Ghost in the Shell (released March 16, 2017) was the first major bomb of this year, but it certainly won’t be the last. This summer has plenty of high budget-low box office potential movies (including last week’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is expected to lose an astounding $150 million). As with Ghost in the Shell, there will be articles trying to parse out why Arthur (and many, many other movies this summer) failed to live up to expectations. Ghost in the Shell was a particularly interesting case as everything was blamed from too much brand recognition to too little brand recognition to whitewashing (which is primarily a concern for a very vocal, but overall very small, percentage of possible viewers) to confusing marketing.
However, the truth is probably something far simpler and far less insidious. Sometimes movies are just bad. And, often times, we can sense it.
To be fair, audiences tend to gravitate towards that which we know. New properties are a notoriously hard sell for studios and the general public. We feel comfortable with certain brands, and we grow to trust them, possibly to a fault. Over the past five years (2012-2016), only four of the top 10 highest grossing movies of each year were not franchises (the vast majority of which being superhero films) or cartoons/live action versions of cartoons – Ted (2012), Gravity (2013), American Sniper (2014), and The Martian (2015).
So yes, for the most part people want light, breezy entertainment; but why wouldn’t they? There’s nothing wrong or condemnable about going to a movie theater for sheer escapism. It’s always been one of the biggest and best selling points of film, regardless of how our tastes evolve.
Movies like Ghost in the Shell (or Assassin’s Creed or many others) try to paint themselves as the darker, broody, more adult alternative to the brightly colored spectacle of Marvel or Pixar. But to truly succeed as an “alternative,” these movies better have the characters or depth of story or theme to back up their claims. Ersatz moodiness, melodramatic seriousness and a facade of intelligence is where most of these films fail. These “high concept,” big budget films don’t fail for being too smart for the audience, but by pretending that they are.
The live-action Ghost in the Shell was not a smart movie. From the trailers (not to mention embargoing the reviews until literally two days before it opened), one didn’t need to see the movie to understand that it would be style over substance. (And I did see the movie so I can verify that it was hollow.) Any of the subtlety or cleverness in the original film was dumbed down to a condescending degree. Unlike the original, where the metaphorical definitions of ‘ghost’ and ‘shell’ were left unspoken, the live action film constantly repeated that shell = body, ghost = soul (or some equivalent). When a movie is made with such a low regard for the audience’s intelligence that we can’t make these basic leaps, that vibe seeps through the pores of every frame.
Ironically, though strangely fitting, Ghost in the Shell was devoid of a metaphorical ghost. But it’s far from the only example of this in recent years. Movies that claim to tell the Untold Story, the true Origins, or the actual Legend more often than not suck all the fun out of a myth or legend only to replace it with a flat, dull, cynical franchise starter. (See e.g. The Amazing Spider-Man films, Dracula Untold, The Legend of Tarzan, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.)
Audiences don’t confuse dour and grey with interesting and deep, we appropriately recognize it as dull and unengaging. Many of these movies’ ad campaigns try to overwhelm (read: distract) us with nonstop effects shots to ‘convince’ us that it’s a lavish tentpole that needs to be seen on the biggest, loudest screen possible. However, by now we can sense that most of these ‘alternative’ movies do it in service to dour characters, a befuddled plot, a miserable landscape, and the disrespectful ‘promise’ that they’ll actually get it right in the sequel. There’s a reason the surefire Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice didn’t crack $1 billion worldwide…and it wasn’t Rotten Tomatoes.
While we might be quick to blame the audience for jumping at the latest cartoon craze and avoiding more complicated material, they actually aren’t that opposed to better films. (On occasion.) Look at 2016. A genuinely smart, emotionally poignant sci-fi film like Arrival made over $100 million domestic and nearly $200 million worldwide at a reported production budget of less than half that of Ghost in the Shell (currently at $40 million domestic/$168 million worldwide). Ditto the more period drama Hidden Figures ($169 million domestic/$229 million worldwide). And the phenomenal success of La La Land ($151 million domestic/$443 million worldwide) was in part due to giving the audience a sense of spectacle through extensive choreography from humans that green screens and pixels can no longer provide. While none of these films may have earned a spot of the Top 10 Highest Grossing Movies of 2016, their significantly lower production and marketing costs probably ended up in their favor.
So when people begin writing articles about the disappointing box office of summer 2017, just like we did about summer 2016, it’s not necessarily that the audience is turning its back on Hollywood, it’s that sometimes movies are just bad – or dull or lifeless or empty. Audiences, for as much flack as we give them, might actually have a bit of a radar for when a movie is putting on airs. Rotten Tomatoes helps verify (and even change) our thoughts, and the Internet has made word of mouth more important than ever. But for the most part, it seems that our initial impressions, even if we can’t explain why, tend to be correct.