VFX Not Enough to Redeem “Ghost in the Shell”

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After months of closely following the controversy surrounding the whitewashing of the lead character, I was eager to see if Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell would fare upon its release. I myself watched the film last week in Film Symposium, and while I was not terribly impressed by Scarlett Johansson’s performance or the thin narrative, I believed that John Dykstra’s gorgeous VFX would find a sizable audience for the film…

I was wrong. According to the linked article from Deadline, Ghost was a total flop at the box office and, according to the author’s calculations, will lose at least $60 million. The article cites poor marketing, the lack of a “hands-on executive,” the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting, and an “exorbitant cost” for such a niche project as reasons for the film’s failure.

All of this makes perfect sense to me, though the phrase that stood out to me the most was the author’s assertion, “You need a story to sell well beyond the visual shock and awe.” In a time where action-packed blockbusters that are devoid of strong narratives seem to thrive (see: Transformers, Suicide Squad, Fast and Furious, etc.), I would have expected exactly the opposite to be true; as much as I hate to admit it, it often seems as if the majority of domestic and international audiences prefer big explosions and other digitally-enhanced visuals to nuanced, slow-burning character development.

Of course, part of the problem with this particular story is not just that it was thin but that it was based on a manga/anime franchise that is relatively obscure in the U.S. I was very intrigued by the author’s observation that it was irresponsible of Paramount to spend so much money on a “niche IP.” Of course, visual effects only comprised a fraction of the $100 million plus cost of the film, but I was fascinated by the idea that the familiarity of source material dictates, in part, the amount and quality of VFX in a film, especially in light of last week’s in-class discussion of the relationship between technology and economy. It is mind-blowing to think that an interesting concept alone is not enough to dictate the budget of a film and, by extension, the amount spent on special effects; not only was it a bit of a risk to invest so much in a niche project like this, but this article suggests that it was downright irresponsible.

Above all, I am shocked (yet pleased) that, this time, the too-familiar problem of a white actor being cast in a non-white role weighed out the special effects work of no less than John Dykstra of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica fame. This gives me hope as both a writer and self-proclaimed activist for onscreen diversity. Despite our current political climate (ahem) or perhaps because of it, the backlash to Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese cyborg-woman helped destroy what looked and felt like a lucrative blockbuster film. This aspect of the film’s failure, too, is a fascinating example of the relationship between film technology and broader social issues such as race, gender, and class. Though, whereas we’ve previously discussed how “racist” technology can be in class (i.e. 3D glasses), this is an example of how technology failed to mask the problematic depiction of race in a contemporary blockbuster.

Overall, Ghost in the Shell might be a box office failure, but it’s a fantastic case study in the many factors that can impact a film’s success as well as film technology.

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One thought on “VFX Not Enough to Redeem “Ghost in the Shell”

  1. It’s funny – the line I was most struck by was the one suggesting the film lacked a “hands-on executive.” Mostly just because it made me vomit in my mouth a little.

    That said, I’m curious about this idea of thinking of a film as component parts – “The story is bad, and the effects are bad, but I’ll still go because I like the actor.” Or switch those variables around. How much is enough? I think this partly comes back to some of the conversation we had recently in class – is VFX still novel at all? Just in comparing narrative and effects, if Jurassic Park had a weak story, I reckon people still would turn out to see the novelty of the effects. Once novelty is gone, you still have the visual spectacle, which I’m all for, but I think it’s a rare case that it can ever operate in a vacuum (though it would be interesting to see). Films you mention like Transformers and Suicide Squad and the like at least have a franchise to color the effects. It’s not just an explosion, but it’s Superman making an explosion.

    At the end of the day, and all of these conversations about financial success, it often comes back to the so-called Goldman Rule – “Nobody knows anything.” I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of that. I honestly can’t think of a film that had good performances, effects, storytelling, and character development that totally tanked. I think it applies more when you end up with a film that’s 60% trash, as is often the case, and the main question (spoken by the hands-on executive) is – did we do enough?

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