Hollywood just doesn’t seem to understand how to read negative audience reactions. More so, it seems fixated on maintaining its decades-long approach to filmmaking, no matter how society has changed and evolved during that time. It’s astounding how much valuable data is ignored so that the blockbuster movie machine can trudge on in a non-progressive manner. The latest victim of this approach is Paramount’s live-action “Ghost in the Shell,” which cost a literal fortune to make, and when it failed dramatically, it was seemingly brushed aside as an experiment gone wrong.
If anything, the film’s failure proves just how disconnected, uncaring and reluctant to learn the industry actually is. In a way, its critical panning paled in comparison to the movie’s global box office bombing, which even Scarlett Johansson’s A-list star power failed to prevent. Paramount came out and admitted it failed, sort of, although the lesson learned from the reaction to the film’s whitewashing is a bit off-base, putting more weight on the “conversation” surrounding the controversy than on the producers’ failure to see why it was a problem in the first place.
This puts an additional exclamation mark on how big of a disaster the movie was. By releasing this statement, Paramount indicted itself, not only for its tunnel-vision storytelling, but for its willingness to gloss over Hollywood’s previous mistakes. You might think that with such a big property as “Ghost in the Shell,” a wildly popular manga and anime franchise, a studio would consider the current state of society, and its approach to race. Unfortunately, we saw what actually happened. But hopefully a few things that need to be changed were noted by Hollywood.
The White Savior Trope Is Played Out
Audiences may have shown just how tired they are of the “white savior” tropeby snubbing Matt Damon’s “The Great Wall” on a global level — although it should be noted that the action-fantasy, which was a Chinese co-production, performed well in that country, the world’s second-largest film market. Harsh criticisms had previously flooded in regarding Finn Jones, who was cast as Danny Rand on Marvel’s “Iron Fist,” despite the character’s origins as a white hero. More than offensive, this has become such a boring trope: the rich, arrogant white guy heading off into the unknown and returning as a changed messiah.
From Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” franchise to Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man,” to The CW’s “Arrow,” we’ve simply been there, done that, over and over again. Johansson’s casting as Major Mira Killian felt like the studio was aping this syndrome while trying to capitalize on goodwill from launching a female-led movie. Seeing an action film headlined by a female star is definitely a step forward, but regurgitating the white-savior plot device undermines that progress. The world exists with a broad palette of races, and at some point, this should be reflected in Hollywood blockbusters.
Whitewashing Simply Doesn’t Result In Massive Box Office Receipts
When it comes to adapting Asian stories for a global audience, casting a white star in the lead flat out doesn’t translate to automatic ticket sales. Arguments were made that Johansson’s casting as Major wasn’t whitewashing as she was merely a vessel with an implanted consciousness, but the movie’s big twist did indeed reveal that she and the villain, Hideo Kuze (played by Michael Pitt), were Japanese before being transplanted into their new bodies. That was frankly insulting.
It’s not as though there are no Japanese actors who could have readily and effectively taken on the role of Major. The filmmakers could have looked at Rinko Kukuchi (“Pacific Rim,” “47 Ronin”), Rila Fukishima (“The Wolverine”) or Okamoto (“Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice”) to name a few. For Kuze, Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai,” “Sunshine”) or Tadanobu Satō (“Thor,” “47 Ronin”) would have been solid options. After all, it makes sense for a manga/anime adaptation to have a strong Japanese influence, right? It was already tough enough to swallow the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” being controversially swapped out for Tilda Swinton, and even though that film was a financial success, it’s important to continue to voice concerns over tone-deaf racial casting. After all, we wouldn’t want another “Avatar: The Last Airbender” or “Dragon Ball Z” on our hands.
If You Change Established Lore, It Needs To Feel Organic
Not every adaptation needs a dramatic twist on the original story, and when it happens, it needs to feel organic. “Captain America: Civil War” did this beautifully with the reveal that Bucky killed Tony Stark’s parents, but when it came to “Ghost in the Shell,” the twist involving the original, Japanese identities of the leads ended up feeling forced and out of place. Worse, it was arguably one of the most racist story elements you could have included, implying that white bodies are inherently more attractive and overall better than Asian ones.
Alas, the people behind “Ghost in the Shell” felt the film needed a drastic plot twist, which is how we ended up with a scene unveiling Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, who was placed into the “perfect body” of a white Westerner. We’re still scratching our heads as to how this was greenlit. Although not the sole reason for the film’s failure, this tone-deaf revelation contributed greatly in “Ghost in the Shell” going from potential hit to its eventual fate as an ignorant, soulless flop.
We Need More Original Stories From Hollywood
As studios continue to mine television properties like “C.H.I.P.s” and “Baywatch,” for adaptation, and films like “Lethal Weapon” and “Rush Hour” are converted to TV series, the long-running refrain of “there’s no originality in Hollywood” rings even more true. Looking at the slate of upcoming major projects, it appears Hollywood will continue with the age of reboots, as seen with new takes on “G.I. Joe,” “Tomb Raider” and, yes, “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” We’re not saying they don’t have the potential to be good — we’re 100-percent on board with “Homecoming, after all — but where’s the influx of creative freshness? “Ex Machina” is a great example of such inventiveness in storytelling, offering was cerebral sci-fi at its very best, with a twist ending that left audiences in awe.
One simple solution would be more of a focus on developing smaller properties, where less pressure exists to remain faithful to the source material. An adaptation of, say, BOOM! Studios’ “Arcadia,” which focuses on people placing their minds into a digital cloud after a plague strikes humanity, would offer the right filmmaker a fantastic concept upon which to craft an original movie. Quite a few of these high-concept and thought-provoking stories can be found at Image Comics, Black Mask Studios and other independent publishers that tell cinematic, high-concept stories worthy of a larger audience. Picking up original stories would ensure the film industry doesn’t stagnate while encouraging creators in other mediums (television, comics and video games) to step up their game.
The bottom line is, “Ghost in the Shell’s” box office failure, combined with Paramount’s refusal to accept that its approach to the property is in large part to blame, confirms that Hollywood remains stubbornly set in its ways. And as studios appear more likely to rinse and repeat than to find a different path, it’s up to audiences to demand more from them.