Casting controversy, reviews blamed for Ghost in the Shell failure at box office

Even before the reviews were out, Ghost in the Shell, based on the Japanese manga series, was getting torn apart for its casting choice.

Scarlett Johansson-led film based on Japanese manga series criticized for casting, panned by critics

Ghost in the Shell, a film that cost about $110 million US to make, opened to a disappointing $19 million at the domestic box office. (Paramount Pictures)

It was a disappointing debut for a big budget film that cost about $110 million US to make.

Ghost in the Shell, based on a popular Japanese manga series of the same name, opened at the North American box office this weekend with an estimated $19 million US, according to preliminary numbers. It fell behind the Alec-Baldwin voiced animated flick The Boss Baby and Disney's popular Beauty and the Beast.

"We had hopes for better results domestically. I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews," said Kyle Davies, domestic distribution chief for Paramount.

"You've got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it's based on a Japanese anime movie. So you're always trying to thread that needle between honouring the source material and make a movie for a mass audience. That's challenging, but clearly the reviews didn't help." 

The film has a 42 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with trusted critics from the New York Times calling the movie "disappointingly drab" and Hollywood Reporter describing it as "lifeless." CBC's Eli Glasner gave it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

But the live-action film attracted controversy even before it hit theatres.

The team behind it was called out for casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg test subject many fans argued should have been played by an Asian actor.

ScarJo forced to defend

The Captain America: Civil War star, named the top grossing actor of 2016 by Forbes, tried to defend herself in the March issue of Marie Claire magazine.

"I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person," she said. "Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive."

Scarlett Johansson poses as she arrives for the premiere of the film Ghost In The Shell in New York City last month. Johansson is among the top grossing actors in Hollywood, according to Forbes. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

But those fighting for better representation in Hollywood say casting might have played a role, but it wasn't the only problem. Rob Chan, president of the Media Action Network For Asian Americans in the U.S., says there's a ripple effect when you stray too far from original material.

"If you don't stay true to the source, it's difficult to maintain an authenticity in the storytelling," he told CBC News in Los Angeles.

It's happened before

The controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell's casting isn't isolated.

Last year, Marvel's Doctor Strange got flack for casting Tilda Swinton in the role as the Ancient One, a mentor to Benedict Cumberbatch's character who was originally Tibetan.

Tilda Swinton portrayed the sorcerer character the Ancient One in the Marvel Studios film Doctor Strange. (Marvel Studios/YouTube)

In an interview with the Texas-based DoubleToasted.com last year, one of the writers from the film, C. Robert Cargill, called decision-making around the character a "cultural landmine."

"if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he's Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people," he said, referring to China and its significant movie-going audience.

'Vicious cycle'

More recently, Netflix's Death Note got slammed after releasing a trailer for the upcoming production featuring Nat Wolff in the main role of a student who gets his hands on a supernatural notebook.

Death Note is also based on a well-known Japanese manga series. The character's name in the original, Light Yagami, was changed to Light Turner in the American version.

Lakeith Stanfield and Nat Wolff star in the Netflix film Death Note, which is receiving backlash for not casting Asian actors in the lead roles. (James Dittiger/Netflix)

A recent report done by the University of Southern California on diversity in Hollywood described "the landscape of media content" as still being "largely whitewashed."

While it's true, Chan says, that it's riskier to have a lesser known actor play a big budget role like Ghost in the Shell's Major when so much is riding on it, the predicament also becomes "a vicious cycle."

"Asian actors needs roles like this if they're going to become box office stars."

With files from the Associated Press