As this weekend sees the release of a new Ghostbusters film, let’s flash back five years to the last time someone tried to do something new with this material — and the internet’s angry boys lost their minds.
When Paul Feig announced he was tackling a remake of Ghostbusters, the deck was already stacked against him. He had the temerity to step into the latest entry in a beloved franchise, helming a film without the original cast. More than that, it wouldn’t be a sequel or spin-off; Feig made the decision that his Ghostbusters would take place in a world where the first movie didn’t exist. So, it’s not surprising that he became the target of fans’ ire.
What’s surprising is that the resulting film is actually pretty good.
It’s worth noting that remaking Ghostbusters was not the main play that Sony hoped to make. Dan Aykroyd had been trying to get a third movie off the ground for years after Ghostbusters II, and he was pretty excited about a concept where the cast would have to go to an underworld called Manhellton (the description of the script, honestly, sounds awful). But for a variety of reasons — but mostly Bill Murray’s reluctance to do a third movie — it never came together. When Harold Ramis died in 2014, any hope of a traditional sequel died, too.
So it makes sense that the studio would try to find a new direction for the IP (because there was no way they would just let it lie dormant). And the approach they settled on makes sense. In the spirit of Ghostbusters, they nabbed one of the most popular and critically acclaimed comedy directors working. Feig had geek cred from his work on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and he’d garnered critical and commercial success with Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy. And he brought with him a cast of four of the funniest working actors in Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy (Feig’s good luck charm), Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.
I think the idea to do a remake instead of a spinoff of sidequel is a misstep. Ghostbusters sets up the idea of the original team setting up franchises, and it would be easy enough to establish a world where the original team has retired and a new one is taking its place; the original cast is willing to show up in cameos here, so it would have made sense to have, say, Aykroyd come in to hand off the proton packs. It would save the film a lot of exposition and world-building and probably could have defused some of the anger of the internet trolls.
And yet, I can also understand Feig’s decision. His comedy stylings are not Ivan Reitman’s. Reitman set his film in a grounded world, and much of the humor came from the “all in a day’s work” approach to the supernatural. Feig’s broader, his characters more heightened. Where the four leads (and Rick Moranis) were the source of much of the humor in the first film, here, every side character is also a comedic one.
Letting Feig start from scratch with the world building also allows him to lean into his own visual style, which I think is one of the film’s stronger suits. I love the bright blues and purples Feig gives his spooks, specters and ghosts. The slime is bright green and blue, there’s an ethereal glow among all the entities and the final act takes place in Manhattan bathed in a glowing fog. I enjoy the heightened aesthetic Feig and cinematographer Robert Yeoman created for this. There’s always something fun to look at, and the final act in particular uses the team’s new weapons to find a more exciting and energetic approach to ghostbusting, compared to the literal point-and-shoot approach of the earlier films.
But starting over also means that the film’s script strains under the pressure to incorporate world building and exposition with the myriad other things it has to do. It has to explain why respected scientist Erin (Wiig) and former best friend Abby (McCarthy) had a falling out after a career spent pursuing the paranormal. It needs to set up a reason for Erin to be laughed out of academia and Abby and her research partner Holtzman (McKinnon) to be out of work so the three can go into business for themselves. There’s a laborious plot about a pasty white guy (Neil Casey) unleashing ghosts to gain respect, a subplot about the government publicly disavowing the Ghostbusters while privately thanking them, and detours to create and test new equipment. The script by Feig and Katie Dippold is an unwieldy mess that brings up themes and ideas only to drop them when something else catches their eye; but if you’ve been paying attention to these Ghostbusters posts, that’s all par for the course with the franchise.
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Who Ya’ Gonna Call?
The most unfortunate thing about the internet “controversy” over the movie — aside from the hatred and misogyny — is that the cast is aces, and easily the best thing about the movie. I appreciate that the film doesn’t attempt to do one-to-one replacements of the original characters; no one is the “female Venkman” or “girl Ray.” Each actor brings their own stylings to the film and the ensemble has strong comedic chemistry together.
McCarthy and Wiig largely play it straight; like Aykroyd and Ramis in the first movie, they’re playing actual characters, not caricatures. They build on their Bridesmaids chemistry to create a solid friendship between Abby and Erin, and that relationship provides the emotional anchor to the film (not that it’s overly emotional). Both actors can go very big, and while it can be funny, it can also be wearying. Here, they’re funny, but in controlled doses, never overpowering the film. Even when McCarthy gets a big physical comedy moment when Abby’s possessed, it’s not overplayed. The actors bring the funny but never try to steal the show.
The film, unfortunately, continues the franchise tradition of making the cast’s one person of color a non-scientist. But Leslie Jones gets more to do than poor Ernie Hudson was ever allowed. I like the idea of making Jones’ MTA worker Patty someone with a vast knowledge of New York history, something that comes into play in the Ghostbusters’ line of work. I know there are some who don’t care for Jones’ brand of comedy, but I’m all aboard. And McKinnon brings a welcome dose of weird; I don’t know if everything she does as Holtzman is funny, per se, but it’s always fascinating and a reminder that McKinnon should be given a big showcase for her talents as soon as possible.
Feig has long collaborated with Judd Apatow and has the latter’s sense of comedic generosity. Nearly every cast member, no matter how small the role, gets a laugh. The film opens with Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods leading a tour of a haunted mansion, and I love his off-handed explanation of the facility’s historic “anti-Irish fence.” Andy Garcia and Cecily Strong get chuckles as the mayor and his assistant, who take delight in publicly knocking the Ghostbusters down a peg, and I enjoyed Abby’s ongoing feud with a restaurant delivery worker played by Karan Soni. Chris Hemsworth comes perilously close to walking away with the entire film as Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ dumb-as-a-brick secretary. The Marvel movies were slow to realize that Hemsworth’s secret weapon was comedy; Feig caught on much earlier. Few people, except for maybe Jon Hamm, are so adept and playing hot and stupid, and I’d love more of that.
Neil Casey’s villain appears to be the one weak link in the cast; he’s never particularly interesting or funny. But in light of the controversy that followed the film, I appreciate his inclusion. It’s a fun poke at the entitled white males who think they have ownership over things, and there’s some unexpected resonance to the way his bitterness threatens to destroy the whole thing. I wish he was a bit funnier or more threatening; Casey’s kind of a non-entity here. But the attempt is interesting.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or great about Ghostbusters 2016. But the cast is funny and the movie’s a lot of fun. It has more energy and originality than Ghostbusters II, and I really wish there were more opportunities for this cast to back and play in this sandbox. As a supernatural comedy, it’s frequently inventive and very funny.
The problems come when it wants to be a Ghostbusters movie.
Chasing Ghostbusters’ ghost
In the film’s climax, Casey’s character, toying with the Ghostbusters, assumes a spiritual form that is initially cute, cuddly and very familiar: the ghost from the franchise’s famous logo. But he’s not as cuddly as he appears: soon, he grows into a giant monster, terrorizing the city and threatening to pull New York into a spiritual vortex.
It’s a clever metaphor for the pressure I’m sure Feig must have felt making the movie: constantly being haunted by the legacy of this IP. But that pressure overtakes the film, and it grinds to a halt whenever it feels like it needs to make references and callbacks to the 1984 classic.
Like most remakes, Ghostbusters feels compelled to invite every living cast member back for a cameo (Ramis gets a statue in the background early on; only Rick Moranis declined to make an appearance). Some of the cameos are fun; Annie Potts shows up as a snarky clerk and Sigourney Weaver gets a genuine laugh over the end credits. But any time one of the original Ghostbusters shows up, the scene goes over like a fart in church. Hudson’s is probably the least egregious; it’s not necessarily funny, but at least it’s tied in with Jones’ character and a plot point about the car. Aykroyd darts in as a cab driver who spits out “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” in an over-the-top New Yawk accent and then drives away quickly. Curiously, Murray — the original cast member most opposed to revisiting the franchise — gets the most screen time, as a ghost debunker. It’s a fun idea, but utterly leaden in its execution. In no universe should Bill Murray be the worst thing in a Ghostbusters movie, but here we are.
The remake’s love affair with the original drags it down whenever it threatens to gets too original. There’s an origin story for the logo. Constant callbacks to particular lines from the previous movie. A billboard proclaiming “That a big Twinkie.” Slimer not only comes back, he has a wife. And at one point, when a cluster of parade balloons comes to life, Mr. Stay Puft makes a brief appearance. And don’t get me started on the mid-credits scene, where Jones is listening to a recording and asks “what’s Zuul,” setting up a sequel we’ll never get.
My guess is these references were either dialed back in the original script and many may not have been in there at all. But Sony, knowing how obsessed fans were, likely added it back in. Some of it works better than others, but every time there’s a reminder of the 1984 film, it just distracts from the perfectly funny, original story being told. We get it: Ghostbusters is beloved. I agree; I have the film memorized and it’s sitting in my library on Blu-Ray. We don’t need constant reminders of a film we’ve all seen countless times; if you’re going to remake it, just remake it and move on without too many homages.
But overall, Ghostbusters 2016 gets a bad rap. It’s funny and original, and still the second-best movie in the franchise by a long mile. Its legacy is also not as bad as some make it out to be: the film has a healthy 73% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (much better than the 53% rotten rating of Ghostbusters II) and brought in $229 million at the box office worldwide, slightly more than the first Ghostbusters sequel (although I’m sure inflation changes things slightly). Rather, the toxic conversation seems to have created a thought that the film was a bomb; it wasn’t. It was well-liked by many and a modest financial success. I wish we could have gotten more movies with this cast.
But oh well; this week, we get Ghostbusters Jr. And maybe it will be fun! We’ll see on Monday!