Here is what I knew about Ghostbusters prior to this weekend: there are proton packs, one shouldn’t cross the streams, there’s a bit with a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the cartoon (in which Slimer was mascot) came on before Digimon, and if the song was playing that meant they were going to break out the smoke machines at the local roller rink.
Yes, despite my love for supernaturally-tinted 80s movies and a frankly alarming number of viewings of The Blues Brothers and What About Bob?, I managed to go 26 years without ever quite making time for the original Ghostbusters – I’d remember that I’d been meaning to watch it only to find that the copy from the library had been stolen, or it had been removed from Netflix the week prior, and it was never enough of an urgent concern to pay money for. That might make me the ideal experimental viewing audience for the new reboot.
Or it’s possible that I am not a True Fan, and that my opinion is completely invalid at best and propaganda at worst – because I liked it, you see. But let’s stave off that inescapable cultural context just for a moment, though, and look at the movie on its own merits.
The film opens with Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), who is trying her hardest to look respectable and wrest tenure from the stuffed shirts at Columbia University. That’s dashed pretty much immediately when she finds out that the book she once co-wrote on the supernatural (and subsequently tried to bury for the sake of said respectability) is suddenly all over Amazon thanks to her co-writer, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Abby is still a dedicated hunter of the paranormal, working with the help of borderline-mad scientist inventor Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon).
Erin agrees to accompany the pair to a supposedly-haunted house in exchange for getting the book taken down, only to get the definitive proof of the supernatural she always wanted. From there it’s pretty much off to the races, as the team fights for funding and recognition and more and more ghosts start showing up around New York under mysterious circumstances (which eventually leads them to their fourth and final team member, the MTA worker and practical New York historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones)).
There’s one thing an ensemble comedy like this has to absolutely nail, and Ghostbusters does it with aplomb: the cast not only has amazing chemistry but an earnest warmth to their relationships, transforming a third act cap that could’ve been absurdly cheesy as written into a genuinely sweet moment. Such is the simple joy of watching these actors interact that even the handful of beaten-into-the-dirt gags (this is yet another movie with SNL actors that should’ve banished the more protracted ad-libbing to the cutting room floor) are almost workable as an inside-joke rapport between characters.
Chris Hemsworth deserves a special shout-out, basically tasked with playing a version of The Producers’ Ulla in the form of Kevin the secretary. I’m not really a fan of the “dumb, attractive character who exists solely to be leered at” thing regardless of gender, but Hemsworth wrings consistent gold out of a very one-note joke, and the film eventually softens the blow by making even Kevin seem like part of the family.
The film isn’t perfect: director Feig is clearly more at home with the character beats than the spectacle, leading to odd pacing in some of the action scenes (we’ve got a lot of “single person reacts to spooky thing, then group reacts, then they take care of it pretty quick-like” going on here, though the climax is properly spectacular and satisfying); the effects waver back and forth between beautiful subtle simplicity (there’s a quick moment of integrated 2D animation that I simply adored) and the occasional “didn’t I see that in that live-action Scooby Doo movie?,” with some jump scares that feel out of place in what’s basically a kid’s movie (particularly alongside far better executed moments of real tension); and, as is the case in pretty much all remakes, some of the more on-the-nose callbacks hit cringey sour notes, reeking more of a lack of confidence than anything else. And yes, that new theme is pretty mediocre at best – a fact that the film seems to know too, because it shows up for all of about two bars in the film proper, and even in the credits is consigned a secondary place after the original song.
But this is a character comedy at the end of the day, and Feig knows how to sell the hell out of this cast. The running time zips by with the simple joy of watching the Ghostbusters learn and grow and struggle, with the secondary cast made of strong supporting players willing to add to the evident love the film was made with. And yes, as you may have heard, McKinnon absolutely steals the show as Holtzmann (even if the studios were terrified of letting the film openly admit that she’s gay). Standing in this comfortable vacuum, I’d say it’s a fun summer movie with a very talented cast, a solid 8/10 that’s well worth checking out if you’d been on the fence.
But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s absolutely no getting around the misogyny-flavored outcry that surrounded the making of this movie. And listen, I know about the resentment that comes with having a beloved story remade – you’ll find no shortage of grumbling around here about how Abrams turned a story about exploration and diplomacy into SHOOTY THINGS GO BOOM. I get it. I even get why a certain swath of audience, once they’ve seen the movie, might not find it to their tastes. But there’s no denying that the backlash here went way, way beyond protectiveness over a childhood fave. And the movie knows it too.
Shaped seemingly from the ground up by the reactions to its production, Ghostbusters has ended up being a movie about women struggling to be heard. The villain is a completely boldfaced commentary on male privilege, opining on how being bullying pushed him into vengeful fantasies while the heroes are constantly beaten down and kicked day in and out and still struggle to do good.
It’s impossible not to notice the trilby hats, the sneering figures of males in power telling the women heroes that their opinion doesn’t count, that nobody cares about them, or that yes these girls have done a real nice job but it’s really for the greater good if they recede into the background and let other (male) characters take credit for things. It’s baked into the movie at every turn, and while it’s the farthest thing from subtle that there could possibly be, I think it’s ultimately to the film’s benefit.
This isn’t a film that needed to be made, after all. It’s a goofy 80s movie with an impassioned cult following that had a mostly-disliked sequel and a threequel that was legendarily dead in the water for decades. It’s a weird pick. But this movie does the work of justifying itself by making its story about something. It becomes a good remake by taking the bare bones of a familiar story and re-contextualizing it within a new framework.
While you could write a movie around a new IP and play to these same thematic beats, it wouldn’t have quite the same oomph of being able to point to the internet on any given day, the vitriolic and often out-and-out threatening remarks, and say “yup, this is not at all an exaggerated reaction.” It might be the smartest move on the script’s part, playing on the viewer’s preexisting knowledge of the franchise to give the characters’ struggles scope. Just as the gatekeeping academics and feds of the movie feel the need to “protect” some legitimacy from the Ghostbusters, so too goes the rhetoric around the film.
And because this film is incapable of existing in a vacuum, I’m going to take the rare extra step of overtly encouraging you to go see it. Not demanding that you rave about it – but it is a mostly successful effort well worth rewarding. And, most of all, because Hollywood is a dumb, myopic beast that can’t see beyond the next box office results and fears leaving the safety of its cave. While it won’t be the end of all things if Ghostbusters fails – there will still be the Steven Universes and Jessica Joneses of the world pushing at the gates, making slow but determined progress – its success could open doors to women-driven comedies, women-led genre movies, actually being greenlit and made outside of Feig and co.’s singular crusade. And if nothing else, it would be really good to see these characters again.
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I remember a while back you wrote about how women rarely get to be mad scientists; how did you find Holtzmann’s character?
I intend to propose marriage to this fictional person at the nearest opportunity.
In all seriousness, Holtzmann is great. She’s a very straight (ha) take on an archetype I adore, that’s never given to female characters. She’s weird and talented but not relegated to the Cutesy Harmless Quirk iteration where the Smart Girl is ultimately passive and strangely disengaged from her work. Holtzmann is a GEEK. She’s dirty and physical and constantly tinkering, and it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem rare until you actually see it. Holtzmann is a gift (I also have headcanons about her being nonbinary, but baby steps).