Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters (2016; Directed by Paul Feig)

Above all a fun and enjoyably slight comedic concoction, the Ghostbusters reboot has ignited a disproportionate firestorm of online controversy that, absurd though it is, has given it a certain frisson and importance it might not otherwise have had. It’s a little hard to believe, and will be even harder to believe in the future, that a vocal minority of online male movie “fans” (a term that they hardly deserve, given their conduct and mindset) has targeted this new Ghostbusters with vociferous criticism (often of an ugly misogynistic and/or racial nature) simply because its creators had the audacity to cast four women actors as its spectre-chasing leads. And yet, it has.

Ghostbusters is a homage-drenched remake of the 1984 film of the same name that is one of the most loved highlights of the Saturday Night Live-derived manchild wave of American film comedy that has dominated the genre since Animal House at the start of the 1980s. Director Paul Feig has made a name for himself in Hollywood by applying that genre’s elements to films featuring female stars (predominantly Melissa McCarthy, his collaborator on Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and this film). Would this new film be seen as fundamentally feminist if not for the surge of sight-unseen hate of a small cadre of fandom whose sheer volume serves to inflate their influence beyond their numbers? With Feig at the helm and woman scientists in the ghostbusting overalls, most likely. Feig’s is a 220px-ghostbusters_2016_film_posterlow-key feminism, concerned predominantly with allowing his female comedy characters to be as boorishly lively and big-heartedly self-involved (and, in the case of this film, as obsessively scientifically-inclined) as the genre’s usual male protagonists. It might seem like a mild and unambitious project on Feig’s part, but given Hollywood’s nagging gender representation issues, it presents as modestly revolutionary.

The female versions of those archetypal protagonists gradually coalesce into the titular apparition-fighting squad over the movie’s first hour. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abigail Yates (McCarthy) were grade-school besties with a shared interest in the paranormal, which they parlayed into an education in science and physics and even a co-authored book about ghosts. From there they diverged, however, Erin forsaking the academically dubious pursuit of ghosts in favour of the more proper pursuit of tenure at Columbia while Abby experiments with spirit-tracking and -containing technology in the basement-level lab of a dodgy scientific institute that has forgotten that she even exists. In exchange for Abby’s promise that she will stop selling the professionally-embarrassing ghost tome, Erin brings her old friend and the latter’s moderately-askew engineer compatriot Jillian Hotlzmann (Kate McKinnon) to a preserved 19th Century Upper West Side mansion struck by a sudden haunting.

Following a goopy ecto-sliming and a viral YouTube video of mortifyingly nerdy excitement at the spectral encounter, Erin is not only denied tenure by her stern dean (Charles Dance) but shit-canned from Columbia entirely, and her expected landing place with Abby and Holtzmann in their funded lab also evaporates. Frustrated by academia’s disdain for their chosen field, the women go into private business for themselves as an apparition-dispelling service just like the original trio of Reagan-era science-spouting individualists that they broadly resemble. Wiig’s and McCarthy’s characters, by the way, are mixtures of different qualities of Bill Murray’s and Dan Aykroyd’s ‘busters from the initial film (both men have cameos here, as does most of the rest of the original’s principal cast), but McKinnon’s Holtzmann is a clear analogue to the late Harold Ramis’ mega-nerdy Egon Spengler, albeit with greater self-confidence, a wicked sense of humour, and a mischievous streak a mile wide.

Unable to afford the astronomical monthly rent on the familiar and iconic abandoned Manhattan firehouse (just one of a few references to how much the city has changed in three decades), they set up shop above a noodle house in Chinatown. They hire a vain, spectacularly dim-witted beefcake receptionist named Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) and even add a non-physicist fourth member, subway attendant and city history buff Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Although their attempts to manage the city’s suddenly-spiking ghost problem meet with skepticism and resistance from the authorities represented by the mayor (Andy Garcia) and his chief of staff (Cecily Strong), the skills and expertise of the reluctantly-named Ghostbusters will prove particularly useful as the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead is nefariously breached in Midtown Manhattan.

In this element, it does seem that the anti-feminist internet trolling of the project, which began as soon as the decision to invert the gender of its cast principals was announced prior to production, worked its way into the writing of Feig and Katie Dippold. The primary living antagonist of the new Ghostbusters is a creepy, anti-social, misanthropic loner named Rowan (Neil Casey), a luxury hotel janitor with delusions of grandeur and obsessive occult plans of unleashing a paranormal apocalypse on New York City. The character seems like a provocative caricature of the disdainful internet Men’s Rights Activists who have plagued this film since its inception, a personification of the basement-dwelling young men with raging senses of inadequacy and bitterness manifested as a sense of superiority to everyone around them, a runaway stereotype of the Angry Male Online. It’s a sly choice by Feig and Dippold, and not one that goes unnoticed.

There might be a touch of gleefully inverted stereotypes in Hemsworth’s Kevin as well (although Janine, Annie Potts’ no-nonsense secretary from the original film, was a perfectly capable New York woman), but Hemsworth ghostbusters2016throws himself into the character’s stupidity with such good-natured enthusiasm that it’s hard to imagine anyone but the meanest troll objecting. Wiig, McCarthy, and Jones are funny people with professional timing, delivering sometimes hilarious, generally amusing lines properly. If my praise sounds qualified, it might be because McKinnon so utterly steals the show as the brazenly geeky, diagonally-inclined Holtzmann that any other sparkles are dimmed by comparison. She’s so singularly peculiar that she’s worth watching every moment she’s onscreen (eyeball her body orientation as she enters the Aldridge Mansion in the early stages; even in a nothing bridge scene like this, she’s totally switched on). The ghostbusting tech and the ghoulish visual effects deserve mention for much the same reason. There’s now so much CGI in Hollywood blockbusters, the only way to distinguish your work is with distinctive and often twisted design. The ghosts are so designed, and the tech – blasters, traps, ghost grenades, the modified hearse Ecto-1, even a handheld “ghostchipper” – reflects the crooked brilliance of its creator, the wondrously loopy Holtzmann.

Feig and Dippold build in persistent references to both previous Ghostbusters movies, though few of them have any sort of vital function in the film, functioning more as gags and intertextual doodles than anything else. These rapid-fire homages are less reverent than the loose, too-casual structure and vaguely anarchic tone that Feig creates, granting the 2016 Ghostbusters more or less the same flaws of construction of the 1984 Ghostbusters (the music, headlined by Fall Out Boy’s take on Ray Parker, Jr.’s iconic “Ghostbusters Theme”, is unquestionably worse). The advances in visual effects in the past 30 years really show (we love the earlier movie, but those ‘80s effects did not age well), and the action scenes are pleasingly amped up as well (Holtzmann goes to town on a swarm of ghouls in the Times Square climax in particularly badass fashion). It’s also a proudly New York City movie (even if it was mostly shot in Boston and Australia), in close touch with what the city now is but also what it once was: New York’s colourful past literally comes back to haunt its corporatized present in the supernatural vortex of the climax, with ghosts from its previous eras emerging from the pavement like miasmatic history to be dispatched by our heroines (“Oh my god, you killed a Pilgrim!”).

Although some will never be able to accept heroines spearheading a recognizable, bankable blockbuster movie franchise, Ghostbusters demonstrates that the representational transition need not be a bumpy one. It’s far from perfect, but so was the 1984 film. Parsing the various features of Feig’s film, it’s roughly approximate to Ivan Reitman’s acknowledged classic in most important ways (minus, of course, the originality). It even improves on the original in not only the ways mentioned above, but by excising the problematic “romantic” subplots (one of which came across as more than a little creepy at the least).

More than the male Ghostbusters (one of which was 75% out to get laid above all), the female ones are dedicated professionals (even if they are basically inventing their profession as they go along), absorbed in their work with little time for the distraction of sexual entanglements. Erin is allowed a bashful schoolgirl crush on the pretty Kevin, but Abby isn’t into him or anyone else of the opposite (or same) sex, nor is Patty (Holtzmann, although played by the openly gay McKinnon, seems unlikely to be interested in spending the night with anything other than a sodering gun). Ultimately, these women are into ghosts, and into the sense of comradery, belonging, and collaborative accomplishment that chasing the unsettled dead as a team grants them. They haven’t the time for men, they’re too busy bustin’. That might be this consistently enjoyable, occasionally delightful new Ghostbusters‘ clearest middle-finger to the baying MRA sorts as well as its most robust feminist statement.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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