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Ghostbusters (2016)

GOOD FUCKING RIDDANCE.

Sweet merciful soul of Gozer, it’s been such a long and painful road up to now. For twenty goddamn years, Dan Aykroyd has been desperately trying to make a third Ghostbusters film happen, swearing to anyone who’d listen that he would bring back the whole creative team to recapture the magic of the original film. The project started and stopped multiple times as Bill Murray and other castmates kept going back and forth on their commitments to reprise their roles, and Aykroyd himself seemed to grow further and further separated from reality with every delusional promise about a film that would very likely never happen.

Then Harold Ramis died in Februrary 2014, and the promise of getting the old gang back together would never come to pass. But let’s be honest, even if the third film had somehow managed to get everyone on board, and maybe even pass the torch to a new generation, they still would’ve had to either address or completely erase the continuity established in twenty years’ worth of comics, video games, and cartoons.

And even after all of that, there’s no guarantee that the resulting film would even be any good. I mean, I know Ghostbusters 2 has its defenders, but the film had everyone in place and it was still a disappointment by any standard. Even without so many years’ worth of baggage.

So instead of a Ghostbusters sequel, we got so many franchises that tried and failed to capture that same blend of horror, comedy, science fantasy, and action. Evolution (also directed by Ivan Reitman, funnily enough) didn’t take. R.I.P.D. and The Watch both crashed and burned. Men in Black was easily the closest we got (albeit with a more deadpan and slightly less juvenile sense of humor), and that one had terrible luck with its sequels as well.

Ghostbusters seemed to be a truly one-of-a-kind movie, the like of which could never be effectively duplicated. As such, I always thought it was a mercy that the sequel was wrenched from Aykroyd’s hands before he could George Lucas his own franchise. But for that to happen, the mantle had to be taken up by someone else.

Sony (specifically Amy Pascal, the studio exec who was later ousted in disgrace following the infamous data leaks of November 2014) wanted a means of milking their Ghostbusters cash cow in a way that didn’t require the old film’s aging talent. And re-releasing the original film in theaters on a constant basis (three times in six years, look it up) could only get them by for so long. What they needed was a reboot, and it was Paul Feig who took up the job. He promised to reinvent the Ghostbusters for the 21st century, by way of a new ‘Busting team that was all female.

What followed was a veritable smorgasbord of idiocy.

First there was Sony, who didn’t seem to have the slightest fucking clue how to market this movie. The trailers and promos were loaded with wretched effects and butchered jokes. Even worse, the announcement teaser made a blatant and outrageously bad effort at capitalizing on brand nostalgia, making it unclear as to whether the film was a sequel or a reboot. Then they went and hired Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott to cover the iconic theme song, with results that were every bit as awful as that sounds. Then the international market got trailers and a theme song reboot that were all leagues better than what we got in the States, further adding insult to injury.

(Side note: It bears repeating that this movie was very much Pascal’s baby, and she was replaced by Tom “Fuck the Nerds” Rothman while the film was in preproduction. Would the film’s promotion have been more deftly handled under Pascal’s leadership? We can only speculate.)

Of course, it’s not like Aykroyd ever shut up through this whole thing. Indeed, it only emboldened him — Aykroyd went and co-founded his Ghost Corps production shingle, made for the specific purpose of expanding the Ghostbusters franchise into a massive shared universe. What would that look like? How could Aykroyd accomplish such a feat when he couldn’t get a single Ghostbusters film made in twenty years? Will the old continuity have any part in these plans? Nobody knows, and only time will tell.

But then, of course, we had the haters. We had the irate fanboys who couldn’t bear to think of a Ghostbusters film without the original crew. We had the purists who fly into a rage at the thought of ANYTHING getting remade, moaning the perceived lack of originality in Hollywood. We had the misogynists who bitch and moan at the thought of a female-led movie. The racists who don’t want a black woman in a lead role. The activists pissed off that the black woman’s role wasn’t more progressive. Whole armies of people with nothing better to do than complain online like their whole pitiful existence was threatened by the mere existence of this film, regardless of whether it was good or bad, or even whether their concerns were justified. For two years now, we’ve had to put up with hundreds and hundreds of trolls on comments sections all over the Internet, leaving completely useless negative reviews on IMDB and giving the reboot’s trailer more down votes than any other video in YouTube’s history. (I know I said it was bad, but not THAT bad.)

But here’s the thing that everyone seems to forget about promos and hype and prior expectations about a film: The moment that film comes out, all of it ceases to matter. It doesn’t just stop, it goes away completely. Right into the ether. And I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grateful for that to happen in the case of this particular film. Now that Ghostbusters (2016) is finally out, we can either move on to something else or debate the merits of the movie that we actually have. The vitriol, the uncertainty, all those years of baggage are finally gone. To repeat: good fucking riddance.

So how is the film, now that it’s finally out? Well, to start with, it’s a Paul Feig picture.

Feig is one of those comedy directors who will occasionally let his actors improvise and riff through their scenes. Sometimes (as in Spy, for example), this results in jokes that seem to keep going on for days and days. But in this movie, it more often results in comedy that’s very uneven — some jokes are tightly scripted, and others were clearly hacked to pieces in the cutting room.

Additionally, Feig’s movies are often populated with characters who are broadly eccentric and larger than life, and this film is no different. A prominent example is Abby Yates, in which Ray Stantz’s geeky and awkward obsession with all things paranormal is presented with the overwhelming volume and attitude of your typical Melissa McCarthy character. As for Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), imagine if Harley Quinn cosplayed as Egon Spengler and you’d be getting close. Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) is similarly loud, but at least she has the excuse of having to work twice as hard to earn her status as a founding member, seeing as she’s the only one with no scientific background whatsoever. It’s also worth noting that Patty contributes the Ecto-1 (an actual 1984 hearse, which is a neat touch) and an extensive knowledge of New York City history, taking two positions that were originally given to the already overburdened character of Ray.

With all of these loud and hyperactive characters on display, a “straight man” to act as a sounding board becomes that much more critical. This is the job for Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), and she kinda sucks at it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s nowhere near as much of a jerk the way Peter Venkman was. Erin is eminently more likeable in large part because she’s not interested in doing this for fame or money or sex. She genuinely believes in the scientific method, and she’s set on maintaining the group’s credibility so their discoveries will be taken seriously and used for the advancement of humanity. Call Venkman a poor scientist and he couldn’t care less. Call Erin a poor scientist and she’ll completely lose her shit. Therein lies the problem.

There are times when Erin will try to hold the others in check, acting as a comedic foil by speaking on behalf of the more mundane reality we all live in. But then there are times (particularly one scene involving the ghost trap) when she flies so far off the handle that even the other teammates have to try and hold her back. To say nothing of a particular restaurant scene, in which Wiig just about literally starts to chew the scenery, she’s screaming so loud to get a laugh. And even if there’s never an overt romance arc between them (for which I’m sincerely grateful, by the way), it really disappointed me every time Erin turned into a puddle over Kevin, to the extent that everyone else had to look at her like “What is wrong with you?”

Kevin, by the way, is the Ghostbusters’ receptionist, played by Chris Hemsworth. And he’s pretty much the exact polar opposite of Janine Melnitz. Where Janine was such a no-nonsense Long Island wiseass that nobody wanted to come near her (except maybe Egon), Kevin is like a great big puppy dog who got dropped on his head. Here’s a guy who’s gone his whole life coasting on his good looks, so completely lacking in social graces and common sense that he can’t even answer the phone without supervision. He’s aggressively stupid in a nerve-wracking way, but he’s just so blissfully ignorant and unfailingly sweet that it’s hard not to like him.

In fact, all five members of our main team are very elegantly played, wringing plenty of humor and heart out of what they were given. Of course, I’m sure it helps that most of them already have a shared history via “Saturday Night Live”, so the rapport and comedic timing probably came to them that much easier. But the far bigger factor here is that unlike the first movie — which never bothered even trying to explain how Peter, Ray, and Egon all knew each other — this one goes into great detail about how our teammates met, what they mean to each other, and what history (if any) has transpired between them. Thus the relationships between characters are much stronger and we have more reason to emotionally invest in them.

This is a recurring thing, by the way. In the original film, we never actually learn where the logo came from. We never learn who came up with the name “Ghostbusters.” The proton pack, the neutrino wand, the ghost trap, the jumpsuits, and other such crucial aspects of the original film simply appear fully formed, with no explanation of how they were developed. Is all of this exposition necessary? Maybe not. But in the reboot, all of these things are nonetheless expanded upon and given fleshed-out origins in a way that’s respectful and often quite comical. And while some of these origins are more forced than others (the logo’s design in particular was right on the edge for me), it feels natural that a new origin story for the Ghostbusters should go into such detail about those things we most strongly associate with the brand.

The reboot makes extensive use of the original film’s iconography, with callbacks of varying subtlety. Furthermore — with the notable exceptions of Rick Moranis and Ivan Reitman — pretty much all the key players of the first film were given cameo roles. Even Harold Ramis gets a sweet little Easter Egg early in the film. What’s far more impressive is that all of these callbacks and homages strike a fine balance, in which they’re clearly recognizable and presented respectfully, yet reshaped into something that fits the new regime. Plus, the film is sure to try and make new icons of its own without being too aggressive about it. Gertrude Aldridge and the concert demon ghost may not be as instantly memorable as the Library Ghost or Slimer, but they were noble efforts nonetheless.

All of that being said, it’s hard to deny that the reboot has a more… polished look to it. For instance, here’s a comparison of the two proton packs. The new one still kinda has that rough-around-the-edges prototype look to it, but the old one is asymmetrical and has clearly exposed wires, like it really was cobbled together at the last minute out of scrap. Likewise, the original film’s firehouse was a total dump because — as Egon explicitly told us — it really should’ve been condemned. In the reboot, the team sets up shop in a space that comes cheap because it sits above a crappy Chinese restaurant. Both have a similar kind of “underdog” element to it, but the stuff from the original film appeared to be so much less reliable that there was a good chance it could backfire and kill the Ghostbusters as soon as function properly. Which one did it better? That’s really a matter of preference and there are solid arguments to be made either way, but I personally lean toward the reboot as the best of both worlds.

As for the music, Thomas Shapiro put together a fine score that effectively utilizes cues and themes from the Elmer Bernstein masterwork. In particular, the climax (specifically an epic shootout with Holtzmann) features an orchestral arrangement of the main theme that’s nothing short of triumphant. Speaking of which, the end credits feature a theme song cover by Walk the Moon, and it’s everything the Fall Out Boy version failed to deliver. Seriously, Sony, what the hell were you thinking, making THAT one the single?!

By the way, be sure to stay through the credits. There’s a lot of good stuff in there even before the final stinger.

But easily the film’s greatest success is in how it manages to balance horror with comedy. Sometimes, this is done by putting the characters in outrageous situations that are both funny and terrifying (ie: The moment at the concert when Patty has the giant ghost dragon perched on her shoulders.). Other times, the filmmakers will deliver a terrifying setup only to deliver a funny punchline, or vice versa (the dumpster joke comes to mind). And sometimes, the filmmakers will just go ahead and coat the characters (usually Erin, to her vocal umbrage) with slime. All of these methods are perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the original film, but they’re delivered in ways unique to this film and the results are quite effective.

Then we have the thematic content. The original film was about a team of small business owners who were fighting an uphill battle against government regulations, an incredulous public, and their own limitations to build a successful enterprise. This film has a similar angle, but we’re mercifully spared from any two-dimensional government assholes like Walter Peck (with all due respect, he was a thin character and you know it).

Instead, we have a couple of federal agents played by Michael Kenneth Williams and Matt Walsh, in addition to Andy Garcia as the mayor. All three of them are sadly underutilized, and most of the best lines go to Cecily Strong as the mayor’s top assistant. The deal here is that the government has known about this paranormal threat the whole time, but they’ve been deliberately trying to keep the whole thing a secret so as to maintain control and prevent mass panic. So the government is caught in this awkward position where they have to publicly denounce the Ghostbusters as frauds while privately encouraging their work. It’s a fascinating sort of frenemy relationship, and it serves to keep the Ghostbusters as the perpetual underdogs while also letting them have their victories. Plus, the Ghostbusters prove that they’re not doing this for the fame, which makes them look even more heroic. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoilers, but this whole thing is done in such a way that it’s really quite satisfying.

(Side note: Easily one of the biggest problems that Ghostbusters 2 had was in how the team was improbably sent right back to square one for no better reason than to rehash their development arc and have the team regain the public trust after they had already saved the world in full public view. Gotta say, the reboot came up with a pretty creative way to give the team an acceptable development arc while leaving them with someplace left to go.)

Far more importantly, this is a story about geeks, loners, and outcasts who keep pushing on, no matter how many people think they’re nuts. While this was certainly part of the original film, we also got a whole montage to show the Ghostbusters’ increasing popularity among the public at large, to say nothing of the massive crowds cheering them on during the climax. In the reboot, it’s much more of a struggle for the team to maintain their self-confidence and earn the public faith. As a direct result, the reboot takes a bit of minor subtext from the original film and makes it a prominent emotional cornerstone of the plot.

And yes, rampant misogyny — especially from online trolls — is mentioned as one of many reasons why nobody takes this team seriously. Nice bit of art imitating life there.

Which brings us to our villain. Without giving too much away, Rowan North (Neil Casey) is the kind of social misfit who’s so pissed off with the world that he’s just going to go ahead and end it all. Where the Ghostbusters are all misfits and outcasts who use their unique talents to improve the world and earn their place among others, Rowan would rather take the opposite course and react out of spite and jealousy. This is a surprisingly tricky character — one who has to fade into the wallpaper until we see his hidden villainous side, and then we can’t take our eyes off him. The role needed an actor who could go from innocuous to charismatic on a dime.

It was rumored a long time ago that Peter Dinklage was being pursued for the role, and this is so far into his wheelhouse that there’s no doubt he would’ve crushed it. Hell, Zack Woods shows up early on to get a few great laughs, and he would’ve knocked this out of the park. But Casey? Sorry, no. He’s got the bland part down, but the compelling villainy just isn’t there. Lucky he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting for very long, but I digress.

Ghostbusters (2016) has its flaws. The editing is wonky in places, the comedy is occasionally loose, the characters can often be loud and hyperactive in ways that can grate the nerves over time, and the CGI left me feeling nostalgic for the practical effects of the original. With all of that said, the lead actors have wonderful chemistry, the supporting actors are solid, and there are a ton of great cameos to be found. The action is a lot of fun, and the filmmakers do a fantastic job of blending horror with comedy. Furthermore, by expanding on certain aspects of the franchise that the original film either glossed over or ignored entirely, the remake is able to forge its own identity while staying true to its predecessor.

If the ultimate goal of a reboot or a remake is to make something new and relevant in a way that maintains respect for the original product and love for its fans, then mission accomplished. If this is the shape of the franchise to come, I’m happy to take it. Especially if this means we get more female-driven blockbusters and comedies, in addition to greater acceptance among geeks for younger fans and/or women. Now we just have to hope that Sony and Ghost Corps don’t drop the ball on the movies and other projects yet to come.

Good luck, guys. Don’t fuck this up.

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