Beyond any of the bullshit that has so unfortunately surrounded this film – and to claim that it has had nothing to do with the all-female leading cast is a terrible mix of childishness and wilful ignorance, and I won’t go into it much more than that – Ghostbusters 2016 is a film that seems tailor made for me. We are in an era of nostalgia driven reboots, when studios look to the past – especially the 80’s and early 90’s – for projects to make in the 2010’s, betting on the interest of kids of that era now adults today, who want to indulge their memories, and maybe will drag their own kids along for the ride too. It’s a business model that bore, and still bears, a great deal of fruit for the Transformers franchise that started it, and looks like it will continue for some time to come.
And I am one of those people because I loved Ghostbusters. It was an early obsession for the younger version of myself, who could often be seen, post-viewing, running around his house catching ghosts, trap and all. But years pass and obsessions fade – not least because of that awful sequel – and viewing the original Ghostbusters nowadays I am struck by how it doesn’t quite hold up in my eyes, and may not be quite as deserving of the mass adulation it receives from the “community”. That same community has been happy to take part in and propagate a vicious sexism-induced war of words over Paul Feig’s reboot, that I have happily refused to take part in up to now. So, does Ghostbusters 2016 live up to 1984? Or is it as bad as some are gleefully hoping it will be?
Having once been a firm believer in ghosts, Dr Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), now seeking tenure at Columbia, tries to get her former friend and research partner Dr Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) to take down the book they co-authored on the paranormal. Gilbert finds Yates still investigating the existence of ghosts, now with slightly unhinged engineering genius Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and Erin is soon drawn back into the search for otherworldy phenomena. Along with New York history expert/metro booth operator Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the group sets themselves up as professional ghost control, and soon find themselves trying to avert an apocalyptic scenario.
A few minutes into Ghostbusters, I was worried. Zach Woods’ stilted jokes to a tour group wondering through an old spooky mansion landed horribly and were timed with all of the panache of a beached whale, before a rather pedestrian horror sequence took us to the theme tune. I was settled in for what would have been the first Paul Feig film I’ve disliked.
But then, mercifully, happily, Ghostbusters started to find its feet, and within a half hour I was all in, along for the ride. Ghostbusters has its problems, but a trainwreck it ain’t, thankfully. Once it gets beyond that shaky start – that might even have been deliberately placed – it gets into things properly, and soon has all of the humour and warmth that you would associate with both Feig and his long time collaborators in actors and writers.
For a film of this stature to have its four main cast members be women is a big deal, publicity stunt or no, but it’s rather extraordinary how Ghostbusters actually deals with it, which is hardly at all. The four women start their own company, combat paranormal menaces and are called upon to save the world from a demonic cataclysm, and do it all without much time at all being spent on the fact that it is a group of women doing this: the male characters rarely comment on it save for a few jokes here and there (some of which land, some of which don’t) and Feig seems more concerned about letting his cast do their thing than making any kind of overt socio-political point. But maybe that is the point: that much like, say, how Peter Dinklage’s size was never mentioned in Days Of Future Past, that the reality of four women combating ghosts instead of four men is something that we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on. No love plot, no weeping, no damsels in distress.
The film does spend a bit of time addressing the faux controversy over its casting, dropping some scorn on Youtube commenters and generally criticising the kind of naysayer who enjoys tearing down others work while offering nothing of their own (please check out the wonderful military history articles on NFB!). Bill Murray’s extended cameo is all about that, he playing a James Randi-esque sceptic who spends his scene mocking the Ghostbusters’ very existence. But aside from this – and frankly, I think this film deserves the chance to hit back a little bit, considering – the film is more concerned with rebooting the franchise and seeing what it can do with the premise, while inserting a modern flavour.
There are obviously some limitations in story and character terms. The bulk of characterisation goes to Wiig and McCarthy, two former friends riven apart by their respective paths, now brought back together. The two patch up their differences very quickly, but their relationship provides the story with a solid bedrock of friendship that is more suitably female in emotional terms than the very “lad” kind of story that the original had. It helps that this half of the lead four are as solid and dependable as always, Wiig as more of the straight woman, and McCarthy as her frequent foil.
But though her character is fairly one note for most of the film, it’s actually the little known, up to now, McKinnon, who steals the show as the Ghostbusters’ quartermaster, a playful mix of Venkman and Egon, who sets the lab on fire while dancing and then proceeds to bust out ever more colourful and complex pieces of ghost wrangling machinery. Jones may be a bit of a sassy stereotype, but does find her niche here, the layman, like Ernie Hudson, needed to keep the other three just a little bit grounded. Aside from them, the film is mostly concerned with comedic set-pieces and brief glances in its supporting cast: Hemsworth excels as the dopey receptionist, Charles Dance looks stern for a scene or two and Garcia does the Mayor thing.
The time constraints in regards characterisation also causes Ghostbusters 2016 to have another thing in common with the rest of the franchise, which is a rather lame villain, played by SNL alum Neil Casey, an otherwise unexceptional creep who wants to bring about the rest of the world. Casey can’t do all that much to enliven otherwise bog standard “I’m angry at the world so will now destroy it” material, and is largely superseded by others as the film goes on.
It is like and yet unlike 1984. The basic narrative structure remains largely the same in regards the transition from lovable losers to professional ghost hunters to city savers. The film is chock full of references to the original, with only the still mostly retired Rick Moranis absent from the significant cameo list (Harold Ramis even finds a way in) and sometimes seems a bit too reverent, such as in a scene where the group discover the iconic logo, or in how the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man manages to find a way into the story. The eagle-eyed will spot a few jokes aped straight from Ramis too, such as when McCarthy and McKinnon back away from an experimental new device, just as Ramis and Murray did in the elevator in the original.
But there is more than enough of the modern variety in here. The necessary camaraderie between the four leads evolves well, unlike the already existing state of affairs in 1984, and it is quite important that you can’t really transcribe the new four onto the old four with any ease. The comedy, from the pen of both Feig and The Heat co-writer Katie Dippold, is of a slightly different hue, more in line, of course, with Feig’s previous efforts like Bridesmaids or Spy, a mixture of the physical (though a careful limit is found on the “Fat people falling over” stuff), the verbal insults and the plain ridiculous (like Chris Hemsworth’s farcical receptionist). The jokes are often a hair away from being cutaway in nature: the aforementioned receptionist is a repeated cipher, butting in occasionally to do something comically stupid that has no relevance to the main plot.
A mid-credit Easter egg featuring a possessed “Thriller”-esque dance sequence was surely meant to be included in the film at some stage, but was cut for time, and is an indication of the kind of direction change the production team was going for. Some will surely find such a style grating, and it isn’t like the original in large stretches. But it is Feig being Feig, and Ghostbusters 2016 trying to be its own beast. In the end, the film will surly make you laugh if you are capable of getting into it: easily my favourite exchange was Wiig’s Erin urging New York’s political supremo “Don’t be like the Mayor from Jaws!” to which Andy Garcia replies resolutely “No one compares me to the Jaws mayor!”
And, as a modern action comedy, Ghostbusters has plenty of action, far more than the original. It’s here that the films much discussed visual style comes into play the most, and I found the designs for the ghosts, with this garish neon blue and green colour palette, simply fascinating, if obviously overused by the conclusion. At least it all looks interesting. Feig’s already proved he can do action properly, in Spy, and does the same here, with the finale set-piece and a nice superhero-esque multi-person free for all, women against ghost, with lots of fancy gadgets and well implemented CGI. But the hero shots are spilling over the pan by the end, as we get moment after moment of the titular busters igniting their proton packs all at once.
In the end, much like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, this is a film that I enjoyed thoroughly. Feig can’t do anything wrong in my eyes, especially when he teams up with the comedic talents of McCarthy and Wiig, or the writing talents of Dippold. This isn’t your eighties Ghostbusters, though it spends a bit too much time trying to legitimise itself by taking elements from it. I won’t say that it is a better or worse film, because it seems unfair to draw too much of a comparison. But it lives up the name, for sure, with some excellent performances, great writing, nice action scenes and a new version of a very overplayed theme song that actually made me like it again. More than anything though, this is a film that puts women front and centre in a major Hollywood franchise, and succeeds while doing it. For that, it is to be applauded, and defended if needs be. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).