Ghostbusters (2016)

For whatever reasons, call it fate, call it karma, call it creative bankruptcy, I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that we were destined to get a Ghostbusters remake. It’s a real shame that the dialogue around the Ghostbusters remake released in 2016 was tainted by misogyny and general vitriol from armchair critics and trogloditic neckbeards that dwell in the deepest, dankest corners of the interwebs, because it was a genuinely mediocre summer blockbuster that in most other universes probably would have have been the start of a movie franchise. Or at least, some more marketable merchandise that would have helped grease the wheels for all those involved for a little longer.

I remember being pretty sour on the general concept of a remake of the 1984 cult classic Ghostbusters. Admittedly, it has to do at least in part with the fact that this was a beloved film from my childhood. I grew up watching Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II as well as the animated The Real Ghostbusters. To this day, I will still sometimes find myself randomly singing quietly to myself or in my head the Ghostbusters theme song, or the rap song from the end of Ghostbusters II, a movie from a more civilized time when every film got the pop-rap song it deserved to play during its end credits. (Too hot to handle, too cold to hold…)

More than my own childhood recollections, though, the magic of the original Ghostbusters is something special. There’s a certain combination of elements that, when added to the primordial broth, achieved that rare alchemy that resulted in that rarest of cinematic beasts: a Classic. The concept, the script, the actors, the director, and a million other stars aligned for that one perfect moment that was immortalized on celluloid. Now, my worldview is fundamentally non-essentialist; in the context of film, that means that I don’t think that what makes a film great can’t be recreated or that lightning can’t be captured in a bottle twice. Remakes and/or reboots and/or decades-later continuations aren’t destined to be utter dumpster fires like the 2014 remake of Robocop or mediocre and pale, if still mildly entertaining, imitations like the 2012 Total Recall remake. The 2001 release of Oceans 11 is the perfect example of a remake surpassing the original, and the frustratingly short-lived Ash vs. Evil Dead series, while not a film, showed that it’s possible to deconstruct and reconstruct what fans loved about the original content and characters decades later. 

The 2016 version of Ghostbusters seems to fall squarely in the same camp as Total Recall: it seemed as deliberately anodyne in its execution as it did ambivalent to its predecessor. In fact, it was a little disappointing just how average the film was, in the sense that it didn’t live down to all of the unwarranted negative hype it got online. It wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t the train wreck that so many people claimed it was. I guess that’s part of the toxicity that’s par for the course in online discourse these days.

It seemed obvious at the time, and even more so in retrospect, that all of that vitriol was of course rooted in sexism. Beyond the fact that a beloved childhood classic was getting the Hollywood blockbuster meat grinder treatment, for some reason there are some men out there who just couldn’t stand it that the four main leads would be played by women instead of men in the remake. It saddens me to think that I have anything in common with these dickheads beyond a common set of genitalia, but I guess even Hitler owned a dog, so I don’t feel too bad. What these pool-pissers did manage to do, however, was taint the entire dialogue surrounding the Ghostbusters remake so that the counter-argument from supporters of the film to any criticism of the film was that that criticism had a misogynistic or sexist motivation behind it. I wasn’t particularly stoked to hear of the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, but it wasn’t because it was being headlined by women. I hated the fact that Robocop and Total Recall were remade, and if those remakes of two of my favourite films ever made could have been distilled down into ice cream flavours they would have been “hot garbage” and “plain oatmeal,” respectively.

I’m not a fan of Paul Feig’s films in general, but about the one thing I’m sure I like about his pantheon of films so far is that he has consistently created more opportunities for female actors in a still largely male-dominated industry in cinematic genres that were historically male-led. Of all the criticisms to level against the 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters, the casting is certainly not one of them. Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are both incredibly talented comedic and dramatic performers, and they’re both going to shine regardless of the calibre of the project they’re in. Honestly, I haven’t seen much (or anything, really) with Kate McKinnon or Leslie Jones, both of whom are SNL alumni, because I haven’t seen an entire episode of Saturday Night Live in probably well over a decade to be honest, but they were both on point as well. 

The real issue with the Ghostbusters remake isn’t that it tried to appropriate too much from the original, it’s that it didn’t hew closely enough. There’s an old adage that good writers borrow but great writers steal. Paul Feig and company did not take this to heart, as the final product seemed more like a mish-mash of ideas pitched in a Hollywood boardroom brainstorming session. Not necessarily a bad thing, if they had decided whether they wanted to be an homage to the original or go in an entirely new direction. Not necessarily a bad thing, if they wanted to walk the fence line and be a little bit of both. All of these kinds of wrinkles can be smoothed over if the creative minds in control of the whole shebang have a unifying idea or concept to tie the whole thing together. Which Feig et al. didn’t. Which is why the 2016 Ghostbusters remake had no real voice of its own and nothing really interesting to engage the audience in a lasting way.

There was just a fundamental misunderstanding about what contributed to the charm of the original Ghostbusters film. I think director Paul Feig may have been one of those who bought too much into the myth that Ghostbusters had no script and that Bill Murray just ad-libbed the entire movie in the course of an afternoon. Yes, there was a decent amount of improvisation, especially in the part of Bill Murray, but it was all built upon the foundation of a solid, detailed script that firmly established the characters and plot

At the heart of the film, underlying all of the comedy and memorable jokes, was a deceptively simple premise. Ghostbusters is ultimately and primarily a story of entrepreneurship. It’s about three men who were fired from their cushy jobs at a university and decide to start their own business. That business just happens to be catching ghosts. The first half of the original film is precisely about the vagaries of starting a new business. Ray (Dan Akroyd), Egon (Harold Ramis), and Venkman (Murray) have to leverage their personal assets to raise enough capital to lease a business space, acquire equipment, hire staff, and launch a marketing campaign to dry and drum up business. And when the business catches on, it’s not glamorous work. The ghostbusters are essentially exterminators, helping people with paranormal infestations instead of those of the insect or rodent variety. In fact one of the main conflicts of the entire story is butting heads with a regulatory agency, in this case the EPA, over concerns about potential environmental contamination.

This is also what makes the climax of the 1984 Ghostbusters so compelling. The heroes of the story that the citizens of New York were cheering on as they went to save the world weren’t specially trained military personnel, secret agents, or caped crusaders. The fate of the world was in the hands of a bunch of blue collar workers who got winded walking up a couple flights of stairs. The humour came from the juxtaposition of these extraordinary events being handled by these ordinary people. Compare this with the final battle in the remake where the lead characters are suddenly pulling out moves like they’ve been secretly studying martial arts for years despite no previous indication that any of them were particularly physically inclined. They just sort of become action heroes, apropos of nothing, and it’s exactly as impactful as it sounds.

The 2016 Ghostbusters remake completely ignored this most fundamental aspect of the original, to its own detriment. In this version, Erin Gilbert (Wiig) and Abby Yates (McCarthy) are ostracized academics much like their counterparts in the original, but in this instance, the focus is a book they had written years earlier that served as treatise on the supernatural. So instead of the narrative focus being on entrepreneurship, it’s on these two characters that have something to prove to the academic and scientific establishment. This might have been an interesting take if the filmmakers had found a way to use that premise as a foundation for the plot and humour or if it had been used to inform the plot or characters.

Instead, the new Ghostbusters film focused not on plot and character at all but on the improvisation, which was ingrained in the legend of the original. According to Chris Hemsworth, who played the ghostbusters’ intellectually challenged  receptionist, there were hours upon hours of each scene shot with all of the actors just ab-libbing different lines and exchanges. In fact, in an interview he gave, he specifically mentioned that the script was intentionally left incomplete before filming, in keeping with Paul Feig’s directorail sensibilities.

The problem with this approach is glaringly apparent in the final product. All of the actors involved in the Ghostbusters remake are undoubtedly funny, and some of the jokes on their own are funny, but there’s no context for any of them. The characters aren’t clearly defined, and so none of the jokes are anchored by having them align with the characters motivations or traits, which also aren’t clearly defined. Watching the movie, it feels like everybody’s trying to be funny all the time, which is essentially the same as nobody being funny any of the time. Every character seems to be defined by the same character trait which is just saying or doing whatever outrageous thing pops into their head at that moment. It’s the acting equivalent of mugging for the camera, and it’s just exhausting when everybody’s doing it constantly with no structure or context.

With Ghostbusters, Paul Feig seems to have forgotten one of the fundamentals of comedy: the straight man (or straight woman). With a comedy ensemble, there needs to be some grounding, somebody who maintains composure in the face of the ridiculous, preposterous, and otherwise hilarious, even if that role is passed among characters between scenes. In this case, when everybody’s trying to be funny in every scene, its not only ineffective, it’s chaotic: human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria! One of the reasons the jokes and gags landed so consistently in the original is because they made sense in the context of the scene, narrative, and characters that were clearly defined ahead of time and not expected to be improvised completely on the spot. Bill Murray improvised a lot in the original Ghostbusters movie, yes, but in a way that made sense for his character, and the other characters reacted in ways that made sense to their characters, oftentimes as the straight man for Murray to play off of.

It really is a shame that with the talent involved that the 2016 Ghostbusters remake focused so, so much on the improv and not on the premise and fully realized characters that would have provided the framework necessary for effective improv. Instead it ended up being an OK entry in a pantheon of bombastic, summer popcorn flicks that offer a mild distraction instead of speaking out with a new voice or remixing genre tropes in any meaningful way. In a way, though, it’s a type of progress in and of itself. Men have been given ample opportunities to succeed or fail in Hollywood for a long time; it’s empowering that women are being given the same chances to succeed or fail or, in the case of Ghostbusters, reach the not-nearly-as-dizzying heights of mediocrity in film that have largely been monopolized by men since the advent of that little invention known as the motion picture.