As a kid, I really loved Ghostbusters. I watched the film every chance I could get growing up. I knew the scenes and could recite all the lines. When I was about ten years old, Fox began showing reruns of The Real Ghostbusters, the animated spinoff series that ran throughout the late ’80s. When my dad finally purchased a Playstation 3 to play his football games, the first and only purchase I made was a copy of Ghostbusters on Blu-Ray. When the original cast returned to voice Ghostbusters: The Video Game, my best friend and I ran out to buy it and stayed up until 6-in-the-morning playing it. Needless to say, I have been a fan for years. And when I heard there was a remake coming that was handing the reigns over to a new generation, even before there was an announcement of the genders, I thought an all-female cast featuring Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy would be incredible. (At the time, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon weren’t really on my radar.) Paul Feig driving the ship sealed the deal for me. But as it turns out, Feig’s direction might be the weakest part of the reboot. Despite Feig’s weak hand at putting together compelling action and slightly lazy screenwriting, the new film has reinvigorated that love I originally felt for the franchise.
In this reboot, esteemed Columbia professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is on the verge of being granted tenure. Unfortunately, a book about paranormal science that she wrote in undergrad with her ex-best friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has surfaced again on Amazon, and it threatens to undermine her credibility as a physics professor. When the curator of a historical museum comes to her for help with a haunting and reveals the book, Erin heads off to confront Abby to save her tenure. She finds Abby at an unaccredited, second-rate university where she has teamed up with an eccentric engineering gearhead named Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) to produce tons of elaborate equipment. Abby finds out about the haunting and agrees to remove the book from Amazon if Erin accompanies them to the mansion to investigate the strange happenings. As you can imagine, the haunting is real, and Erin’s desire for credibility gives way to her true passion: the paranormal. After leaving their respective academic institutions behind, the trio setup shop above a Chinese restaurant and start their paranormal investigation business. Their first customer is Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an employee of the MTA that had an encounter with a ghost herself. The four of them set out to investigate, Patty joins the group, and the rest is history.
If this all sounds hamfisted and clichéd, that’s because it is. Luckily, Feig keeps the backstory and origin story segment of the film down to a brisk ten or fifteen minutes so the girls can get on with busting ghosts. The characters need this bit of backstory to make them all unique, but it does feel incredibly droll. Thankfully, once the backstory is done and the girls get to their main goals, the film opens up and we get to see the chemistry in action. McKinnon and Jones both dominate every scene they are in, with McKinnon especially seizing control with her weird quirks and broad comedy. Patty is sometimes hamstringed by shoddy writing that veers into stereotypes, but Jones makes a very good run with what she has. When Abby stage dives at a concert in order to get through the crowd quickly, Patty attempts to follow suit, only to miss and be dropped onto the floor. “I don’t know if it was a race thing, or a woman thing, but I’m mad as hell,” she exclaims. Never mind the fact that Abby was just carried through the crowd — the writers wanted to make a cheap gender-related jab, so they do. Jones still sells it with heart and passion and charisma.
Erin and Abby are supposed to form the heart of the film, and for the most part, they succeed. But that tangential line feels incredibly tacked-on to give the film an emotional basis. At no point in the film does it feel like Erin and Abby are ever not going to reconcile and work together, and it’s not just because there’s obviously a tentpole franchise being created. The film seems to forget about the backstory between the two almost immediately. Only in moments where the film needs an emotional crutch to fall back on does it come into play, and it makes these moments between the main characters feel forced. Yet, in a weird way, it works. These various moments build subtle depth in the characters, even if that depth seems superficial at first. These characters are not superficial caricatures, though it may seem easy to write them off as such. They are archetypal, sure, but the backstories shoved into the film make those archetypes feel slightly more fleshed out.
The new Ghostbusters receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), is perhaps the greatest illustration of the film’s struggles between the great and the dull. His introduction features a few sight gags and physical comedy moments that are gut-busting at first. But the writers tend to drag these gags on for too long, never iterating or building on them, only repeating the joke again. Example: Kevin tries to reach an old corded phone that is behind an aquarium, and instead slams his hand into the glass, unable to comprehend the fact that there’s a physical barrier. As a one-off throwaway gag, it gets laughs. But moments later, there’s a “callback” to that joke, and it falls flat. Chris Hemsworth, though, shows off considerable comedic chops and his casting is a perfect example of type subversion.
The first two-thirds of the film feature several ghost-busting sequences that call back the joy of the original 1984 movie. These moments give the actors plenty of leeway to banter, and in those moments, it is clear why Feig was the top choice to helm this reboot. When Feig just lets the girls start rattling off lines, the movie shines. The cast’s SNL background is a huge buoy to those moments. It’s the scenes where nothing plot related is happening that produce the biggest laughs. Kevin’s job interview produces riotous laughter. Holtzmann dances with blowtorches as Erin nervously prattles about fire hazards. Patty has a run-in with a subway graffiti artist and can’t bring herself to actually stop him. These bits are the bread-and-butter of the movie, and are decidedly the scenes most like Feig’s other outings (Spy, Bridesmaids, and The Heat).
But as the movie careens towards its big budget, CGI filled third act, Feig’s weaknesses as a director begin to bog the film down. The action sequences feature very little comedy, and Feig is no action director. His aesthetic lies in real humans and real characters interacting like real people. The film’s third act is overwhelmed by demon possessed parade floats, pilgrim ghosts, and an Avengers-like vortex in the sky. In these moments, it’s hard to be engaged. Holtzmann spends most of the film introducing a suffocating number of ghostbusting gadgets, like a paranormal version of MI6’s Q. However, unlike the James Bond films, the gadgets here are all used up one after another in a single predictable sequence, almost in a paint-by-numbers fashion. Feig spends very little time fleshing out the film’s villain, and in the final act, essentially discards the villain during the climax. The supernatural battle royale that makes up the entire third of the film winds up feeling like a slog, rather than an apex, and it kills the momentum just near the finish line.
Despite the film’s numerous flaws, it still clocks in as a funny, enjoyable Summer movie experience. In the era of remakes and sequels, Feig does the reboot correctly. He establishes no hokey in-universe reason for a reboot. He pays loving homage to the original while treating this movie as a riff on the concept. He peppers in nods to the original film in the form of actor cameos (divorced from their characters) and near-callbacks. In one sequence, Abby is trying to come up with a catchy tagline to market their group and barely gets out “when there’s something strange” before being interrupted. It’s just enough of a wink-nod to help ease the transition to the new without completely disregarding the old. It breaks new ground while respectfully building on what came before it. And in that respect, it’s an above average blockbuster comedy.
I have high hopes for this new Ghostbusters franchise moving forward. Feig had the undesirable task of rebooting a beloved franchise, and judged on that criteria alone, he succeeded. And he even managed to get some belly laughs along the way. If he steps back from the sequel and allows a director with a visual flair for action to take over (my heart yearns for a sequel helmed by Edgar Wright or Phil Lord and Christopher Miller), there’s no doubt in my mind the franchise will be great.
Film Rating: B-
Will Hare is a web marketing and digital media professional residing in Durham, NC. When he’s not on the job, he likes to consume and critique board games, video games, films, and television.