weren’t familiar with the Major’s concept-heavy cyberpunk world.

Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film tells the story of the major and her elite counter-terrorism unit, Section 9, as they seek to find a sentient virus called the Puppet Master that has found a way to hack into the human minds, or “ghosts” that have been uploaded into cyborg shells. The film’s plot is based on an extremely detailed world where humans have been able to augment their bodies and minds with technology, but often at a price.

The trailer for the remake does little to convey its plot or the details of the CGI-heavy world it is a part of, only making rather vague allusions to the idea that ScarJo’s Major was turned into a cyborg to save her life at the cost of her past identity. Who exactly she is fighting in the effects-heavy action scenes is not made clear, which could leave casual audiences looking for a compelling story out in the cold.

3. Lost in translation

As it turned out, the words “confusing” and “empty” were often used by critics to describe the film’s plot, which was heavily changed from Oshii’s version. Attempts by director Rupert Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger to turn the complex themes into something palatable for a blockbuster-hungry American audience seem to have failed with the majority of critics and viewers.

It’s a problem that has been faced by other anime adaptations like “Astro Boy,” “Dragonball Evolution” and “Speed Racer,” though the latter has earned a cult following since its 2008 release.

“It’s rather similar to the struggles we’ve seen with movies based on video games like ‘Assassins Creed'” said comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “It’s just been a genre that’s been difficult to decode for filmmakers and to make into a film that can be a success with wider audiences.”

4. The Seinfeld Principle

Sometimes a property is almost too much of a pioneer for its own good, creating concepts and themes that eventually become ubiquitous thanks to the work of movies and TV shows that are inspired by that groundbreaking work. Eventually, the themes can become so prevalent that their presence in the original work feels cliche in hindsight. “Seinfeld” is often cited as a prime instance of this phenomenon, having set an example that was followed by so many sitcoms that came afterwards that it has lost its unique feel.

“Ghost in the Shell” has become a victim of this same trend. Oshii’s film has been cited by the Wachowskis as one of the major inspirations behind the “Matrix” trilogy, which in turn has helped give rise to several other sci-fi movies and TV shows that explore the human condition through artificial intelligence like “Battlestar Galactica,” “Ex Machina” and, most recently, “Westworld.”

With such titles still in the minds of sci-fi audiences, the new “Ghost in the Shell” has ironically been criticized for holding on to the worn-out themes that were once considered revolutionary when Oshii used them 22 years ago, which can put off audiences looking for something new

“There’s nothing wrong with introducing ‘Ghost in the Shell’ into post-‘Matrix,’ post-‘Westworld’ territory,” said Ben Croll in a review for TheWrap.”It’s just disappointing that the film doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

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