Whitewashing controversies are only the start.
Results are in for the box office weekend that was, and there’s a few really interesting things that happened financially over the weekend. The Boss Baby grossed $49 million more than it had any right, proving that America’s love of babies in funny outfits is truly an endless resource. Juggernaut Beauty and the Beast continued to thrive in second place, and is on track to easily make over $500 million domestically. And Power Rangers dropped like a rock in its sophomore frame, especially compared to strong holdovers like Logan, Kong: Skull Island, and (still, amazingly) Get-Out.
But the real talk of the box office this week? It has to go to the performance of Ghost in the Shell, the much buzzed about adaptation of the 1995 anime classic. The film has been put under the microscope in the last few weeks, but apparently all that talk didn’t convert to dollars at the multiplexes. Ranking third for the week and making just $19 million, Ghost in the Shell couldn’t measure up to even the most pessimistic of pre-release tracking. And with such a low opening, the film is going to struggle to even get to $60 million in the U.S. With an estimated cost of $110 million, there’s no other way to phrase it: stateside, at least, Ghost in the Shell is a massive bomb.
And you should’t be surprised by that. Ghost in the Shell has had all the makings of a box office bomb since the first time it was an announced, and the tea leaves of its failure were pretty easy to read. From order of least important factor to most important, here are all the reasons I believe that Ghost in the Shell was destined to bomb.
1) Scarlett Johansson was the only “big” actor — and movie stars can’t sell movies on their own anymore
That has been a rotating phrase peppered through every “why did this movie fail?” analysis in the last few years…but that doesn’t make it any less true. Barring the rare exception, movie stars don’t sell movies anymore, not on the strength of their name alone, at least. Having a movie star will never hurt you, and will often times help you, but it isn’t the only step a film needs to have to turn a profit. Gone are the days where Tom Cruise could be in a movie and that would be enough to get people to see it — his own bombs like Rock of Ages, Edge of Tomorrow, and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back prove that.
But you know what I think CAN sell a movie? A strong ensemble of actors. Because the stock of a single actor is at the lowest its ever been in Hollywood, most films will cram a bunch of them all together in hopes of getting people’s attention. Look at the Fast and Furious series. Look at The Avengers, or Batman v. Superman. Most films need to be occupied by more than ONE notable name, and Ghost in the Shell frankly fails that.
Which isn’t a slight against Johansson, or even the supporting cast. Without Johansson, the film would have opened even lower, and even the most stacked of supporting casts can led to a box office bomb. But all I know is that I often have to sell movies to friends and family by one famous question: “who is in it?” And in the case of Ghost in the Shell, my answer would be “Scarlett Johansson and, um, well…the guy who played Mason Verger in Hannibal. No, not in Season 3, in Season 2…yes, before he fed his face to dogs.” All I’m saying is that even Lucy, a film primarily sold as a Scarlett Johannson vehicle (and rightly so), featured acting icon Morgan Freeman, and was not afraid to use him liberally in the marketing. There is no actor of Freeman’s stature in Ghost in the Shell, and the film probably could have used it to fill out the bench.
Of course, the obvious rebuttal to all this is that the supporting cast is made up pretty much entirely of Asian people, a decision I am honestly pretty mixed about. It’s great that the whole film isn’t entirely white people going on anime adventures, but doesn’t the Asian cast surrounding famous white person Scarlett Johannson stick out like a sore thumb? Doesn’t it make the whitewashing even more obvious? Also, the majority of the supporting cast being Asian would have been fine box-office wise if we had bigger Asian American stars in Hollywood, but that’s a whole other issue for another, less box office focused article. Let’s just say Hollywood has an institutionalized problem that will take some fundamental changes at the core of the system to fix, and leave it at that.
BUT NOT REALLY, because my next point pretty much goes hand in hand with that last part.
2) The whitewashing controversy tainted the film
Yes, this is only number two on this list, simply because most general audiences probably have little idea about the online outrage that has dominated conversation around the movie for us here in the virtual world. I’m not saying it wasn’t a contributing factor to Ghost in the Shell’s failure (it certainly was), but even if the controversy had never existed, and an Asian woman had played the main character instead of Scarlett Johansson, here’s the truth — the film probably wouldn’t have done much better, at least from a box office standpoint. As the other points on this list will address, the film had grander problems in terms of breaking into the mainstream than the race of its main character.
All that being said…the whitewashing debate certainly didn’t help the film along. It was terrible PR, and it made the conversation around the film always skew negative from the get-go. Wired posted an article earlier today claiming that the film never had a chance due to the controversy that surrounded it, and while I think they might give the internet backlash a little too much credit, you also can’t deny that the film was never allowed to be anything BUT a whitewashed anime adaptation. And no matter how many ads Paramount threw at the controversy, they could never outrun it, primarily because…
3) The marketing promised a pretty, but empty experience
Ultimately, I would say the ads for Ghost in the Shell weren’t terrible — they were well edited and memorable enough, with some cool looking shots and effects thrown in for good measure. But what the trailer did so wrong was what so many trailers are guilty of doing nowadays: they don’t actually say what the movie is about. Because, as much as I follow film news and marketing (which is to say a lot), I honestly had no idea what the story of Ghost in the Shell was.
I knew the broad strokes, sure: Scarlett Johansson plays a robot of some sort, and she was investigating…something. Cut to a million shots of slow-mo action scenes, set across a future backdrop. Ghost in the Shell, everyone: as far as the trailers told me, it was a movie about a robot who moves slowly in the future.
It must be a difficult task for trailer creators to strike a good balance between telling too much and not telling enough, but that doesn’t excuse the vagueness that peppered the entirety of GitS’s marketing campaign. Believe it or not, people sometimes need more than promises of pretty visuals to get them into the theater. From the trailers, there was no compelling reason why I NEEDED to see Ghost in the Shell, and if the box office receipts are any indication, the majority of audiences agreed with me.
4) The buzz surrounding the actual film wasn’t strong enough to overwhelm the shortcomings
For a cinephile like myself, this is the deciding faster. I’ll excuse a not very exciting cast for the hope that some unknowns could end up surprising me. I’ll chalk up the vague trailers to marketing not knowing how to sell such a distinct, special film. Hell, I’m even the kind of guy who can power through the taint of a racebending controversy if the finished product itself meets me halfway a little, and convinces me that the whole thing was simply overblown. But Ghost in the Shell, unfortunately, did none of those things.
Yeah, the reviews might not be the worst in the world, but they were still pretty flaccid. And a lot of the film critics and journalists whose opinion I trust pretty much hated the film, leaving me left with the decision that paying $10 to see the movie would be a waste of money and time. And I’m a sci-fi fan who has watched a lot of anime — in theory I’m your target audience here, Paramount, and if the film was actually good, I still would have went to see it, all other niggles be damned. But word-of-mouth said the movie wasn’t good, and that convinced me right way that seeing it in theaters wasn’t worth it. You can bet there are tens of thousands of others that also came to this conclusion.
Yes, bad buzz can kill a film — unless it’s already a well-established, well-liked brand. Which is easily where Ghost in the Shell made the biggest mistake.
5) The Ghost in the Shell franchise isn’t big enough to support a blockbuster franchise (not on its own, at least)
This was the tantamount mistake that happened with the creation of the film: studio executives convinced themselves that there was a large enough “brand awareness” for Ghost in the Shell that they could rely on it solely for success. Like has been the case for video game movies time and time again, Hollywood convinced themselves that they could call upon a niche market, make a movie for said niche market, and suddenly have a massive blockbuster on their hands. It worked for comic book movies, after all, so why not anime?
That’s the kind of hubris that many studios have fallen under in this franchise-heavy cinematic landscape, and one that they will continue to fall for again and again. Paramount was hoping that they could rely on the brand name of Ghost in the Shell to get people to watch the movie, even IF the cast wasn’t that well known, and the whitewashing controversy made people mad, and the trailers didn’t really say what the movie was really about, and the pre-release buzz around the entire project was pretty poor — none of that would matter if the brand brought people in. Once again, just look at the release of last week’s Power Rangers — pretty much everything I just wrote about Ghost in the Shell can be applied to that film as well (minus the whitewashing controversy, I suppose). But that movie opened over double this one, because there’s a huge swath of cultural currency to the Power Rangers brand.
Ghost in the Shell has a following, but it’s not a BLOCKBUSTER following, which meant that most of the audience needed to get the film over $100 million would probably be seeing it as an original thing. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say all of my previous reasons for the film’s failure didn’t exist. Lets say the film had an excellent cast, had no whitewashing controversies to speak of, released a ton of captivating trailers, and received widespread critical acclaim across the board. Would the movie, a crazy hard sci-fi actioneer not based on anything, be able to make $150 million in the current Hollywood climate?
The answer to that last question is so depressing, I don’t think I even want to write it out.
The Spider Man: Into The Spider-Verse Teaser Trailer Creates One Hell of An Eye-Popping Debut
Sony’s Animated Spider-Man movie looks better than expected, thankfully.
Well, if you can say anything about Sony Pictures, it’s that they tried. Sure, that phrase is likely going to be engraved on their headstone a decade from now, but it doesn’t make it any less true — Sony is going through every single one of their brands, digging through them endlessly for any ounce of blockbuster potential they may have. It would be almost impressive, if it also didn’t seem so creatively empty.
But, hey, it doesn’t have to be. Sure, no one in the goddamn world is itching for a Mobius the Vampire Movie, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be great. Even something born out of needless franchising can be a work of artistic value. And there’s no two men you don’t have to tell that too than Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
The pair have been able to turn creative bankruptcy into brilliance for years now, and Sony recently set them loose on the crown jewel of milked-dry brands: Spider-Man. Together the pair wrote the script for a Spider-Man movie that would be created by Sony Animation (who the duo worked with on the Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs films) All we knew about the project for a while now was that it would involve the character of Miles Morales (played by Dope’s Shameik Moore.) But with the film coming out next Christmas, Sony decided that now would be the best time to give the film its first grand showing.
And what a showing it is. Though the trailer is brief, and honestly doesn’t tell us a lot about the finished product, it being simply a “teaser” probably helps. We don’t get a lot of strictly “teaser trailers” anymore — those have unfortunately morphed into the far less gratifying “trailer teasers,” whose distinction is actually super important so, shut up, YOU’RE the crazy one. But brevity is the sole of marketing (that’s the quote, right?), and it’s pretty impressive how the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse teaser trailer comes in, establishes exactly what it is, and exits in style.
“Style” being the key here. While I was worried an animated Spider-Man film would end up looking like a boring computer generated, flat mess, Into the Spider-Verse actually looks pretty great. It has a very unique look, one that is clearly trying to emulate the look of a comic (like most animated comic book movies), but also throwing in static backgrounds and 3D character models. Hell, it even seems to cut inand out of stylized 3D to flat comic art when it wants to, which could be pretty cool (if not overused.) The movements even have a little bit of stop-motion jitterness going on (ala The Lego Movie.) This might seem like too much for one animated Spider-Man movie to handle but, at least in this initial tease, it seems to work for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Story wise, we only get a brief introduction into what is going on, with the “Enter a universe where more than one wears the mask” providing most of the grunt work. It’s a bit of an out there pitch for a Spider-Man movie, and I do have to wonder if the finished product might end up suffering from indeed having too many spidermen. But if the main complaint of your movies existence is that it makes too many competing Spider-Man uses all at once, why not lean into the complaint, right? Once again, Lord and Miller got great results out of doing similar with 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, and The Lego Movie. Why not Spider-Man?
And really, like all the movies they make, my trust in Lord and Miller is what has me on board. The pair have yet to let me down with anything they have gotten their hands on, and though they aren’t directing the movie (that honor goes to animation vets Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti), they are producing and writing the script. And with their time recently getting cleared up, I’m hoping their influence is all over this thing. After all, in Lord and Miller I trust.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse might end up being a desperate bid to squeeze ever dollar out of Sony’s cash cow…AND it might actually be a pretty good movie, at the end of the day. After all…in Lord and Miller I trust.
Also published on Medium.
Alita: Battle Angel Trailer – James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez Made A Sci-Fi Blockbuster Together, And It Looks Weird As Fuuuuuck
The first trailer for this manga adaptation is…something, all right.
For as long as I’ve been reading about movies on the internet, I’ve been reading about Alita: Battle Angel. The live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga is the definition of “long-gestating” — in fact, James Cameron first announced his intentions to make the film as a follow-up to Titanic in freaking 2000! Yes, the year 2000, with no numbers or anything! That puts its rough time in development at 17 years, which is insane really. Cameron always said it was a project he would get to at some point, but then a pesky little thing called Avatar got in the way, and the project got put on the backburner. Again, and again, and again. Seriously, just take a look at the film’s Wikipedia page — the “Development” tab is one hell of a roller coaster.
But now, nearly two decades after Cameron first expressed interest in making it, Alita: Battle Angel is a real thing…although its form is not quite what we were promised initially. Since Cameron made the decision to devote the rest of his life to making 6000 Avatar sequels, the writer/director finally made the executive decision to give the project to someone else. That someone else ended up being Robert Rodriguez, who finally got the film into production last year. And now the first fruits of that labor have arisen in the form of the Alita: Battle Angel trailer…and it creates one hell of a first impression, I’ll give it that.
Is it a good first impression though? Honestly…no. While I love the concept behind this, and appreciate the ambition of what Cameron and Rodriguez are trying to do — oh boy, there’s something spectacularly off about everything in this film.
Most of that weirdness can be directly attributed to the Alita character, who is one distinct looking main character. Appearing like an anime character come to life, Alita has the classic huge anime eyes, and overall looks absolutely bizarre. And, sure, that’s reasonably part of her character — she isn’t human, so should look a little bit off. But the problem isn’t that she doesn’t look like a normal human: it’s that she looks like a cheap CGI construct of a creature, moving around freely in a cartoon world with reckless abandon.
I tend to not like to using this comparison as it feels awfully insulting to video game, but there are complete shots of this trailer that do indeed look like a CGI cutscene — or even worse, Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within. From the beginning, Cameron pitched this film as being very CGI heavy. Hell, he even conceptualized the Alita character as a completely CGI created character back in the mid-2000’s which, at the time, was a pretty nuts thing to even imagine. But now we live in a time where fully CGI characters are commonplace, and quite a lot of them end up looking pretty great when in action.
But Alita does NOT look great, at least in these trailers, and it’s not just the huge ass eyes either. Just the way she moves is off-putting, and the way Alita’s entire face looks grafted on to her body makes her a distracting presence every moment she pops up. And, honestly, I’m going to put most of the blame on this lack of graphic fidelity directly on the hands of Robert Rodriguez. The dude is at his worst when using an abundance of computer-generated imagery, mostly because he doesn’t seem to care whether or not any of it looks “realistic” — I honestly think he likes things to look ridiculously cartoony. I mean, have you SEEN images from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl?
And, yet, he doesn’t seem to care. Ever since he started Troublemaker Studios, his go-to has been shooting everything he does in his garage, set against a green screen, style be damned. And well that’s “fine”on a Spy Kids movie (or even something like Sin City, which is so heavily stylized it can paint its rough edges in a pretty noir coat), it absolutely does not work on a $200 million dollar, would-be sci-fi epic. Say what you will about Avatar or James Cameron, but even with his love of computer-generated imagery, he remains a perfectionist to his core. Avatar NEVER looked cheap or even overtly cartoonish, at least not in the same way Alita: Battle Angel so far looks.
Then again, Cameron’s perfectionism is probably what kept us waiting nearly 20 years for this movie in the first place. Maybe what it needed was a Robert Rodriguez, who will bang out a film in a year and consider it a win if things look “good enough.” But, once again, Alita: Battle Angel is Rodriguez working on a scale he never has before. And from what I see so far, I’m not so sure it’s him playing to his strong suits.
I’m still interested in the movie simply due to Cameron’s involvement (and his script, which he co-wrote with Laeta Kalogridis), but I feel like this is a project that’s already doomed from the get-go. It’s a super niche adaptation, and a costly one at that. And though I will never claim to speak to the masses, I can’t help but feel that if I’M creeped out by what I see, the mainstream will be even more turned off. It also doesn’t help that the film has very little star power to speak of: I love Christoph Waltz as much as the next guy, but he isn’t going to put asses in seats here. Jennifer Connoly has also been off the A-list for a very long time, and Mahershala Ali, well great, is still very much an up-and-comer. It’s a decent cast for a film fan, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly bankable one.
But, ultimately, it’s all about the feel of the movie here, and this trailer does a rough job presenting anything but a feeling of “WTF did I just watch?” There might yet be a fun and exciting sci-fi adventure in Alita: Battle Angel, even when watching through that mode. But if the old saying about the eyes being the window to the soul is accurate, then this movie has one FUGLY soul at its core.
Alita: Battle Angel will hit theaters right in the middle of next year’s summer fray: July 20, 2018. Good luck to it there, I guess — my gut can’t help but feel like this one is going to be another Ghost in the Shell level disaster for Fox, but maybe some cautious optimism could do me some good here. After all, I should know better than to doubt the power of James Cameron at this point. And who knows: maybe audiences will be hypnotized into buying a ticket by the horrifying uncanny valley that is Alita’s soul-sucking bug eyes? I’m sure that’s what Fox is hoping for, at least.
Also published on Medium.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Trailer – Really? This Is The Best They Could Come Up With?
Well, at least it has Jeff Goldblum.
Like many other folks on the internet, I was not a fan of 2015’s Jurassic World. It was not the worst movie ever (and, hell, probably isn’t even the worst Jurassic Park sequel), but it was still pretty far from “good” in my mind. And it is a movie that my opinion has only lessened on the farther away I get from it — never a good thing, really. So, for that reason, I was clearly not SUPER PUMPED for its sequel, next summer’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But even then though…really, Fallen Kingdom? Is this all you got? Is this really you putting your best put forward to get people expected? Cause it’s weak.
The above trailer has been (EXTREMELY ANNOYINGLY) released in piece meal over the past week, but the full thing landed last night during Thursday Night Football. And, as a trailer, I will say it’s not terrible — it is well edited, and certain parts of it look good, at least visually. Then again, the section in which the volcano is exploding and Chris Pratt is (rather ridiculously) running down the mountain looks pretty bad, so clearly the visuals here are a bit of a mixed bag.
But what concerns me more about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom isn’t so much the look, but the plot. Honestly, it seems pretty unspectacular from what we can see of it so far, with the “rescue mission” to save the dinosaurs from an exploding volcano feeling like a rather lame set-up for more dino action. For what it’s worth, making sequels to Jurassic Park was always a difficult thing — the original very much feels like a “standalone” adventure, with pretty much every follow-up feeling like an inorganic way for Universal to milk people’s love of the first movie. Finally they landed on an interesting concept for a sequel in Jurassic World (what if the park actually opened, and then bad shit went down?), and proceeded to squander the opportunity by introducing a lot of other dumb shit (invisible dinosaurs, trained raptors, etc.) But even that undeniable “fresh start” for this accidental franchise wasn’t enough to propel this into a new set of stories.
…But that of course wasn’t going to stop Universal, who made over a billion dollars with Jurassic World, and were going to continue the series no matter what. And if this trailer is any indication, there hasn’t been a ton of thought put into making this sequel work — any reason to go back to the island, even a dumb one, is all Universal was asking writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connoly to come up with. And they shrugged, came up with the first idea that popped into their heads, and cashed their check.
Even putting the plot aside, the character motivations are already pretty irksome. One of my main issues with Jurassic World was the way it treated the dinosaurs, specifically Chris Pratt’s “pack” of trained raptors. The last thing I am looking for in these movies is some emotional bond between our leads and the dinosaurs, but that seems to be ALL these movies can come up with for why these humans keep doing dumb things. This is especially a problem because the Jurassic World series wants to have its cake and eat it too — they want to instill the idea of the dinosaurs being creatures who humans can bond with, but also want to create a Jurassic Park movie in which dinosaurs try to eat everyone. That contradiction is what gave birth to the stupid hybrid dinosaur (who was the REAL villain, you see), and I’m sure will lead to even dumber “upping of the stakes” in this one.
I’ve kind of lost myself in a pile of rants here that don’t really have much to do with the trailer itself, but that just goes to show how little this trailer convinces me that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is something worth caring about. Jurassic World just did such a poor job of rebooting this franchise in an exciting way, that I find myself apathetic to following it up. For instance: who gives a shit about those stupid-ass transportation pods again — they weren’t cool the first time, and I’m not looking forward to our heroes being bobbed around in an aimless CGI blur for half the movie, screaming their heads off as a way to present terror, but not having anything scary actually happening. Give me a colorful jeep any day.
Hell, this is the kind of trailer that can’t even make JEFF GOLDBLUM a promising sight. It’s just him spouting out standard Ian Malcolm lines (MEMBER “LIFE FINDS A WAY?”), and it’s lame that all we really see of him is in a courtroom, giving some speech. Maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions, but something tells me from this trailer that he will be an outside influence on the action, likely appearing towards the beginning in a couple of exposition scenes, but disappearing once our main characters return to Isla Nublar.
You know, our main characters, one of whose name is Owen. I completely forgot that, since it meant so little in the first film. And don’t even ask me the name of who Bryce Dallas Howard is playing. They’re both lame characters only marginally bumped up by the actors playing them, and to say I have no interest in seeing them on continued adventures is an understatement. Then again, I could say that about this whole damn movie in general, with this trailer doing absolutely nothing to convince me this might be an improvement over the first. And without the intriguing premise to support him, my expectations are pretty damn low.
At the very least, that whole stupid “MILITARY DINOSAURS!” thing has been tabled…for now, at least. Giving guns to dinosaurs is Universal’s mechanical spiders, for some reason. One day they’ll get their stupid, stupid, stupid dino soldiers though, and once that happens, I’ll 100% know this series is no longer for me.
Also published on Medium.
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