Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has been one of the most hotly anticipated remakes to come along since Hollywood’s wholesale pirate plundering of Gen-X nostalgia first began about 12 or 13 years ago. It has finally come to bear, and the truth can finally be discovered: It’s merely adequate.
Ghostbusters, a remake of the zeitgeist-defining 1984 Ivan Reitman film, is an affable, slight comedy that takes the central concept of the original – a team of lazy, funny New York scientists start an extermination business to capture ghosts – and does very little with it. To cite the central thematic difference between the two: The original film was mostly about the struggles of four working-class people using their unusual know-how to make ends meet. The remake is more about four people using their badass machines and intelligence to prove – achingly – to the scientific community, to the world, and to the people who used to make fun of them, that ghosts are indeed real, dammit.
Erin (Kristen Wiig) is a button-down professor teetering on tenure, whose past as a ghost-hunter she hopes to keep hidden from her stern university superiors. Her estranged and ill-reputed scientist friend Abby (Melissa McCarthy) re-emerges in her life when a ghost-hunting book they coauthored goes back into print, and the two of them find themselves in a spooky mansion hunting down a glowing apparition. In tow is Abby’s kooky and capable engineer Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), who, with her punkish hair, steampunk-inspired fashion, weird deadpan sense of humor, and intense interest in funky glowing machines, emerges as the film’s real star. It’s likely that many teenage boys, and likely some girls, will exit the theater with a new burning and eternal crush. McKinnon steals every scene she’s in, and her wonderfully aggressive oddness keeps much of Ghostbusters mercifully alive. Wiig and McCarthy are good at their shtick, but there’s nothing about their characters than extends beyond what we already know of their work.
Needless to say, the ghost hunt ruins the characters’ respective careers, and they’re forced to go into business together to survive. Eventually the three are joined by the history buff Patty (Leslie Jones) who is included because, well, she’s just willing to go along with all of this ghost-hunting. They also accumulate a receptionist (Chris Hemsworth) who is as handsome as a statue and about as smart. Hemsworth, who has been long willing to goof on his own attractiveness, also tends to handily nab scenes from Wiig and McCarthy. And yes, a plot eventually emerges that involves a evil dude (Neil Casey) who wants to unleash an army of ghosts on New York.
The first half of Ghostbusters bears every hallmark we have come to expect from Feig. i.e. Scenes that meander casually along, allowing the actors to make largely improvised commentary on their own place in the movie. The original was somewhat grounded in a real New York. This new one opens with a line about facial bidets and anti-Irish fences, so we know immediately we’re in farce territory. Feig, however, also has a canny knack for letting his characters relate and interact in a believably Platonic fashion, where they’re allowed to be funny and friendly, but also honestly – sometimes unwittingly – communicate their own concerns and neuroses to one another. Watching the four lead actresses interact instills the audience with a very slight but undeniably present sororal warmth.
The second half of Ghostbusters is all action and plot, and the film eventually – perhaps inevitably – climaxes with a giant fight scene wherein our four leads must do backflips, shoot lasers, and punch ghosts in the face. The unfortunate trends of the day dictate that our old nostalgic heroes must, in the modern milieu, be transformed into fighters and “badasses,” pretty much assuring that any interesting character traits will be buried in a suit of action-packed nothingness. And while watching actresses like Wiig kick ass may prove to be vaguely cathartic in a very general sense, it seems like a generic approach to a usual supernatural comedy that has, up to this point, provided small giggles, slight emotions, and a shabby plot.
Mixed in with the average comedy and just-good-enough plotting is a series of painful cameos, each one worse than the last. I understand that nods to the original source material are always to be expected when constructing a nostalgia-based remake, but some of the faces on screen are so mawkishly inserted as to only elicit groans. Harold Ramis, the late co-writer and co-star of the 1984 film appears as a bust in a university, and it feels like an insult.
So what we ultimately have is a goof on the original. A high concept and a big budget – not to mention stratospheric expectation – turned into a middling, somewhat entertaining summer fling. I suppose its modest success may be considered a small triumph unto itself – many other comedies this year have done so much less – but it also leaves one with a faraway sense of dissatisfaction.
Ghostbusters, back when it was first announced, immediately attracted an ugly – and, frankly, utterly baffling – wave of misguided misogyny from a faceless army of immature 4Chan users who were all too eager to blindly scratch out their basest and least articulate anti-woman messages on the great big bathroom wall of the internet. It’s likely these troll-people were far more eager to whip up a public frenzy of manufactured controversy and exaggerated offense than they were genuinely offended by the notion of a gender-flipped comedy remake. These voices of anti-woman rage are easy to ignore, and – as we have now seen with the ultimate release of the film in question – quick to quiet.
The film has now been released, and, to lamentably cite the controversy, it is being hailed as a feminist statement of the highest order. Only it’s not. Feig and Co. clearly have no interest in making a film about the rights of women or a story specifically about the concerns of womankind; its themes are flimsier than that. He’s simply made a passably funny film with some funny comediennes that he knows. Which means there is a delicious irony at play here: Had the misogynists never chimed in with their imbecilic ravings, this new Ghostbusters would likely have not been seen as a feminist statement. Because it’s been positioned as a counterattack to internet misogyny, it now functions as a piece of feminist art.
Once a few months pass – when the controversy fades and the film itself quickly fades into vague memory – we will be able to more starkly see the film for what it is: yet another pretty-okay-I-guess remake that no one asked for, yet functions reasonably well, that only provided a modest distraction for a summer afternoon.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.