Hollywood’s long-running issue with whitewashing was impossible to ignore in the lead up to Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell.” The studio received severe backlash for casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of its Masamune Shirow manga adaptation, with petitions circulating online to remove Johansson. The film became a case study for Hollywood’s whitewashing problem, and the box office tanked as a result.
Director Robert Rodriguez and producer John Landau are the team behind 20th Century Fox’s Christmas tentpole “Alita: Battle Angel,” which is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga “Battle Angel Alita.” Similar to “Ghost in the Shell,” “Alita” features a non-Japanese actress in the lead cyborg role. Rosa Salazar, a Canadian actress who appeared in the “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” franchises, is playing the titular character, but Landau assures fans “Alita” is not whitewashing.
“The author, Yukito Kishiro, did something very different: He wrote manga that is not set in an Asian world,” Landau told Vulture. “He wrote it set in a place called Iron City, which is a melting pot. He actually set it in Kansas.”
While Kishiro’s “Alita” took place in an altered version of the United States, Rodriguez’s adaptation transplants the action to somewhere in Latin America during the 26th century where characters speak Spanish, Chinese, English, and Portuguese. Landau told Vulture “Ghost in the Shell” and “Alita” are “totally different” stories.
“[‘Ghost in the Shell’ was] set in a very Asian-specific world,” Landau said. “The central character is a very unemotional character from the manga page. This is the exact opposite. This is a character that is all about heart and following the heart and choosing what is right and not right.”
“One of my favorite shots is Alita shedding a tear. It is about emotion,” he continued. “Whether it’s manga or based on a book or an original script, you can fall into the trap of relying on technology instead of humanity. This is not that.”
Rodriguez agreed with his producer and went as far to state that it was the emotional disconnect between the viewers and the characters that killed “Ghost in the Shell” at the box office, not the issue of whitewashing. According to Box Office Mojo, Paramount spent at least $110 million to produce “Ghost in the Shell.” The film did not cross the $170 million mark at the worldwide box office and only made $40 million worldwide.
“It’s not even because of the whitewashing,” Rodriguez said about “Ghost’s” box office failure. “I think it’s because they didn’t connect emotionally. I felt like I was only looking at it; I wasn’t feeling it. Our story and character feel so relatable. That’s why we used real sets. It’s got to be really grounded.”
Rodriguez said that the script, co-written by James Cameron, grounds the film by focusing on the father-daughter relationship between Alita and the scientist who discovers her and takes her home to care for her. Christoph Waltz is playing the paternal figure.
“Alita feeling insignificant, remembering who she was, becoming powerful — it’s all human stuff that an audience will go, ‘I identify with that,’” Rodriguez said.
20th Century Fox will release “Alita: Battle Angel” in theaters nationwide December 21.