Editor’s Note: Ghostbusters opens in wide theatrical release today, July 15, 2016.
Almost two years ago, the world almost ended. Almost two years ago, childhoods were irrevocably, irretrievably broken, not by a potentially world-changing political event like a presidential election or a referendum to leave a certain European Union, but on the news that Paul Feig, the writer-director of three consecutive box-office comedy hits, Spy, The Heat, and Bridesmaids (and let’s not forget the fondly remembered, prematurely canceled Freaks & Geeks if we’re going to give Feig due and considerable credit for his past accomplishments), had agreed – against all reason apparently – to co-write and direct the Ghostbusters remake/reboot (Note: You remake a film, you reboot a series or franchise; the new Ghostbusters happens to be both) and restart a series/franchise that had been dormant for almost three decades. Even worse, Feig decided –with the studio’s blessing, no less – to gender-swap the original’s seemingly irreplaceable male leads with four of the most respected, most admired female comedians of the second decade of the new millennium. Horror of horrors.
Before Ghostbusters segues into an explosion of eye-numbing spectacle and slo-mo action, it’s a straightforward story about four outsiders, outcasts, and pariahs who find a surrogate family in each other’s company…
Mass hysteria almost ensued, but thankfully cooler heads eventually prevailed. Feig moved forward with the Ghostbusters remake/reboot while sexist, misogynistic trolls gnashed their virtual teeth on online forums and the comments sections of movie sites. They declared the remake a failure before production had even begun, but the average moviegoer won’t care, probably because the average moviegoers isn’t aware of any “controversy” surrounding the remake/reboot. Ultimately all that matters is whether the Ghostbusters remake/reboot delivers on the implicit promise of four comedians doing what they do best: Making their audiences laugh and laugh repeatedly. By that simple criteria, Ghostbusters succeeds, sometimes beyond expectations, sometimes below expectations, not because the four co-leads, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, somehow fail to bring their comedic talents or chemistry to the remake/reboot, but because Ghostbusters: The Remake/Reboot remains a corporate-made, corporate branded product, meant to generate ancillary revenue through merchandising and, of course, an entire “cinematic universe” of sequels, spinoffs, and maybe even prequels (before, of course, the inevitable remake).
Ghostbusters fails on two related levels, first in paying near obsequious homage to its predecessor with an overabundance of fan service – a futile attempt, perhaps, to bring the remake/reboot’s most vocal detractors back into the Ghostbusters fold – and second through an overstuffed, CGI-laden finale that trades action and spectacle for laughs and emotion to increasingly diminishing returns. But the same can be said for practically every summer tentpole/blockbuster wannabe. Before Ghostbusters segues into an explosion of eye-numbing spectacle and slo-mo action, it’s a straightforward story about four outsiders, outcasts, and pariahs who find a surrogate family in each other’s company, beginning with Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, a Columbia University physics professor days away from receiving tenure, her one time friend turned temporary adversary, Abby Yates (McCarthy), a professor of the paranormal, Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), the all-around gear-head and resident goofball, and Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA worker with a supposedly prodigious knowledge of New York City.
The Ghostbusters remake/reboot was never going to be about the villain, but the Ghostbusters themselves and how they navigate a world hostile to their individual and collective interests, a world that doesn’t find much, if any value, in who they are and what they do. Until they’re needed, of course.
A fifth, de facto member of the soon-to-be-called “Ghostbusters” squad, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their dim-witted secretary and chiseled eye-candy – cleverly subverting the male gaze – joins them, but proves to be useless, as do most of the men the Ghostbusters encounter, from the mayor (Andy Garcia) who repeatedly tries to squash their successes to prop up his political career, calling them “frauds” publicly, to a debunker played by a certain actor who appeared in the first and second Ghostbusters films, to Rowan North (Neil Casey), their primary antagonist and the physical manifestation of Internet trolling. Rowan has turned his perceived victimhood and victimization into a personal vendetta against the world, a vendetta that will usher in yet another Apocalypse. Rowan makes for a weak, inconsequential villain, better in the abstract than the execution, but then again the Ghostbusters remake/reboot was never going to be about the villain or his plans for world domination and/or destruction, but the Ghostbusters themselves and how they navigate a world hostile to their individual and collective interests, a world that doesn’t find much, if any value, in who they are and what they do. Until they’re needed, of course.
It’s evident in practically every frame that Feig is less interested in advancing a familiar, perfunctory plot than in letting his four leads exchange well-timed quips – admittedly of varying quality – before and/or after bouts of semi-strenuous ghost-busting. Each lead or co-lead brings just enough off-balance humor – and in McKinnon’s case, welcome low-wattage eccentricity – that it’s hard not to forgive Ghostbusters’ studio-mandated limitations. Saddled with a PG-13 rating, Feig and his co-writer Kate Dippold have to play it safe, sometimes too safe, especially given the talent they have on hand. Sometimes the humor pushes close to those constraints, but more often than not, it feels like Feig and Dippold decided not to try or bother at all. Still, that’s a minor issue with a remake/reboot that succeeds where so many remakes/reboots have tried and failed: It makes audiences care just enough about the central characters and builds out a new universe (a cinematic one possibly) that we’re left wanting and hoping to see again in new or not-so-new adventures (stay for the post-credits sequence to find out more), sooner rather than later.
With central characters and a new universe we can care about, the Ghostbusters remake/reboot succeeds, often better than similar remakes, despite its obvious corporate-minded influences and being saddled with a PG-13 rating.