“It’s true your honour, these ghostbusters have no dicks” – paraphrased from the original Ghostbusters
By 2016, the old adage about the certainty of death and taxes could stand to be expanded to include Hollywood remakes. Whilst the film industry has always shown a willingness to cannibalise its own offspring second only to Cronos, the reduced profit margins caused by online piracy have led to a mainstream Hollywood that views originality as roughly equivalent to rolling around in a vat of nuclear waste on the off-chance that you might get superpowers: A nice idea that will probably kill you horribly. As a result of the perceived ‘safeness’ of rebooting a proven formula rather than taking a punt on something new, blockbuster remakes have reached the point of saturation (and to be brutally honest, blandness) where it’s become genuinely hard to tell whether a film has a recent remake or whether that faint memory of Fritz Lang’s five hour 1922 masterpiece Doctor Mabuse The Gambler being reimagined as a car chase heavy romp starring Jason Statham was just a fever dream.
The recent exception to this rule has been Ghostbusters, a remake that far from slipping placidly into the subconscious has attracted roughly as much attention and think-pieces as The War on Terror. If you’ve somehow missed all this (perhaps through spending the year in a sensory deprivation tank) the reason for this upsurge in interest is that Director Paul Feig decided to genderflip the eponymous ‘busters and internet reacted to this decision with the kind of blazing fury that makes flaming torches and pitchforks look decidedly genteel by comparison. The so-called ‘men’s rights activists’ came out in force to decry the move as the greatest betrayal since Judas, whilst the original Ghostbusters suddenly ascended to a level of artistic credibility that the Sistine Chapel could only dream of aspiring to. This campaign of hate has left the Ghostbusters trailer the most disliked video in Youtube’s history, its stars harassed and innumerable badly spelt death threats littered across the web.
However the narrative has not entirely been dominated by neckbearded wannabe pick-up artists, websites like Jezebel mounted an equally ad-hominin hyperbolic defence of the film long before it even came out, with the new Ghostbusters heralded as some The Fly-esque meld of Martin Luther King, Emmaline Pankhurst and Jesus. The films basic quality (or lack thereof) has been rendered almost irrelevant in the vicious gender war that has sprung up around it; you are either with Ghostbusters until the day you die, or would instead die rather than watch it. The revolution has come, it’s just being snarkily blogged about instead of televised.
After almost a year of this online brinksmanship it almost felt quite strange to finally sit down and watch the damn thing as a standard Hollywood blockbuster rather than as a kind of Rorschach test for sexists. Rather unsurprisingly, rather than reach the respective level of either Citizen Kane or Showgirls, Ghostbusters is instead inoffensive, passably amusing and completely and utterly disposable; just like almost every other blockbuster remake. Remake, however, is putting it a bit strong; this is more of a complete reimagining. Whilst the script is chock-a-bloc with references (both visual and dialogue) to the original, the plotline is entirely Feig’s own. This is perhaps a good thing considering that the original film’s villain was the meddling Environmental Protection Agency, a slightly harder sell in considering climate change. Whilst the film certainly nods at the controversy surrounding its very existence (when reading out their YouTube comments they encounter the constructive criticism of “ain’t no bitches going to hunt no ghosts”) it wisely doesn’t rely on such meta-commentary.
After an incredibly strong opening vignette where an ectoplasmically tormented tour guide played by Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods (whose guided tour of the haunted Aldridge mansion nearly steals the entire film thanks to such deadpan gems as highlighting the mansion’s “anti-Irish fence” and the room where “P.T. Barnum first had the idea to enslave elephants for money”) finds himself staring down the business end of an awful lot of supernatural effluence, we’re introduced our de facto lead Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) who fills the straight-woman role with considerable alacrity. Gilbert is an academic who is only a hair away from achieving tenure at Colombia University, before the ill-timed Amazon debut of a book she co-wrote on the existence of the supernatural threatens to ruin her reputation with her boss (an icy, if criminally underused, Charles Dance). In order to get the book taken off the market she tracks down the co-writer, her ex-childhood best friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who cuts her the deal that if Erin investigates the Aldridge mansion incident alongside Yates and her acutely eccentric lab partner Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) then she’ll take down the book. Ghostly shenanigans ensue and soon tenure is forgotten and the trio are bustin’ with the best of ‘em.
The new Ghostbusters shoots for a far broader style of comedy then the original and for the most part that’s okay; there are plenty of incisive one-liners and a loose riffing quality to the dialogue that will pleasantly familiar to fans of Judd Apatow’s work. The biggest laughs of the film unexpectedly come from Chris Hemsworth’s hunky secretary Kevin, who achieves a level of idiocy that renders simple tasks such as making coffee or answering the office phone into Sisyphean nightmares. Hemsworth, most famous for playing Thor in the Avengers franchise, has never demonstrated his comedic chops to this extent before and the film notably picks up every time he’s on screen.
Unfortunately when he’s not on screen that the issues start to pile up, namely that McCarthy and McKinnon’s characters just aren’t particularly funny. McCarthy in particular seems hamstrung by the film’s PG-13 rating and comes across as toothless compared to the usual all-out assault she brings to her best roles, whilst McKinnon is so quirky that seems like she’d be a better fit in the 90s animated series than the relatively grounded world of the film. Beyond the characters the action sequences were also played disappointingly straight, with none of the humour that made them such stand outs in the original which kills the easy comic momentum of the rest of the film.
Ghostbuster’s biggest problem comes (and here I must be careful to avoid sounding like a certain Breitbart employee) from Leslie Jones’s Patty Tolan, a late addition to the team whose characterisation is depressingly regressive. Jones’s herself performs gamely but the script seems determined to keep her character locked into “sassy” as a be all and end all, with the result that Jones veers perilously close to playing the role of an offensive stereotype of ‘the sassy strong black woman’, the fact that her character is a subway worker rather than a scientist like the other three rubs further salt in the wound). The sharp script helps with some of these character issues (every character gets their fair share of pithy rejoinders) and Wiig is a delight, but realising that my two favourite characters were played by men (Chris Hemsworth and Zach Woods) was something of an unwelcome surprise.
Overall however there’s not a huge amount to actually complain about (excluding the problematic characterisation of Tolan), the flaws stop the film from being as great as the opening fifteen minutes seem to promise, but Ghostbusters is never less than competent. As a blockbuster franchise starter it has a hell of a lot more heart than is normal, it just seems unlikely to make that much of an impact on anyone’s life. Weirdly the most impressive thing about the film is the low key way it approaches its central conceit: This isn’t a story where four women break through the glass ceiling to become ghostbusters, rather it’s as simple as the fact someone needs to capture ghosts and the fact it’s four women rather than men, doesn’t even really rate a mention. Ghostbusters is a comedy that stars women but that fact should be far less interesting than the fact that said women are busting ghosts.