There’s no way to set Ghostbusters 2016 apart from its controversy. There’s a vocal minority who sees the original as sacred, and they view this iteration as an abomination. On one level, I can sympathize. If someone tried to remake The Graduate or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I would question the wisdom of that decision. Those movies are personal favorites of mine as well as undisputed classics, so remaking them can be seen as a decision made out of avarice, and I am shocked that studios are in the business of making money. And then if you change the dynamics, well then we’re off to the races. Now the film is being turned into a social statement, and heaven forbid art ever make us think about the state of society.
For the people who are opposed to Ghostbusters 2016, there’s nothing I can say that can convince you that Paul Feig’s remake has both a genuine love for the original but also tries to do something new and worthwhile. If you’re someone who’s leaving negative reviews on IMDb or Internet comments sections without having seen the film, then your mind is made up. You can come up with reasons to dismiss this positive review (“He’s part of the feminist agenda!”; “He was paid off!”; “He’s in the pocket of Big Woman!”), and I leave you to it. The only person you’re hurting is yourself because you’re going to miss out on a movie that loves Ghostbusters even more than you claim to.
At times, that love for the original can make the new version sputter a bit as we’re treated to cameos not only from the original cast but also from Slimer and other bits of iconography. The movie is in a constant state of flux as it tries to appease fans of the 1984 film while also trying to build its own world for 2016. Sometimes that leads to awkward moments like trying to explain the design of the iconic logo (although that feels like a symptom of modern moviemaking where everything needs to be explained rather than “Here’s the logo, let’s move on.”), but the film’s heart is in the right place. You can see it the moment you spot the bust of Harold Ramis in the background of a university office.
The movie can sometimes be such a lovefest for the original that it sometimes has difficulty telling its own story. In this new iteration, physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) goes to tell her former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) not to sell a book they co-wrote about paranormal activity since it could hurt Erin’s chances at tenure. But before she can sever all ties with her old partner, she’s intrigued by the prospect of a haunting at an old mansion. With engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in tow, they go and discover that ghosts are real, and they are very pissed off. As the group tries to discover what’s causing the surge in paranormal activity, they join up with MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and cute-but-dumb-as-a-stump receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) to form the Ghostbusters. As they try to track down who’s conjuring up these ghosts, they’re rebuked by the city and presented as frauds, so they also have to fight for their good name.
It’s difficult to be a remake without being a retread. Ghostbusters 2016 is constantly making nods to the original, not only with the aforementioned cameos and bits of iconography, but even with bits of the plot. You have the disgraced scientists plus a layperson as the only defense against the rising tide of angry ghosts; there’s the government getting in the way (in this case it’s the mayor’s office and the Department of Homeland Security rather than the EPA); and you have the heroes being accused of being frauds. In some respects, this is the same Ghostbusters you already know and love.
Where the film shines is when it delves into certain aspects of the original and expands them rather than explains them. I don’t care how proton packs work. I care about fun new gadgets like ghost grenades, proton pistols, the “ghostchipper”, and seeing those devices in action. We all know the original Ghostbusters, so it’s better to elaborate on what we know rather than constantly celebrate the familiar. Familiarity is fine, but originality is better, and the more Feig trusts his own comic sensibilities and his tremendous lead actors, the better the movie fares.
Again, there are going to be some people who can’t get over that the Ghostbusters are now women. Nothing I can say will convince these people that it’s okay that people who lack a Y chromosome are qualified to fight fictional creatures. Also, it may dishearten these people to see that the villain of the piece, Rowan (Neil Casey), so closely resembles how the public at large perceives “Ghostbros”: sad, lonely, pathetic men who are angry at the world. I don’t think Ghostbusters started out making their villain resemble the film’s detractors; it just ended up that way and it’s fitting.
It also adds some humanity to the supernatural aspects, and that humanity helps give Ghostbusters 2016 a distinct personality. Rather than try to fashion “New Venkman”, “New Stantz”, etc. this Ghostbusters tries to stand on its own with its characters, and is largely successful. Instead of repackaging what we know, we’re lucky enough to get new characters played by talented actors who respect the original but are also brave enough to carve out their own space.
For example, while Holtzmann may be physically styled after Egon from the Ghostbusters cartoon show, this is a scene-stealing performance from McKinnon, who is delightfully weird and constantly enthusiastic. Her work as Holtzmann is brimming with energy, and every line delivery is so original and unexpected that it becomes instantly memorable. She also gets the most badass action scene in the film, and that’s saying something in a show-stopping third act where ghosts are running rampant. Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and Hemsworth are all good, but you’ll walk out talking about McKinnon.
Feig does a superb job of building an original world around these delightful new characters. There are times when he’s dragged a little too close to the original and the shackles of franchise filmmaking stop him from being as comically inspired as he was with Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy (R-rated material just suits him slightly better), but he still manages to shine in unexpected ways with Ghostbusters. For example, the film can at times be downright terrifying. If someone reported that Feig was going to do a straight-up horror film, I have no trouble believing he could direct the hell out of it based on what he does with some disturbing imagery here. He never delves too far into horror (this is a comedy, after all), but it’s a welcome dip into a genre that helps provide the remake with its own flavor.
The film also looks remarkable. The art direction absolutely pops off the screen, and the VFX work is top-notch. The original Ghostbusters has almost a working class aesthetic to it (it looks great, but it’s from the age of practical effects), this has a nice, glossy, blockbuster shine to it but doesn’t look fake or hokey. It’s bright, colorful, but also haunting and distinctive. Once again, the more Feig goes his own way rather than staying beholden to the original, the better his film is.
So why not make a new movie? Why not make a film about four female paranormal investigators and call it Ghostgals or something? Well, aside from the fact that it would instantly be dismissed as a Ghostbusters rip-off, why shouldn’t Ghostbusters offer a world in which we can all play in? Some will argue that this just isn’t franchise material, but Feig has proven them wrong. I want to see where these characters go from here. I want to see more paranormal adventures. I want to see more of Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. I want to see Feig, co-writer Katie Dippold, and the cast eviscerate their ill-informed foes. These are the Ghostbusters I want to call.