“We’re not remaking, we’re reimagining alongside you.” That was how director Rupert Sanders pitched his live action version of the 90s manga and anime to a crowd of journalists, bloggers and anime fans at an event in Tokyo last year. Taking in a small exhibition of props, a Q&A, preview footage and pounding industrial live music, the event was, perhaps, an attempt to change the public discourse surrounding a controversial movie.
Aside from the inevitable suspicion surrounding a Hollywood version of a cult Japanese property, there was also the more damaging accusation of whitewashing. Scarlett Johansson was, after all, taking on the role of Major Kusanagi – now simply billed as The Major – in a movie set in a futuristic Japanese city. The finished movie may have glancingly addressed this issue – which we won’t spoil by describing here – but even so, the controversy lingered in the run up to Ghost In The Shell‘s release.
As reported by Box Office Mojo, Ghost In The Shell didn’t have what you’d call a spectacular opening weekend; making $19m in the US, the cyberpunk thriller was beaten into third place by DreamWorks Animation’s family movie The Boss Baby, which went in at number one at the box office, and Beauty And The Beast, which shifted down to second. With an additional $40m coming in from overseas, Ghost In The Shell’s weekend wasn’t disastrous, but then again, it was hardly stellar, either.
The movie’s unexpectedly muted performance has already prompted discussions online; Kyle Davies, Paramount’s chief of US distribution, suggested that middling reviews and the casting controversy may have hurt its chances.
“We had hopes for better results domestically, Davies admitted to CBC. “I think the conversation regarding casting impacted reviews […] You’re always trying to thread that needle between honouring the source material and making a movie for a mass audience. That’s challenging, but clearly the reviews didn’t help.”
In fairness, there were plenty of critics who came out to support Ghost In The Shell. The Telegraph’s Tim Robey praised its detailed, ambient future vision. We certainly appreciated Sanders’ synthesis of the imagery and ideas from Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime, and while we weren’t always convinced by the occasionally stiff dialogue, it retains a good bit of the source’s icy intelligence.
Over at The Hollywood Reporter, there’s the suggestion that Ghost In The Shell’s slow ticket sales may have been due to the familiarity of its imagery. The 1995 Ghost In The Shell had a profound impact on western filmmakers – particularly the Wachowskis, who funnelled a considerable chunk of its images and cyberpunk ideas into their 1999 action spectacle, The Matrix. Ghost In The Shell might be comparable to 2011’s John Carter in this regard; the source – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp novels, beginning with A Princess Of Mars – had inspired so many other space operas, not least Star Wars, that the film adaptation already looked familiar and out-of-date by the time it hit cinemas. (For balance, we also should say we really enjoyed John Carter, in all its retro, pulpy glory.)
While there may be a grain of truth to this argument, there’s also question of Scarlett Johansson’s star power to consider. Lucy, the 2014 sci-fi thriller from French director Luc Besson, proved to be a hugely successful star vehicle for Johansson. Lucy made a $43.8m US debut, despite carrying an R-rating (Ghost In The Shell, by contrast, is a PG-13). So if Johansson can push a medium-budget sci-fi film to a worldwide gross of $463m, what’s going on with Ghost In The Shell? Divided reviews, pre-release controversy and a few familiar plot points may have caused part of the damage, but we’ve seen plenty of movies absorb those kinds of impacts and perform perfectly well. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, to cite one example, have often been dogged by negative reviews and controversy – cameras leering over female cast members, racially stereotypical robots – yet audiences invariably flock to see them.
The difference between Lucy and Ghost In The Shell, we’d argue, lies in the tone of both their marketing and the movies themselves. The trailers for Lucy pointed to a fun, disposable night out at the pictures – an action-thriller with a light sci-fi concept (a new drug that somehow turns Johansson from a drug mule into an all-powerful superbeing).
Ghost In The Shell, on the other hand, is a far chillier, heavier movie: yes, there are shoot-outs and slow-motion fist-fights that look good in commercials, but the film also deals with, among other things, existential crises, technology and the human body, the nature of memories, plus a side-order of urban ennui. For fans of Ghost In The Shell and futuristic dystopias, none of this would have come as an unwelcome surprise; mass audiences, on the other hand, were probably less enthusiastic.
Movies set in a dystopian future can also be a risky proposition at the box office. Blade Runner may be highly-regarded these days, but it had to wade through a decade of critical and financial gloom before its reassessment got underway. In the 2010s, sci-fi films set in something resembling the present day tend to fare better with wide audiences than those set in the far future; movies like Inception, The Martian, Gravity and Arrival all did well. The fate of futuristic films, on the other hand, has varied wildly; for every hit like Interstellar (buoyed by the reputation of director Chris Nolan and a sterling cast) or The Hunger Games, there have been misfires like After Earth, Ender’s Game or Passengers.
When you put all this together, it becomes clear that Ghost In The Shell had a soaring mountain to climb from the very beginning. The negative buzz surrounding its cultural appropriation; its coolly dystopian tone, stacked up against more upbeat rival movies – Boss Baby, Beauty And The Beast. (If you really wanted to be topical and edgy, you could argue that the present day’s pretty dystopian already, and that those cheerier films provide some welcome relief from it. But we’re not suggesting that, though. Honest.)
Then there’s the lingering air of suspicion which still hangs around Hollywood remakes. Rupert Sanders may have been insistent that Ghost In The Shell isn’t a typical re-do – and to be fair, it isn’t – but audiences only vaguely familiar with the property may have subconsciously lumped it in with such things as Len Wiseman’s Total Recall.
Again, none of this is to say that Ghost In The Shell is a bad movie; for all the controversy surrounding it, Sanders’ film looks and sounds stunning, and does a good job of capturing the tone of Masamune Shirow’s manga. We’d also wager that the film will gradually build up a following over time, as more people discover it either later in its theatrical run or on its home release. For now, though, Ghost In The Shell is yet another unfortunate reminder that even movies with a familiar name attached to them still represent a risk.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Hollywood remake of Akira surfaced again in the news last week; after Ghost In The Shell’s weekend, that movie may remain in stasis for a good while longer.