Ghostbusters 3 languished in development purgatory for decades. Many said that it could never be done, but few predicted just how controversial it would be when it finally surfaced.
Seriously, future generations of media students will find copious discussion material in the blow-out around the Ghostbusters reboot. People claimed that their childhoods had been destroyed – people who, I can only presume, spent their childhoods inside a 1980s Bill Murray movie. One of the lead performers was driven off Twitter by bigots. Detractors are paying to see the film so that they can gloat about the lack of people in the cinema. The flick has been labelled a mummified imposter stuffed with PC dogma.
Even the film’s trailer – which, with its emphasis on people falling down or having goop poured over them, was clearly aimed at kids – got itself mercilessly picked apart by online commentators. We have apparently reached a point in media culture where a clip comprising a few minutes’ worth of gags, compiled for promotional purposes, will be treated as an artistic statement in and of itself.
Me? I went to see the film yesterday. I did it less to strike a blow for any side in a culture war, and more because I wanted to see a friggin’ Ghostbusters movie and have a good time.
Over the last few days I rewatched both of the original Ghostbusters films, alongside a few episodes of the Real Ghostbusters cartoon series, to see how well Ghostbusters ’16 stacks up with past instalments of the franchise. My conclusion? Rather well, actually.
I had no prior familiarity with any of the four leads, but I found each of their performances to be great fun with a lot of good chemistry. From a conceptual standpoint, the four characters correspond roughly with the four leads of the original film, albeit each one being given a twist – so, for example, the comically straight-laced engineer Egon has become the wacky and extroverted engineer Jillian. While it would always be risky to completely replace the cast of the first two movies, the new four are worthy successors.
One of the recurring complaints I have heard directed at the film is that all of its male characters are either villains or jokes. This objection strikes me as downright absurd, for two reasons. Firstly, the female characters – with the partial exception of Kristen Wiig’s Erin, who sometimes acts as straight partner to the other three – are also jokes; they are simply better-developed jokes by virtue of being the protagonists. This is, after all, a comedy.
Secondly, the same judgment can be levelled at the original two films. Just about every character throughout both Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II is either a joke or a villain, the only exceptions being Sigourney Weaver’s Dana and Ernie Hudson’s seriously underdeveloped Winston.
(Plus, if we are to complain about misandry in the Ghostbusters franchise, then the scene of Dan Aykroyd being raped by a female spirit in the first film easily tops anything in Ghostbustettes.)
I suspect that this objection derives from Chris Hernsworth’s character, the hunky but inept receptionist Kevin. Certainly, I would have to admit that Kevin shows Homer Simpson-level dim-wittedness that cannot be found in any of the previous films’ characters, not even Harold Ramis’ bumbling Louis (who, with secretary Janine, was obviously an influence on Kevin). He feels more like a cartoon character than a plausible human being.
But hey – the film as a whole takes a more cartoonish approach than its predecessors, which restricted their wackier elements to the occasional set-piece. This is best summed up by comparing the prologue sequences of Ghostbusters ’84 and Ghostbusters ’16: the haunted library scene in the former is played completely straight and could have come out of a conventional horror film, while its equivalent in the latter ends with a goofy guy dangling over a pit of glowing green slime. This is a louder and more colourful Ghostbusters for a generation that apparently prefers its comedy movies to be loud and colourful.
(And let’s not forget that one of the most fondly-remembered parts of the franchise is, literally, a children’s cartoon.)
A similarly inevitable change in emphasis is that the reboot is more action-oriented than the earlier films. Despite starring four guys with laser guns, the first Ghostbusters was not an action movie, and was content to let most of the actual busting occur off-screen. This, indeed, is one of the reasons that it was significant: at a time in which blockbuster films (themselves a relatively new concept in 1984) were expected to be thrillers, actioners or epics, Ghostbusters was a blockbuster comedy.
Ghostbusters ’16, by contrast, fits neatly alongside all the other jokey action fantasy flicks in today’s blockbuster landscape (hello, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Men in Black…) It greatly plays up the action and spectacle, something that is most apparent in a climactic scene where Jillian strides slow-mo through a gaggle of spooks, blasting them with her neon arsenal and leaving a street littered with semi-transparent corpses. The ‘Busters who once captured and contained ghosts are now obliterating them – whether or not this fate is preferable to being trapped in Dan Aykroyd’s basement for eternity is something for the existentialists out there to ponder.
I do have some complaints about the film, although I am pleased to say that they have nothing to do with gender politics.
The big weakness, to me, is the film’s villain, Rowan North, who uses Ghostbuster-esque technology to conjure up spirits. Played by Neil Casey, Rowan owes something to Vigo the Carpathian’s Renfield-like henchman in in Ghostbusters II – but, curiously, he is a henchman with no master. While past Ghostbusters villains had been acolytes of Sumerian gods or ghostly warlords, Rowan is given only the vaguest motivation for his desire to bring about the apocalypse. He seems to have been intended as a caricature of a lonely, misanthropic Internet troll (a common villainous type these days) but the portrayal is too underdeveloped for this to work.
The climactic battle does little to salvage Rowan’s character. The film makes an ill-advised attempt to restage one of the best-loved gags in the original film, the summoning of the Marshmallow Man, in a scene that ends up merely contrived and uninspired. But then, in all fairness, Ghostbusters II also tried a little too hard to top the climax to its predecessor. Perhaps we will just have to accept it as a flaw of the franchise that Mr. Stay-Puft is a hard act to match.
I noticed a few other loose ends in the script. Bill Murray turns up as a sceptical investigator who is established as the new film’s counterpart to Walter “Dickless” Peck, only to be abruptly killed off – a fatality for which the Ghostbusters themselves are partly responsible. The sinister music used in the scene indicates that we are to view this character as a dangerous antagonist, but he comes across as nothing so much as an artefact from an abandoned subplot, one that has been awkwardly reworked to give Murray a cameo.
Another flaw – and this is a common, common flaw where CGI-heavy blockbusters are concerned – is the sense that the director has bitten off more than he can chew once the effects saturate the screen. It is all very well getting a few actors to stage a gag, but when those actors have to work alongside something produced by a team of animators working elsewhere, it is easy for comedic timing to be lost. Come the ghost-laden climax, a few too many visual jokes – such as the heroines blasting a gargantuan spectre in the groin – fall flat.
Every film has its weaknesses, of course. The original Ghostbusters was no exception, with a rushed romantic subplot between Venkman and Dana and a general failure to give Winston anything to do.
I enjoyed myself watching the new Ghostbusters, and I was not the only one: there were twenty-odd people in the cinema with me, mostly teenage girls, and they giggled their way through it. When the dust has settled I believe that the film will be remembered, if not as a classic, then as an acceptable update of a classic.