It would be easy to dismiss Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters as just another 21st century remake. The sentiment behind the film is similar to other recent reimaginings: tap into viewers’ childhood nostalgia by updating familiar material with modern actors, special effects and pop culture references, creating a work that bridges two generations of moviegoers. It’s the rationale behind the redos of fellow ‘80s genre hits Robocop, Red Dawn and The Thing (technically a prequel, but structured like a remake). But Feig’s film, while ostensibly ticking each of these boxes, actually seems more concerned with telling its own story, separate from the narrative of the original and centred on newly created characters. There appears to be a deliberate attempt made to distance this version from its predecessor, both narratively and thematically – key plot points are changed, and the ultimate message is markedly different. Despite this, the film still feels beholden to its progenitor, referentially and reverentially, as if it still wants to pay homage to a film it’s desperately trying not to mimic. It’s a bit of a high-wire act, and occasionally it slips and falls.
Like the 1984 original, Feig’s update focuses on a team of four spook-stoppers (three white, one black; three scientists, one ‘civilian’; that the lone black member remains the lone non-scientist is a cause for concern, but malicious intent is doubtful) who take up shop in New York City and begin fielding calls from locals experiencing paranormal phenomena. Though one could easily equate each of the new cast members with the old, Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold are not so concerned with a one-to-one comparison. Instead, a conscious effort is made to define and distinguish the characters, both from each other and from their forebears. Kristen Wiig is not the wisecracking smartass that Billy Murray embodied so well, but a deadpan, straight-laced physics professor seeking tenure. Melissa McCarthy, playing her former colleague, echoes the youthful enthusiasm of Dan Aykroyd but is more frenetically passionate than excitably childish. Kate McKinnon is even weirder than Harold Ramis, but is more of a hands-on inventor type, less scientist than engineer. And Leslie Jones needs only to play her usual bombastic type to differentiate herself from Ernie Hudson, who barely made an impression over two films.
But if the characters are pleasingly distinctive, then the plot, unfortunately, follows the same old beats of the original: three scientists are kicked out of academia, forcing them to make it on their own in the private sector. Recruiting an additional member, they soon make a name for themselves as spectral hunters, just as a plan to destroy the world through an interdimensional portal is unveiled, forcing the Ghostbusters into action to save the day. However, there are cursory narrative differences. Largely dealing with the foursome’s attempts to legitimize themselves in the face of so many skeptics, the film does, at least, posit that women in 2016 have a much harder time convincing the (male-dominated) bureaucracy of supernatural happenings than men in 1984. And there’s probably a thinkpiece or two to be written on the character of Rowan (Neil Casey), a lonely (white, male) weirdo who slings misogynistic insults at the ‘busters and eventually reveals himself to be an apocalypse nut. In the wake of so much chauvinistic hate for the female-driven film over the past year, it’s not hard to read his character as a stand-in for the so-called “Ghostbros.” But by the time the CGI-heavy climax rolls around, with an ominous cloud gathering over an art deco skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan and a towering, marshmallow-white figure stomping through the streets, it’s hard not to see the similarities.
It’s where the film differs from the original that it stands out. Feig is known for his loose, improvisational style – coming from the Judd Apatow directorial school, after all – and his freewheeling approach to comedic filmmaking is a far cry from Ivan Reitman’s more grounded take. Feig is happy to allow his talented stars (all of whom have ties to sketch comedy) to ad-lib wildly, while Reitman seemingly only gave free rein to Bill Murray; the result is a far more lax and disconnected work, even if the demands of summer blockbusterdom make it Feig’s most structured film by a mile. Likewise, the inclusion of Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, as the team’s dopey secretary Kevin is a stroke of comic genius missing from the original (Annie Potts was funny, but she wasn’t dumb), as the strapping Hemsworth proves surprisingly adept at both physical slapstick and verbal farce. But it’s really the four leads, and their chemistry, which sets the film apart – even more than its predecessor, it’s primarily a story about friendship, and female friendship specifically. Refreshingly, there’s no discussion of boyfriends or husbands or romance at all, just four women bonding over common interests and shared ambitions. That, more than anything, is radical.
Ultimately, though, the film proves regressive by just how indebted to the iconography of the original series it remains. Most of the primary cast members of the 1984 film – save for Harold Ramis, who died in 2014, and Rick Moranis, who retired in 1997 – make cameo appearances, and there are plentiful callbacks to the most famous lines and scenes. No less than three cover versions of the title song appear on the soundtrack, and a post-credits scene (now seemingly a requirement for every franchise) links the narrative continuity back to that first, most popular film (Ghostbusters II is largely ignored here). It is here that the movie falters, even as it proves more crowd-pleasing than ever: by explicitly tying the 2016 remake back to the original, it undoes all of the work to distinguish the film as a new and fresh franchise starter. Ghostbusters is not a quintessential movie series on quite the same level as Star Wars or Indiana Jones, and yet by treating the original film as a monolithic text of an equivalent order, the remake necessarily suffers by comparison.
FAN/FIC Rec: Celebrate the Me Yet to Come by Vera (Mature, F/F, Holtzbert, 6K words) She is deeply strange and strangely deep. She looks in the void and the void blinks first. This is how Jillian Holtzman makes herself.