The most innocuous film ever made, Ghostbusters’ concerns come not from any imaginary sacredness of the original movie, or the much talked about, written about and whined about gender flipping of the major cast. The end product is unlikely to change the minds of those who already decided their opinions beforehand, but it has moved the cultural conversation to issues of gender representation and feminist filmmaking instead of the more common complaints of today’s studio climate.
If the 1984 touchstone represents that era of dry, too-cool-for-school SNL humour and blockbuster filmmaking spawning merchandise empires, then this 2016 film is the intersection of today’s comedy and franchise filmmaking, for both good and ill. It is the meeting point between American comedies reliance on improv and quips constructed from flat one/two-shots, and a Hollywood remake culture that caches on preexisting goodwill to a movie, grand special effects set pieces and movies set to start continual ongoing series. The result is a strange, intermittently funny and annoying hybrid, one whose main strengths come from a cast of talented people being allowed to just be funny, and main weaknesses come from being a Ghostbusters movie. Not for reasons of what anyone believes a Ghostbusters movie should be, but an inability of Sony to allow this movie to work on its own terms. Every 15 minutes the movie stops in its own fully formed tracks to give references to the original, from story beats that mimic the 1984 film to use of iconic images to many a cameo.
In much the same way as other reboots of nostalgia properties like Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, the film is a meta-commentary on its own place in an ongoing series. This is especially fertile for this movie because, as many know by now, it is kowtowing to a group of people already prone to hate it. The filmmakers must have sensed this during production, because the movie contains many jokes to that backlash (“bitches can’t bust no ghosts”). Even the main villain seems like a parody of a nerd archetype, albeit less “basement dweller” and more “misunderstood genius”. Although sometimes grating, unlike the other examples given the self-awareness is also a strength to what is fundamentally a comedy, adding another layer to a movie’s humour that is already amusing. Amusing, but not laugh out loud funny enough to justify what could come across as a adversary tone.
Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s last movie Spy played on everyone’s preconceived notions of the characters she plays, and Ghostbusters continues that trend by very much the sincere true believer of the group. This plays well with both Kristen Wiig’s straight persona and their already established chemistry in Feig comedies. But it tends to be McCarthy’s improvisation that most obviously drags, and both character’s end up not having very memorable personalities. Their relationship, though, allows the absurdism of a new ensemble to bounce around them. Leslie Jones has a great manic energy that still manages to make her the most fully formed character of the group, and a much more established role in the group’s investigations than the trailer implies. And Chris Hemsworth particularly shines at the beginning with a dry stupidity (though it gets a little too ridiculous as it goes on).
Of the main cast, the standout is Kate McKinnon, who has been set for ages to be this SNL cast’s breakout, and from the first shot this movie serves to be her stepping stone. Jillian Holtzmann could have just been seen as the Egon of the group, but has a wild anarchic side, always joyed by everything that reminds me of Marx brothers comedies or 90’s Jim Carrey. The only drawback to this character is similar to Chris Hemsworth, which that this character exists in a different, zanier movie. Also it seems that most of the quips were given to Wiig or McCarthy, so much of her presence comes from reaction shots.
It is perhaps a more broad comedy than the original, relying heavily on reference humour and riffing like many a Feig (your tolerance of which may vary). But lines are continuously funny, ranging from the large to the subtle (such as the opening scene of a group tour around a haunted house). It also doesn’t forget a key lesson of the original, which is to take the horror elements with a seriousness that still makes them engaging. The design of the ghosts throughout ends up being more varied and original than even the first film. Where the film falters on this front is some bafflingly cheap-looking CGI – how is it that this Slimer looks worse than the original? – and its use in unoriginal set pieces meant for average blockbuster fare, complete with the unoriginal “beam shooting from a skyscraper” shot. This means that in the final thirty minutes the movie falls apart in a typical cacophony of visual effects, and proving like Spy that Paul Feig is a really good comedy director and a subpar action filmmaker.
If a comedy movie being funny is all you really need, Ghostbusters will please an open audience. It will also confirm the suspicions of the group who have spent a good six months priming to hate it, specifically those who find a climatic nut shot “misandrist” because they’re clever souls who have learned new words. I wish the movie was a greater work so defence of it in later days won’t be tedious, but really conversation shouldn’t focus on just this one movie. Again, its problems are widespread: modern blockbusters to commit to stories as much as they do brand. Or product placement.