"Ghost in the Shell" was dead on arrival.
Paramount's big-budget anime adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson sank at the box office in its opening weekend, earning less than $19 million domestically. That's a big bust considering the star power of Johansson, the popularity of the source material it was adapted from, and production costs ($110 million plus a very expensive marketing campaign).
Rupert Sanders' sci-fi action flick managed $40 million in 52 markets internationally and has yet to open in China and Japan, so it could still gain more momentum overseas, but it's not looking good. The failure comes after years of anticipation and controversy, with the latter proving to be far more pronounced and important than the former.
Here are five reasons why the movie fell flat with audiences over the weekend.
The decision to cast Johansson as the star would seem like a no-brainer -- she's a kickass Black Widow and made the middling “Lucy” a hit -- except for one major issue: The source material, and its lead character, are both Japanese. And these days, replacing a character of another race with a white actor is just no longer acceptable; fans and interest groups speak up and demand accountability, and many boycott the movie or show. Look at what happened to “Iron Fist," that show could never escape the controversy of having a white lead in a martial arts show, even though he was white in the original comic.
This isn't to say that the movie was consciously boycotted by a majority of Americans. But it was a clear narrative, and a lot of journalists - especially fan bloggers - who would normally breathlessly cover this kind of movie approached it with a lot of caution. No one wants to seem socially ignorant, so a whole lot of sites that generally provide free PR offered far less support. As a result, the movie got way less play online, and when Johansson did get interviewed, she often had to defend her casting. Not a great way of getting the word out, that's for sure.
The caution and antipathy for the movie also extended to a lot of reviews. Critics uniformly praised the incredible visual style and effects of the movie, which looked like a modern day “Blade Runner” made with groundbreaking technology, but generally suggested that the plot was weak and its characterization were thin.
That's not really true - it had a simple plot, sure, but it felt more streamlined than anything, which is a blessing in the age of the bloated multiverse blockbuster (as we wrote in our review). But again, few critics wanted to put their bylines on a review praising an actress who became the latest face of whitewashing. And while reviews don't always matter, a low Rotten Tomatoes score often makes a big difference when there isn't an excited fan base to scoop up tickets.
Fanbase Wasn't Excited
And that brings us to our third point: The geeks who usually build buzz for these things and flock to the theater the first weekend were just not up for this one. If you looked at Reddit, you'd find a lot of users saying that this was a totally unnecessary remake -- and these are people who get excited for each and every damn Spider-Man and Batman reboot or “Alien” sequel.
The original anime, which was released in 1995, is considered a landmark and a classic. Sanders’s movie brings its dystopian world to life in a gorgeous way, but again, its distance from Japanese culture is the problem -- fanboys demand fidelity, cultural or otherwise.
Weird Name and Lack of Cultural Imprint
So without all the free PR from media or geeks, Paramount had to rely on building excitement all on their own. The problem? Very little name brand recognition, and a really weird name. “Ghost in the Shell” makes sense if you see the movie, but it doesn't exactly scream out “fun and cool action flick.” To most people, it sounds more like a movie about a dead turtle.
Without a sweet name (like say, “The Fast and the Furious”), it needed major brand recognition, as something like “Transformers” clearly had when it launched. And unfortunately, since it's based on anime, it just wasn't part of a lot of people's childhoods here. Without the nostalgia card, it was doomed.
March Was Packed With Big Movies
March was once a bit of a dead zone for movies, but no more. It began with “Logan,” shifted to the blockbuster reboot “Kong: Skull Island,” and then saw “Beauty and the Beast” set records -- Disney's live-action adaptation of the classic tale is at nearly $900 million worldwide in just three weeks. Last weekend, “Power Rangers” took home $40 million in the U.S. alone, and this weekend, “Boss Baby” made over $50 million from borderline insane people.