It’s hard to know what to say at this point about Ghostbusters. It’s a light, fluffy summer flick that has become a barometer on feminism and internet culture; it’s spawned think pieces on the film’s relationship to Hillary Clinton and what it says about contemporary problems in internet movie ratings. Fears are rampant, as you probably have heard, that childhoods will be forever ruined. The situation can be nicely summed up by the fact that this is a movie about a bunch of women who fight green-slime-spewing ghosts with friendship and with science, and the New York Times review is entitled “Girls Rule. Women are Funny. Get Over It.” There is a lot of baggage tied up with this film and its reception.
There are plenty of places to read all about that. For the most part, I’m not going to get into it here. Not because I don’t think it’s a conversation worth having – I do! But (a) that’d be a separate article and (b) in a lot of ways the MRA aversion to the movie is tired and unsurprising. Mindy Kaling predicted it almost five years ago. Of course a subset of guys on the internet are furious that Ghostbusters is now Lady Ghostbusters and that everything will be ruined. So let’s just take a look at the movie in its own right. It’s much more interesting, both in what it does right and what it doesn’t.
Caveat: I’ve never seen the 1984 Ghostbusters (I know! I’m so sorry!). I have no earthly idea how this reboot measures up to the original. But I’m not sure it matters. Ghostbusters 2016 is a Paul Feig movie, and that’s it’s defining feature. Take Bridesmaids, get rid of the romantic relationships, and add ghosts and Kate McKinnon as a deranged particle physicist, and you get a solid impression of what this movie is going to entail.
Let’s start with the good. It’s funny. This sort of movie lives or dies on whether it makes you laugh, and Ghostbusters is funny. There’s not a moment that stands out as classic, but it’s charming and loads of fun. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this comes from the cast. Leslie Jones is a ball of energy, taking a character that could have fallen into caricature and making her lovely, and funny, and dynamic. Melissa McCarthy probably has the least to work with, but her comic timing is perfect. Kristen Wiig is wonderful, bringing a hint of vulnerability to her character that provides some much-needed emotional grounding. It’s a bit reminiscent of her performance in the The Skeleton Twins. And thank god for national treasure Kate McKinnon, who absolutely steals this movie (the audience around me spontaneously burst into applause when her name appeared in the credits). If you don’t love her yet, you will. You’re late to the bandwagon, but there is plenty of room.
Ghostbusters also deserves credit for managing to create four distinct and interesting female characters. None of them are defined by their romantic relationships (Kristen Wiig lusts after the beautiful, dumb secretary played by Chris Hemsworth, but it’s a side joke rather than a real character element). They all have clear desires, personalities, and quirks. They are never petty or jealous, they never complain about their hair or their diets or their inability to find boyfriends. It’s a low bar, but it’s amazing how exciting and refreshing it is when a film manages to clear it.
It’s also fascinating to see a summer blockbuster that positions the psychological effects of gaslighting as its emotional core. I know! I was not expecting that either! The whole Ghostbusters team faces the problem of having to fight for any sort of legitimacy or respect – probably par for the course when you’re a group of paranormal investigators. But it’s cast into a new light through Kristen Wiig’s character, who is revealed to have had a long history of people telling her she’s genuinely crazy for stating things she knows to be true. It’s an extreme example of the phenomenon – the thing she is fighting for is the existence of ghosts – but it works. Wiig’s character alters her entire personality in an effort to gain respect and legitimacy, contorting herself into a position that appears more socially acceptable. It seems to take such a toll on her that it was genuinely moving when she does see a ghost, and receives validation that – no matter what everyone had told her – she wasn’t crazy. It’s an experience so many women have to go through at one point that it’s nice to see it depicted on the big screen. And it serves as a nice reminder that representation doesn’t stop with just tossing a bunch of women into a cast.
That said, I don’t want to give the movie too much credit. The bad guy of the film is underdeveloped and cartoonish-ly clichéd, an entitled nerd with a martyrdom complex. As you could guess, he decides to wreak some vengeance by destroying the world with ghosts. I don’t expect a masterfully nuanced antagonist in my Ghostbusters reboots, but it does feel like a missed opportunity. It’s not a bad idea for a villain, and seems nice and meta for this movie in particular, but it never really makes it past the first draft. He’s not dynamic enough to be a good character in his own right, and he’s not given enough time or depth to make any insightful points. He’s just a slightly-underwhelming strawman.
The thematic consistency of the movie can also be a bit patchy. The relationship between Abby (McCarthy) and Erin (Wiig) is a focal point of the movie in early scenes: they clearly care deeply about each other, but there’s lingering resentment due to Erin’s decision to leave ghost-hunting for scientific respectability at Columbia. There’s a lot to be explored in that dynamic, but it’s missing from the central hour of the movie. Because of this, it feels unearned when their history gets invoked in the movie’s climax.
Beyond that, the whole third act of the movie is underwhelming. Mirroring recent blockbusters like Batman vs. Superman or Age of Ultron, everything culminates in a big battle where something supernatural attacks New York, smashes down some buildings, and horrific amounts of property damage ensue. That’s not necessarily a terrible way to end a movie, and there’s an unexpected costuming choice that gives the final battle a weird sense of whimsy. But it does mean that the humor and relationships and themes that built the movie largely fall to the wayside in favor of GHOST BATTLES.
Ghostbusters, for all the discourse around it, is just a pretty-good summer movie. It’s a fantastic cast paired with a pretty funny script. It has some good ideas, but can be a little lazy with their execution. But I’m also really happy that it exists? For all its flaws, I’m really delighted that there are four women co-leading a summer blockbuster sci-fi comedy with no romantic subplots. Please do more of this, Hollywood. I will keep giving you my money.
- I had some reservations about the fact that Leslie Jones’s character, Patty, was both the only black Ghostbuster and the only one who wasn’t a science genius. This doesn’t really play into the story at all, since after the first ten minutes McKinnon’s character gets most of the science spotlight. But the dynamic still seems… not great.
- I was happy that the theater where I saw this movie was jam-packed and that the crowd seemed to enjoy it. I hope this movie makes all the money.
- Chris Hemsworth’s character is ridiculous and charming, and he’s surprisingly great in the role. And speaking of Hemsworth: please stay through the credits if you have any interest in seeing Thor lead Mike McClintock and Omar Little in an extended dance routine (if you don’t have interest in this, please, think about the choices that have lead you to that point).
- I want to finish off with a quote from a piece by Harold Ramis’s daughter. It’s a really interesting essay, detailing her different feelings about the reboot, particularly after her father’s death. It’s good advice for any fandom:
In truth, it has been the other kind of crazy fans — the people who adore and obsess over all things Ghostbusters — that have really turned me around. Since my dad’s death, I have gone on many late night missions down the rabbit hole of #HaroldRamis and #Ghostbusters fandom. What a world! People have generated amazing, hilarious, and sometimes bizarre artwork depicting the Ghostbusters in hieroglyphics, needlepoint, graffiti, massive tattoos, digital renderings, caricature, and collage. Self-described “Ghostheads” have created groups all over the country (I see you, South New Jersey Ghostbusters!) who get together in full regalia, deck their cars out like the Ecto 1, and bring their love for the movie to Halloween parades, science fairs, paranormal conventions, children’s hospitals, and ComicCons worldwide. These groups are not just about re-enacting scenes from the movies or dressing up like the original characters. They have made their own stories, their own gear and their own identities as Ghostbusters. This community grew out of the seed of the original films but has taken on a life of its own far beyond anything the creators could have imagined, and it’s beautiful. So let’s take a page out of the Ghostheads’ book and not restrict the Ghostbusters universe from extending as far and wide as it possibly can. Let’s be generous and make room for all of the visions and interpretations of what Ghostbusters can be.
Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures