Who You Gonna Call?
As moviegoers, we’re conditioned to sigh in resignation whenever we hear about a remake. “Oh, God, there are no original ideas in Hollywood anymore,” we say, as we roll our eyes so far back we can see our brains. But remakes have been a part of American film since the beginning. Cecil B. DeMille made The Straw Man in 1914, remade it in 1918, then remade it again in 1931. If remakes were an issue for you, you probably should have started complaining about them 98 years ago.
It bears mentioning that just because a remake exists, it’s not simply an inferior copy of the original. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing is leagues better than the original. Only someone who’s clinically insane would claim that David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly is a lesser effort compared to the original. Sure, there’s garbage remakes, like the ill-advised reboots of Total Recall and Robocop. But when judging the quality of a remake, you have to do it based on who’s involved.
So here’s the conclusion we have to draw from that. Nothing is sacred…and that’s okay! When it comes to movies, nothing should be sacred, because by placing a beloved film on a pedestal, we rob talented filmmakers of the chance to put their own spin on it. Besides, going back to our examples, just because the remake of Robocop is stupid and pointless, there’s no way it can retroactively affect the quality of the original or do harm to your cherished memories.
That brings me to Ghostbusters. There are some people that believe 1984’s Ghostbusters is an untouchable and unassailable classic of modern film. That belief even leeches over into 1989’s Ghostbusters II and the numerous animated television series. As a result, they believe this franchise is gold-plated in terms of quality.* But when they heard that a remake was coming down the pike and that four women would be the leads, a chunk of fans lost their damn fool minds. The trailer was the most downvoted in YouTube’s history. Fans of the original passionately refused to see it. Like flat-earthers or Trump supporters, these folks don’t let little things like logic get in the way of their convictions. That’s a pity because 2016’s Ghostbusters is light, funny, and pretty good overall.
We meet Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physicist at Columbia University. She’s sharp, and she’s on the cusp of getting tenure. The only problem is that, years ago, she co-wrote a book on ghost hunting. The book has been republished and is showing up on Amazon. It’s the kind of thing that could bring her dreams of tenure crashing down. She does the only thing she can do, which is to beg her co-author and former best friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) to remove all traces of their book.
She finds Abby working as a paranormal researcher at a downscale college. Alongside Abby is Jillian Holzmann (Kate McKinnon), a fascinatingly weird nuclear engineer. Abby and Holzmann have made significant progress in designing equipment to handle paranormal phenomena. The three women become involved in a ghost hunt at a historic New York mansion, and this kicks off an explosion of spectral occurrences. Along the way, they’re joined by Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a friendly MTA worker** and amateur NYC historian. They also hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their receptionist, a man who is both incredibly handsome and bafflingly stupid.
But we wouldn’t have a movie without an antagonist, and ours is Rowan North (Neil Casey), a bitter nerd who is harnessing ectoplasmic energy in order to destroy the Big Apple. The newly-formed Ghostbusters must get to the bottom of Rowan’s supernatural scheme and save the city because that’s how these things work.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering two things.
- Is it funny?
- Is it good?
First, it’s very funny. Very, very funny. We all know that humor is subjective,*** especially in this day and age. But the majority of the jokes here, as surreal as they occasionally get, are rooted in character and context. Even throwaway bits, like a tour guide played by Zach Woods talking about an “anti-Irish” fence, work well because they’re connected to specific behavior. While there may not be any lines here as instantly iconic as, “He slimed me,” there are comedic moments that easily go toe-to-toe with the original.
Is it good? Yeah, mostly. Director Paul Feig, along with co-screenwriter Katie Dippold, has been honing a unique comic voice for a while now. Last year’s Spy was a terrific comedy, and much like Ghostbusters, it was saddled by a mediocre trailer that effectively hid what a solid film it was. Feig and Dippold make films about strong and relatable women. While a lesser filmmaker would have saddled Erin or Abby with a dull romantic subplot, the emotional spine here is their friendship. Erin turns her back on the paranormal and sprints towards academia after the reaction of her book, while Abby becomes more of a true-believer. The film charts the way these two reclaim their friendship, and it’s refreshing seeing a movie where the main characters genuinely like each other. Feig is able to efficiently balance the laughs, character work, and a few good scares.
The cast, overall, does good work, and they all play effectively to their strengths. Feig seems to bring out the best in Melissa McCarthy, and instead of playing her usual pottymouthed slob, she’s charmingly earnest. Wiig’s Erin is the straight woman mostly, but she mines laughs from pent-up desperation. As Patty, Leslie Jones brings energy and infectious joy to every scene.
But there are two performances in particular that make this movie a must-see. Mostly known as the God of Thunder for Marvel, Chris Hemsworth possesses formidable comedy chops, and he’s been itching to use them. His Kevin is astonishingly dumb, and better yet, he has no idea how truly stupid he is. Whether Kevin is showing off his questionable skills as a graphic artist, or attempting to master the difficulties of answering the phone, he’s the second most entertaining character in the film.
However, Kate McKinnon’s Holzmann is genius. Like Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool or Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack, Holzmann is a character that’s so unique, she immediately becomes legendary. She’s the tech geek of the Ghostbusters, constantly fiddling and tweaking the hardware to learn new applications. Mischievious, brilliant, hilarious, and a little dangerous, Holzmann fools around with wildly dangerous equipment because it’s fun. Even when she’s lurking in the background of a scene, you can’t take your eyes off her, and she gets huge laughs continuously. Her character pushes things to the next level, and Feig uses her precisely the right amount.
So what’s not so good? The film starts off so strong, but by the third act, the energy starts to get overwhelmed by too much CGI. While I love the concept of flipping the bird towards haters by making the villain one of them, Rowan North is a pretty uninspired bad guy. Yes, he’s convinced of his own superiority, and yes, he wants to use an army of spooks to exact revenge. So what? It’s as if Feig and Dippold spent so much time honing their leads, and they remembered at the last possible minute that there needed to be an antagonist. Also, some of the cameos are clunky, and the theme song by Missy Elliott and Fall Out Boy kind of sucks.
Really, none of that matters. For everything that doesn’t work, there’s so much more that does. These Ghostbusters are solid, and this film effectively riffs on the original and creates its own thing. For those willing to engage it with an open mind, they’ll be rewarded with a big slice of goofy summer entertainment.
*It’s not gold-plated, or even bronze-plated. The original is a classic, but Ghostbusters II is a lazy and shameless cash-grab. No wonder Bill Murray wanted nothing to do with making the proposed Ghostbusters III.
**Patty is apparently the first friendly employee in the history of the MTA.
***Some pseudo-Men’s Right’s Activists have tried to claim, with a straight face, that Chris Hemsworth’s dopey Kevin is a character that’s actually sexist towards men. That…is just adorable.