At the heart of the new Ghostbusters film starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones is the notion of dignity. This seems an appropriate and poignant concept given the backlash and close-minded responses the film has garnered from conception to debut to post-release. Three female scientists and one female subway attendant become entangled in a quest to not only prove the existence of the paranormal but also to stop a cataclysmic event at the heart of Manhattan. But, as the old saying goes, they ain’t afraid of no ghosts. Thus, the most challenging forces the four must face are not ghosts – in fact, they are probably better equipped (literally) to handle the spectral entities than the original crew – but affronts to their own dignity and respect as human beings. And to this challenge the film brings excellent casting, a director who doesn’t get bogged down in his usual toilet-humour, fantastic comedic timing, great special effects, and the fundamental understanding of what it takes to create and produce a well made reboot. Therefore, I am both interested in discussing the strength of Ghostbusters as a film and using that as a jumping off point to discuss what it is that makes a well made reboot.
To start with the former, Ghostbusters is a funny and entertaining instalment in the franchise. And that’s exactly what it is: an instalment. The original Ghostbuster films still exist and if you want to go back and enjoy the films that started it all you certainly can. But please do not let close-minded disregard on the basis of superficiality stop you from seeing the films great qualities. To begin with, the casting of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth is spot on. Each actor delivers a consistently quality performance, great comedic timing, and a fresh presence to the Ghostbusters universe. Leslie Jones kills it with her comedic timing, having some of the funniest one liners in the entire film. Kristen Wiig’s character development is perhaps the most pronounced and the focal point for the narrative of dignity throughout the movie. Melissa McCarthy is as delightful as ever and Kate McKinnon delivers perhaps the most consistently authentic and enjoyable performance of the film. Chris Hemsworth is a delight and has what is probably the funniest and most well set-up gag of the entire film. What all of this serves to highlight is the strength of this cast and the work that they each put in to making this film. The performances are flush with authenticity and genuine enthusiasm and devotion to the narrative and the characters. And ultimately that is what makes the movie great: authenticity. Literally anyone could throw on those coveralls and grab a proton pack and the studio could have called them the Ghostbusters. But this movie doesn’t settle for anything less than actors for whom this story matters. Nobody can be said to be writing off their role or their commitment to the world they’re now representing. The characters have their flaws, and the plot may make a point of having others question their capabilities, but never is it in any doubt that these four women are strong and capable of handling themselves better than anyone else in the face of the paranormal. The only criticism that I would put forward about the film is that during the last act or so the film’s editing and pacing becomes slightly wonky and choppy. The quality persists despite this choppiness and it is forgivable considering the film really isn't about the action oriented climax so much as the journey to get there.
I mentioned how one of the driving themes of this movie is the notion of dignity and respect. This is primarily represented through Kristen Wiig’s character Erin Gilbert. At the outset of the movie she is a professor at Columbia on the verge of earning her tenure. Not only is this threatened by a text she wrote alongside Melissa McCarthy’s character Abby Yates about the paranormal, but by utterly petty and almost incredulous obstacles set forth by the head of her department. Most notable of which, in his mind, being her inability to provide a better letter of reference than one she got from a professor at Princeton. Likewise, Yates and Holtzman, who is played by Kate McKinnon, are utterly disrespected by the director of the institute where they work, who goes so far as to flip them off in an incredibly childish manner. This is especially frustrating given that, as Yates points out, the institute spells science with a Y and she’s not sure he knows that’s wrong. Finally, Leslie Jones’ character of Patty Tolan faces disregard and marginalization every day as a subway attendant despite her warm and friendly attitude. Even once the four become united and begin having first-hand encounters with spectral entities, they are faced with disregard by the Internet (including the use of some real mysoginistic comments made on the YouTube release of the Ghostbusters’ first trailer), disregard by the paranormal community (represented by a character cameo’d by Bill Murray), and intentional humiliation by the government of New York. And in each case the disregard and disrespect is associated with language that targets their femininity and draws a correlation between that and their abilities. But what makes the characters strong is that despite the struggle they don’t allow the ridicule and the indignities to crush their spirits or weaken their determination. Meanwhile, the villain is the exact opposite: a white male bullied and ridiculed who turns into a spiteful and toxically entitled antagonist. The film goes so far as to have the four women fight off an army of ghosts at the climax of the film who are predominantly males and representations of a long history of male dominance throughout history. But it isn’t just in these big moments that you see this conflict with indignity. Paul Feig’s toilet-bowl humour actually comes into play effectively with regards to this theme. When Gilbert, Yates, and Holtzman encounter their first spectral entity together it vomits ectoplasm all over Gilbert. Yates’ food deliveries are constantly being delivered late with the food order pathetically wrong. Their secretary, played by Chris Hemsworth, is a complete and total moron and despite this he coasts through life without difficulty or care on his good looks and physique while the four women struggle for recognition and respect. Overall, all of these elements combine together to present a substantial and interesting gauntlet of challenges for the characters to encounter and overcome. What’s especially great is that the four women face this together without inner conflict: they’re women who just allow each other to be women and to be both everyday and supportive in that. Their struggle is with an external force that they have spent their whole lives fighting. And that makes a much better antagonistic force for these four heroes to face than any ghost or bullied-turn-bully stereotype.
Finally, I want to use Ghostbusters as an opportunity to talk about reboots in general. Because Ghostbusters is a reboot: it features cameo appearances by almost the entire cast of the original film but takes place in a world where those events never occurred. Sony has even gone so far as to suggest that this is a kickstart to a whole Ghostbusters Universe of films vis-à-vis the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars. And what’s impressive is that – in what has been a sea of reboots over the last few years – this movie stands out as a well-made reboot that adds something fresh and exciting to the franchise while still holding onto the core elements that made the original films so successful. The reason for this is that the director, cast, and crew of Ghostbusters clearly understood going in the most essential element to a good reboot: deviate but know your status quo. What I mean by this is that Ghostbusters doesn’t have a whole new formula that it’s working with. Sure, the cast has been gender-swapped to all female characters, but that doesn’t change anything fundamental. What matters is that it features scientists convinced of paranormal activity, ghosts, big world ending cataclysms, and plenty of humour. And that’s exactly what you get. That is the Ghostbusters status quo. Once you have and know that, once you have that to return to and to ground you, then the importance of deviation comes in. Ghostbusters is a reboot but it explores new ideas within the framework of the universe. Notably, Holtzman spends the entire movie constantly working up gadgets and tools that the team can use to combat and capture spectral entities. And then at the end of the film we are treated to an actual fight sequence / battle royale between the Ghostbusters and an army of ghosts. It’s unusual but it’s awesome and it doesn’t detract from the films status quo. There’s a reason that the film industry keeps putting out reboots. Sure, people will say they do it for the simplest of reasons: because they know it will make money. And that’s an incredibly jaded and cynical response. Not because it’s wrong but because it's too narrow a view. Because you really should ask why these movies make money. Why do we watch the same movies over and over again, read the same books, listen to the same songs? Why does a child ask their parents to read them the same bedtime story every night over and over again? Because stories are a part of us and the important ones stay with us and demand to be retold again and again. Movie reboots are just another version of that and they are usually stories that we want to be retold. Not every reboot is done well, and this is definitely because of a variety of factors, but I would argue that the key to a well-made reboot is, once again, that the creators have to know how to deviate while maintaining the status quo. We come back to stories because of some kind of fundamental element that captures our imaginations. But we don’t just want to be told the same story again and again exactly as it was told before. We want variety and we want newness. The Ghostbusters can be women and they can fight ghosts so long as those elements that make them Ghostbusters remain the same. Another great example of this is in Marvel: Spider-Man can be Otto Octavius, Thor can be a woman, and Iron Man can be a teenage black girl. These can all happen so long as the fundamentals are maintained. And anyone who thinks that what makes the Ghostbusters the Ghostbusters is that they’re male (or that what makes Iron Man Iron Man is that he’s an adult white male) and not something deeper and more meaningful like their drive, their passions, their tools, or their human authenticity . . . Well, maybe they should consider the possibility that they never really loved those characters to begin with.
Ghostbusters is an entertaining film featuring some great characters and truly enjoyable laughs. It’s nothing revolutionary or defining but there should always be a place for films like this. Ghostbusters wants to entertain you and frankly you would be foolish not to give it the chance to do so. The comedy is on point, the acting is fantastic, and the CGI is immersive. The after credits scene of the movie has a great tease for a second film with these characters and I truly hope that they get the opportunity to return and give us that story. This feels like a movie that could fail critically because of all of the aforementioned reasons I’ve touched on above. So, if you have the time, get some friends and head to the theatre. You won’t be wasting your time. So, with that in mind, there’s really only one question left to ask. Who you gonna call?
Works Cited Ghostbusters. Dir. Paul Feig. Sony, 15 July 2016. Film.