Movie Review: Ghostbusters (2016)
If these last couple of weeks has taught us anything it’s that our culture has been possessed by black & white absolutism. Differing opinions on the political climate, the significance of modern tragedies, or even the unimportant passions behind pop-culture trends and movies are seen as positions in some sort of moral war; an engagement of vitriolic accusations in an increasingly toxic atmosphere that sees insecure moralists dehumanizing their intellectual opposition because they don’t necessarily conform to their delicately homogenized groupthink. For example, pro-gun control advocates can’t understand any reasonable disagreement towards their “common sense laws,” which inevitably degrades into some allusion towards their opponents as apologists for child murder and homosexual slaughter. #BlackLivesMatter protesters paint any detraction with a broad brush of privileged societal racism, while #AllLivesMatter takes any chance they get to interpret the previous hashtag supporters as whiney anarchists who support cop-killings. This isn’t just counterproductive; it’s purposefully divisive, and forces people to choose a side where understanding of the other position can’t be done with honesty or earnestness. And when people take sides, usually to defend themselves from blanketed accusations of whatever social sin or cultural faux pas has been launched in their direction, they can get increasingly, almost disturbingly, defensive, with attacks of their own.
There’s no better example of this than with the eighteen-month-long conversation (if you can call the lack of civility that defines online interaction as a conversation) surrounding the inevitable reboot of the beloved paranormal comedy Ghostbusters (1984). Let’s take a look at the history shall we? The initial hesitation surrounding the potential franchise extender emerged like any other remake skepticism; a devout fandom that idolized the original franchise (if the childish awfulness that was Ghostbusters II (1989) deserves franchise status) demanded that certain criteria be met in tackling this already established universe. Their disappointment can be understood through a series of letdowns: first, the promised third installment of the franchise didn’t come to fruition, partly because of Bill Murray’s stubbornness and then because of the unfortunate passing of Harold Ramis; then, a passing-of-the-torch film that bridged the original franchise to the new one also failed to gain traction at Sony; and finally, the decision for a frivolous reboot that reeked of opportunism turned off the supposed base that the whole thing was meant to appease in the first place (and this all happened before the gimmick casting had even been announced). But it was this understandable aura of disappointment that was turned into some political crusade, where you were forced to choose a side: you were either on the side of cinematic progress supporting a female-centric action comedy no matter the quality, or you were part of the anachronistic misogynist patriarchy that wants women busting kitchens, not ghosts.
Of course what followed is widely recognized as a famous mudslinging match between basement internet trolls who feed off antagonism and the clearly humorless feminism branch of the social justice warriors whose only goal seems to be taking the fun out of everything. Any criticism of an all-female reboot as an uninventive ploy was seen as an attack on women everywhere, even though some of us feel that women deserve better than simply transforming established male characters into female inversions. Originality, after all, isn’t just skin deep. But the enemy lines were drawn as soon as the petrol of accusations were thrown onto the proverbial online fire, even when the only expressed hesitations had everything to do with franchise accuracy, story originality, and a consistency of tone, and nothing to do with casting. So let’s get it out of the way: the women aren’t the problem at all with Paul Feig’s dispirited, juvenile, misbegotten, and overly-dependent-on-nostalgia reboot of Ghostbusters. In fact, the comedic versatility and charming personas of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones prevent this so-called comedy from turning into utter insipidness, at least for a little while. But long before the third act rolls around to devolve into an artless barrage of action special effects driven nonsense—a spectacle that would make even the Autobots of Michael Bay’s Transformers blush—the film has already lost its creative center, and even the most iron clad of uteruses couldn’t save it from its pointless fate.
Ghostbusters, like most reboots and remakes of a similar variety (equal opportunity reboot/remake hater here), suffers from a lack of ingenuity that finds itself following a formulaic blueprint narrative that dutifully hits its expected marks while also being filled with lazily developed characters and an overabundance of desperate nostalgia. Co-written by Paul Feig and Katie Dippold—the writer behind their far superior female-action collaboration The Heat (2013)—the film attempts to recreate a foundation that is comfortably parallel to Ivan Reitman’s witty, though often overpraised original. After an insanely overdone cold opening, with ooze bubbling floors and dramatic invisible chair throwing, the film quickly, and often times messily, brings together its mad-scientist outcasts together (or should it be stated three scientists and one other, since the film awkwardly goes out of its way to make that point itself). There’s wet-blanket Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig), a Columbia professor whose comfortable tenure track gets disrupted when her paranormal investigatory past unexpectedly reemerges in a book she wrote with an old colleague entitled Ghosts from Our Pasts: Figuratively and Literally. That ex-colleague is fringe scientist Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), an arrogant know-it-all believer (think a combination of Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman and Dan Akroyd’s Ray Stantz) who clearly holds a grudge towards Erin for leaving their collaborative work. Though they supposedly have a past, both figuratively within the film and literally in Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011), the chemistry is awkwardly off between these two actors and their extended characters, a fact that can be attributed the script’s inability to give them some defining idiosyncratic qualities to embrace (they’re basic character templates and nothing more).
Rounding out the crew is butch Brainiac Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), the steampunk dressed Spengler-inspired inventor of the group, and the world’s friendliest MTA employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the streetwise black sidekick that reeks of obsolete tokenism. For all of this focus on achieving a progressive tone for the cinematic future, Ghostbusters has a pretty scathing blight on their mission with the written character of Patty: she’s not educated in the realm of paranormal science (even explicitly noted at one moment by Wiig’s character); she’s a public-sector employee that paints her demographic quite generically; and essentially her reasoning for joining the group harks back to the fealty of black domestics in old Hollywood films. If progress were put into an equation, Ghostbusters would be noted to have taken one step forward and two steps back. However, it’s interesting to note that the two current SNL performers, part of the variety show’s modern trend of producing more misses than hits, are the new Ghostbusters standout features. McKinnon, a talented and whimsical chameleon of sorts, embraces her character’s anarchist madness with a dedicated energy and delivers her lines through some practiced intonations, which makes her a vibrant addition to the crew, even though we laugh more at the anticipation of her actions rather than anything she actually does. And despite the characters’ unintended racism (and consistent ability to yell with grating irritability), Jones brings an authenticity to Patty that’s not evident in the rest of the cast.
But the limited chemistry shared within the group and the occasional standout comedic delivery can only take a film so far, and the unfortunate reality about Ghostbusters is that a majority of it simply isn’t funny. Certainly there’s a respectful syncopation of joke setups, some less than successful attempts at improvisation (which, unlike most improvised dialogue films, make their presence overt), and an occasional sense of wit, but it’s not a consistent attribute. This is even more unfortunate when considering Paul Feig’s rather consistent ability to create comic showcases for his selected female driven talent, whether it’s successfully inverting the espionage thriller with last year’s Spy (2015) or the groundbreaking erasure of separating comedy from tragedy in Bridesmaids (2011). But Ghostbusters seems anxious to subvert its predecessor, while also slavishly being weighted to it, making the unforgivable error of not being able to make its old ideas feel new again. It can’t seem to escape the original and that, ironically, is to the film’s detriment, especially when the obligatory cameos begin to make themselves present. Minus the lovely Annie Potts (who hasn’t lost an ounce of her dry comic zest), the rest of the cameos seem uninspired, especially Bill Murray who delivers his lines as though there’s a gun to his head. Despite what might be marketed to you, there’s absolutely nothing in this film that you haven’t seen before.
And that’s the real problem. Clearly Feig, his co-writer, and the cast wanted to aspire to something beyond the rigidity of appeasing loyal fandom, which becomes evident when you ponder their deconstructionist qualities: a horridly cartoonish villain (Neil Casey) obsessed with ghosts resembles the nerd fanboy weirdos the creative team came to despise; the apparition hunting team literally battles the old Ghostbusters symbol at the end of the film, giving it a proton pack crossing of the streams charge to the nether region for good female-dominated measure; and there’s even a dumb blonde male secretary in known action-star Chris Hemsworth in order to emphasize that the women are the main attraction (which is mildly humorous, but sort of does a disservice to the original wit of Annie Potts’ Janine). They got caught in the middle of paying homage to do their obligated fan service and getting the opportunity to trail blaze their own path. The outcome is a half-assed version of both, a remake that’s more Pixels (2015) than Ghostbusters, where the jokes are inconsistent and the story is woefully unoriginal. It isn’t a dismal experience—the cast as a whole brings a warmth that’s rather unexpected and the evolution of the tech gear has some quality pseudo-science inspiration—but ultimately Ghostbusters proves that even female-driven action blockbusters suffer under the weight of studio system overreach. These women have proven themselves worthy of better, and hopefully we don’t focus too long on the fact they were cast and begin to focus on giving them the quality scripts they deserve. It’s just sad that passions on both sides were invoked so harshly for a film that ultimately delivers an uninspired, blasé experience, unworthy of even a fraction of that praise or ire.