I never lived in a world without Ghostbusters. The original film was #1 at the box office the day I was born (although my parents decided to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that day), and it and its sequel have been movie viewing constants all my life. I yearned for a sequel for years and years, only to be disappointed when it finally became clear that that was never going to happen. Instead we were given a remake with an all-female cast, which unfortunately still brings out the worst in a certain segment of the population who can’t stand to see women in positions where they feel only men should reside. The result is both an important milestone for women in cinema, a big-budget, sci-fi, action comedy based on a beloved franchise resting solely on the backs of four talented women, and the internet firestorm that’s come to surround the film shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s nevertheless shattered some glass ceilings. But the question of the film still remains, whether it can both hold up on its own and live up to the legacy that goes along with the name. Could it ever be as funny as the classic from 1984? Well, the answer to the second question is no, it’s frankly not as funny. But better than funny, it gives us deeper characters, more exciting action, and a more interesting world than we’ve ever seen under the Ghostbusters banner. It might not be the non-stop laugh riot we might have hoped, though it is still frequently hilarious, but it just might be a better all-around film.
First up this time around answering the iconic “Who ya gonna call?” question is Erin Gilbert. Erin, a stuffy physics professor up for tenure, gets a mysterious visitor who claims to have had a paranormal encounter, and who tracked her down after buying a book she wrote many years previously about ghosts. Erin disavows the book and angrily tracks down her coauthor, Abby Yates, who had promised that the embarrassing book would never again see the light of day. Abby spends her days doing paranormal research at a nearby dump of a college with engineer Jillian Holtzman, and the pair are far more interested about the potential for a ghost encounter than they are in listening to Gilbert’s complaints. They drag Erin along to the supposedly haunted mansion, and when they actually manage to interact with and record a real ghost they decide to strike out on their own to research and eventually trap a ghost and prove their theories which have been mocked for so long.
They rent a space above a Chinese restaurant, hire a receptionist, and get to work. Fortunately, paranormal activity is oddly on the rise, and their first case leads them to Patty, a New York subway worker whose face-to-face encounter with malicious ghost sends her looking for help, but whose resourcefulness along with a detailed knowledge of the city and its history convince the others to make her a part of the team. As Holtzman works on perfecting their ghostbusting technology, the phone finally starts ringing, first with calls for help and then from the government who want to keep the existence of ghosts a secret by claiming that the team are frauds. But as these four women learn more and discover odd devices wherever ghosts appear, they start realize that these strange occurrences aren’t as random as they seem and that there’s a plot afoot. It’s a race against time to solve the clues and stop a madman before the city is opened to a hell dimension and malevolent ghosts are released on the world.
This new Ghostbusters, much like the original, relies heavily on the talents of its cast, and thankfully they found a group of funny and talented women who are certainly a match for the likes of Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson. And while they may not get quite as many laughs, they make up for it by giving the characters more depth and development and an actual emotional bond. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy lead the way as Erin and Abby, two women with a contentious history together but a driving curiosity do discover the unknown. Wiig’s Erin is stiff and cautious, as would befit a prestigious professor, while McCarthy’s Abby is enthusiastic, headstrong, and prone to rushing in, and the pair play nicely off each other with Wiig more of the straight (wo)man of the duo. Leslie Jones is a riot as Patty, whose grounded perspective is a necessary balance to the other three, and who isn’t afraid to point out the craziness of what they’re doing. But the breakout star of the group has to be Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann. Holtzmann is difficult to describe, and she’s unlike anything we’re used to seeing onscreen. Brilliant but completely off-kilter, constantly saying and doing the unexpected, whether dancing with blowtorches, spooking her friends, munching on Pringles at inappropriate times, or talking back to FBI agents. She’s the film’s irrepressible spirit, and it’s simply invigorating to watch McKinnon work. The rest of the cast all do an excellent job with the sorts of performances we’ve come to expect from them, but McKinnon gives the film a special energy with her unpredictable energy.
Headlining the non-Ghostbuster portion of the cast is Chris Hemsworth as Kevin the receptionist, who steals almost every scene he’s in. Having Hemsworth, the most conventionally attractive person in the film, as the ditzy secretary is a brilliant bit of commentary casting, but what’s so amazing is just how downright hilarious he is. Almost everything he says and does feels improvised (something his performances shares with McKinnon), with each example of his ineptitude in his job building to the point where you start to feel sorry for him despite his cluelessness. Andy Garcia shows up as the mayor of New York, who has a complicated relationship with the Ghostbusters along with his aide played by Cecily Strong, while Neil Casey is sufficiently creepy as the mysterious and awkward Rowan. And by now it’s no secret that most of the surviving cast members of the original have cameos in the film, which are occasionally great but sometimes distracting or even annoying. Sigourney Weaver’s bit is perfect, while Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts all have pleasant moments, but Bill Murray is overused and somewhat frustrating, while Ozzy Osbourne shows up for no apparent reason.
Director Paul Feig, who wrote the film along with Katie Dippold, does a great job of playing to his cast’s strengths, and highlighting the things that help this Ghostbusters stand out from its predecessors. He wisely gets out of the cast’s way, letting them improvise and sell the script in their own unique comedic ways. He shows these Ghostbusters as a team that genuinely likes each other and spending time together, so that we actually care about them as characters rather than just as vehicles of comedy or plot. And he ramps up the action considerably, giving us a brilliant fight sequence with the four female heroes that was as enjoyable, creative, and funny as something out of a Marvel film. Cleverly, he makes a few minor changes that add up to a big impact on the film as a whole. For starters, the new Ghosbusters has a human villain for a while, and it builds to a much clearer showdown as the film progresses. Much to my enjoyment, we get to watch the ghost busting technology evolve and improve as Holtzmann and the team learn from their encounters, giving the story a better sense of narrative progression and grounding the film with a bit more reality. Even the motivations and politics of our heroes has changed this time around. Not once do they seem interested in charging for their services, content simply in the research and scientific discoveries at their fingertips. And mercifully, the EPA no longer is presented as a sniveling villain with no understanding of what they’re doing. The government this time around is actually on the same side as the Ghostbusters, even as they are quick to call them frauds to the media.
Still, the new Ghostbusters is not all it could have been. The script, while funny, doesn’t deliver as well as I would have liked. Jokes occasionally fall flat and certain bids just don’t play despite the actress’ best attempts. Visually, the new technology has a great feel to it, but the ghosts leave something to be desired. The colorful, gross, creepy, and sometimes funny ghosts were a big part of the original film’s charm, but this time around almost everything has the same blue color scheme which is decidedly less interesting. The ghosts themselves are also less varied, consisting mainly of costumed humans who are supposed to be from different eras of history but who are never clearly distinguishable. The monsterous ghosts make a far bigger impact than the human ones, but they’re few and far between. As a whole, the film subscribes closely to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens method of storytelling, in which the long-awaited sequel/remake hits the exact same story beats as the original in the hope of being as familiar as possible to the fans. The new Ghostbusters isn’t a remake of the original, and in fact has a very different story, but the broad strokes are so familiar that it’s often easy to predict what’s coming.
But as a whole, Ghostbusters is a lot of fun. It has some serious laughs, great action, an interesting take on the universe, and most importantly a quartet of immensely talented and hilarious women leading the way. And in the end, it’s impossible to separate the feminist angle from the film, which thankfully doesn’t try. There’s no pandering in Ghostbusters to the men’s rights activist crowd, who raised such a stink at the thought of women taking over their beloved franchise. Instead Ghostbusters gives us like mocking internet comments like “ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts”, proclaims proudly with laughter that “safety lights are for dudes”, and delivers a literal shot to the nuts of the haters. It may have triggered quite a firestorm, but Ghostbusters stands firm, proud of the film that it is and its place in movie history. Men in their 50s regularly headline action movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, etc.), but I can’t remember ever seeing a group of women (mostly) in their 40s kicking ass onscreen quite like this, while the pretty male eye candy sits on the sidelines. I can only hope, come Halloween, that I see lots of little girls in Ghostbuster costumes. But while the film’s legacy is important, it still hits all of the targets it needs to. It’s funny, it honors the franchise’s roots, it offers something new, and it left me wanting more. It may not be perfect, but if it can do all that and break barriers, I definitely call that a big win.