“Safety Lights are for Dudes!”
I had no idea what to expect going into this new Ghostbusters movie. The vitriol over it during the previous year has been exhausting. Never have I wanted so badly for a movie to be good, but had so little sign as to whether it actually would be. I’m happy to report that this is a ridiculously fun movie. It’s not perfect—my biggest complaint is that the pacing dragged in places. But for the most part, the choices made here were good ones, and I left the theater smiling.
First, a couple of things that might be helpful to know:
(1) It’s a reboot, not a sequel. The events of the first movie didn’t happen in this universe. It’s an entirely new story told in its own way.
(2) I hesitate to call it genderflipped. That implies a one-to-one correlation between the characters of the first movie and the ones in this (i.e. female versions of Ray Stanz and Egon Spengler and so on). That’s not the case: These are four entirely Fnew characters with their own names and personalities, caught up in their own story. This is very much one of the film’s strengths.
The story: Erin (Kristen Wiig) is a physics professor up for tenure at Columbia. She also has a dark past as a paranormal investigator that she’s desperate to keep hidden from her academic superior (who asks if she could perhaps supply a recommendation from a more prestigious institution than Princeton), so she’s deeply unhappy when a book on the paranormal that she co-wrote back in the day shows up for sale on Amazon. This is brought to her attention by a historian from a historic mansion museum which is very probably haunted, and he wants her to find out what’s really going on. She confronts the other co-author of the book, her old but now estranged friend Abby (Melissa McCarthy), who never gave up paranormal investigations. Abby has a new assistant, the rather crazed engineer Jillian (Kate McKinnon). The trio goes to investigate the mansion—and boom, there really is a ghost. Erin’s ecstatic video rant about the event ends up on YouTube, and she’s fired from her job. So are Abby and Jillian. They decide to go into business for themselves, with one primary goal: to catch a ghost and scientifically prove the existence of the paranormal.
Lucky for them, there’s an insane villain in the city who is trying to bring about the apocalypse by building paranormal amplifier devices along ley lines in order to generate excess amounts of paranormal energy and thereby destroy everything. So, you know, lots of ghosts around.
The newly-formed Ghostbusters make several attempts to catch ghosts, refining their equipment along the way, acquiring a fourth member—MTA worker and amateur historian Patty (Leslie Jones)—and a very pretty dolt of a secretary named Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, who continually amazes me with his range). They also have run-ins with the mayor and Homeland Security who are aware that something weird is going on in the city but would rather not admit that they need the help of these super nerds.
The film is a fascinating mash-up of tropes and genres. Ghost story, of course. But also horror, which is something the original movie didn’t do. In the opening scene, a guide at the haunted mansion flees down a rickety staircase into an abandoned basement with no light. The classic, cliché horror movie scenario. To his credit, the guide immediately acknowledges this a stupid thing to do, right before the film’s first ghost attacks him. We also get possessions and haunted mirrors, mannequins come to life, doors that open of their own accord. There are moments when this Ghostbusters is kind of actually scary. Death is on the table, here: people die in this movie, which they didn’t in the first. Mixed into this is the rather intriguing revelation that the Department of Homeland Security appears to have an X-Files-type division handling paranormal activity, that actually seems to get taken seriously by the suits in power. It’s not that they think the Ghostbusters are nuts; they just don’t want them going public. So throw a little supernatural conspiracy thriller into the mix.
This is also a superhero movie, the kind where the heroes develop powers and face down a villain who is oddly a mirror-image of themselves, using much the same technology. Evil guy Rowan is a social misfit, much like our heroes, and it turns out he got his ideas for how to manipulate the paranormal world from the book Erin and Abby wrote together. The climactic battle isn’t just good guy v. bad guy, it’s a battle of philosophies and worldviews: Do you use your powers to help people, or to make the world burn? And like all classic superhero movies, the battle very nearly destroys New York City, with Avengers-levels of mayhem. Extensive use of modern SFX means the climactic battle features the main characters duking it out with hundreds of ghosts in Times Square. The Ghostbusters have an array of weapons, which means they can really whale on the ghosts in outright fistfights. One might feel let down that this isn’t as simple and clever as the climactic battle in the original film. But I’d point out—this film is working with a different toolbox of tropes.
Running through it all is a really lovely layer of comedy, the kind of comedy where one of the best running gags has to do with a carton of wonton soup. The charm of the four actresses really carries the thing. They have great chemistry and it’s impossible not to love them all.
Like a lot of remakes, the film walks a fine line of nostalgia for its predecessor, between homage on the one hand and straight-up fan service on the other. It incorporates a whole slew of recognizable story beats: being brought to the mayor’s office, arriving at a beautiful art-deco building which they will proceed to destroy in attempting to capture a ghost, the choosing of the form of the final baddie. And everybody gets a cameo. Everybody. Including a bust of Harold Ramis as Egon outside Erin’s office. (The whole film is dedicated to Ramis, as well it should be.) Ernie Hudson’s cameo didn’t show up until close to the end, and I was afraid he wasn’t going to get one, but then he did as Patty’s Uncle Bill, and the sigh of affection that passed through the audience at that moment was heartwarming. And I’m determined to believe that the climactic battle, in which the villain takes the form of a giant version of the ghost from the Ghostbuster’s logo and marches through the city, is an homage to the opening credits of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. And yes, there’s an after credits Easter egg that may turn out to be important . . .
And now, let’s talk about sexism. Safety lights are on!
A few months ago, a handful of the angry guys who think they own pop culture loudly announced how the new Ghostbusters had ruined their childhoods and they weren’t going to stand for it. And it wasn’t because all the characters were women, oh no. It’s just that Hollywood remade something that shouldn’t be remade and they had expected a sequel with the original actors and now weren’t getting that, never mind that we no longer have Harold Ramis with us and that the second Ghostbusters movie was objectively terrible, and—
No, actually. They’re angry because of the girl cooties. You want to know how I know it really is all about gender? Because these guys didn’t make a peep when the completely ill-advised Robocop remake came out a couple of years ago. And really, could Hollywood do anything more offensive to pop culture than release a PG-13 version of Robocop? My God, what’s the point? The original was brutal and savage, one of the best SF satires of all time, and one of the definitive movies of the ’80s. A remake was a horrible idea. I assume it was terrible—I didn’t go see it, because angry guys on the Internet aren’t the only ones who can decide not to see a movie out of sheer unmitigated pique.
Now, if the Robocop remake had been genderflipped . . . say, Officer Ann Lewis being made into the cyborg . . . I bet we would have heard something about ruined childhoods then.
(Aside: I am now so desperate for a genderflipped Robocop remake I can hardly see straight.)
I like for filmmakers to have a really good reason to remake a classic, beyond pandering to an undiscerning audience. Making all the main characters women is a really good basis for a remake. Why? Because Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin never made a movie together.
Backing up for a minute: The original Ghostbusters wasn’t just a great SF comedy. It was part of a string of ground-breaking comedies made by the early classes of alumni of Saturday Night Live: Animal House, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and so on.
The first SNL class included three women, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman. And during that early-’80s stretch, none of them made movies with the visibility and reach of those of their SNL colleagues. (I should also note that black comedian Garrett Morris, also part of the original class, never got a major movie either. Since then they’ve all had really solid careers in other areas like TV and voiceover work, except for Radner, who passed away far too young in 1989.)
Maybe Radner and Curtin never made a movie together because they hated each other in real life. Maybe they just didn’t want to. Or maybe systemic sexism meant they never got the chance? (Curtin has gone on record saying that John Belushi did not think women were funny and would actively sabotage sketches written by women.1)
For better or worse, for the last forty years American comedy films have drawn on the cast of SNL for talent. For the last ten or so years, a slew of women alumna of SNL have been making ground-breaking, women-led comedy: Tiny Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, etc. Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon are current cast members. Ghostbusters isn’t just a remake—it’s part of a movement, and it’s following in the tradition of its predecessor by taking advantage of an amazing pool of experienced talent. One can argue that director Paul Feig’s string of women-centric comedies (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) laid the groundwork for the new Ghostbusters in much the same way the string of SNL alumni-led comedies paved the way for the original. It was time for an all-woman Ghostbusters, guys. Or something like it. It was way past time.
Imagine for a moment if the playing field had been level back in the day. Imagine the kind of women-led comedies we might have gotten. Imagine if some of the comedies we did get had included women characters as more than props and foils. Imagine, just for a moment, if the original Ghostbusters had starred women. Like, a Ghostbusters starring Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and oh, just for kicks, let’s say Goldie Hawn and Whoopi Goldberg. God, just think of it.
Radner and Curtin never made a movie together, when in a perfect world they very probably should have. Which is why movies like this Ghostbusters, why this current collection of women comedians who are making movies together and making such a big splash are so very, very important. The sexist vitriol is nothing more than the usual harassment that’s always tried to keep girls out of the club house.
Apart from all that, the bottom line is this: I had a really good time watching Ghostbusters, in which four really quirky, awesome, atypical characters got to kick some serious ass and have a joyful time doing so.
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