It is very strange to think of Ghostbusters as a film.
For the past year or so, the word has existed as part of a storm ravaging the pop cultural landscape. It became the source of heightened controversy, its own front in the pop culture wars that had already consumed video gaming and the Hugos. To venture an opinion on the film was to wade into that storm, to chase the tornado and to find your opinion subject to all manner of criticism and second-guessing. If you were interested in the film, you were a raving feminist crushing the hopes and dreams of a generation. If you were sceptical, you were a misogynist.
With that in mind, it is strange to think of Ghostbusters as actually existing as a film that can actually be watched in a cinema. The film has been the source of so much discussion and debate – so much thought and energy – that it somehow feels “bigger” than two-hour long supernatural action comedy directed by Paul Feig and starring a great cast. Trying to separate the film from that larger discussion feels like a Herculean task of itself, one compounded by the fact that it is neither terrible nor brilliant.
Being sensational or being awful would make the matter a bit easier, because it would tie neatly into one of the two narratives swirling around the film’s production. Instead, it is merely very good. It is an enjoyable supernatural action comedy with a great cast that is always fun to watch, even if it isn’t perfect. In the end, it is just a film. A very good, very enjoyable, slightly flawed film.
It should be stressed that it is unequivocally a good thing that Ghostbusters exists. Taking for granted that sequels and remakes and reboots are part of the Hollywood eco-system, it seems churlish to single out this one reboot as the root of all problems. Indeed, Independence Day: Resurgence is about as effective a criticism of the current studio movie-making model as viewers are likely to find. The Legend of Tarzan is a better film than Independence Day: Resurgence, but a much worse film than Ghostbusters. So singling it out for criticism is a strange choice.
On the other hand, Ghostbusters at least does something fresh and original with its premise. It is very easy for heterosexual white guys to take the abundance of heterosexual white guy heroes for granted. They are practically ambient noise in the contemporary cinematic churn. If fans are concerned about too many recycled ideas, why not complain about that one before worrying about Ghostbusters? It is very hard for young girls or minorities to look to popular cinematic franchises and see characters who represent them.
The idea that young girls can look to Ghostbusters and see a cast of comedic action heroes who speak to them is important. Ironically, the fans complaining about the lack of the male heroes they idolised as children miss the fact that young girls never had the chance to imagine themselves as characters equivalent to Egon Spengler or Peter Venkmen, heroes who battle ghosts with proton packs. Young boys can still look to the original films and a range of spin-offs. It is unequivocally a big studio blockbuster film exists that affords girls the same opportunity.
So “Ghostbusters the concept” is undoubtedly and unequivocally a good thing. It is a concept that almost justifies itself, particularly in a media landscape where reboots of films like Ghost in the Shell seem to be reducing (rather than increasing) diversity. However, most audiences are not buying a ticket to “Ghostbusters the concept.” They are buying a ticket to “Ghostbusters the film”, which has found itself inexorably tangled up in this larger cultural discourse and debate. “Ghostbusters the film” could never quite measure up to “Ghostbusters the concept.”
So how is the film, as divorced as it can be from that larger discussion? It is very good. It is not perfect, but then neither were either of the original Ghostbusters films. It is fun and breezy, which is enough to propel it to the upper echelons of this summer’s blockbuster releases. It has a great cast who play well off one another, and a decent ratio of gags to runtime. Enough of those gags land to keep the movie running, but not so much that it soars. The movie’s greatest strength is its cast, who gel together into a fantastic ensemble.
As with the original Ghostbusters film, the cast is largely drawn from veterans of Saturday Night Live. Of the four leads, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnion are both current members of the comedy sketch show ensemble. Kristen Wiig is a former regular. Melissa McCarthy is the only one of the four leads not to have worked steadily on Saturday Night Live, instead having come up through other television shows like Gilmore Girls and Mike and Molly. As with the original cast members, this skill with improvisation and sketch comedy suits them well.
Ghostbusters is at its strongest when it lets its characters interact and bounce off one another. As with the original four Ghostbusters, this quartet is composed of archetypes. Erin Gilbert is the scientist who gave up her childish dreams in pursuit of legitimacy, while Abby Yates is her childhood friend who chased those same dreams to obscurity. Jillian Holtzmann is the nerdy (and possibly psychotic) tech geek, while Patty Tolan is the member of the group with the most practical working knowledge of the city.
The relationship between Erin and Abby powers the film, with Ghostbusters affording Wiig and McCarthy with slightly less cartoonish characters than their iconic comedy roles. (This is, after all, something of a small reunion for the cast and crew of Bridesmaids.) That friendship between Erin and Abby is endearing, and the film is at its best when it allows the two to bounce off one another. In particular, the first half of the film is driven by the reconnection between two old friends who discover that they still enjoy one another’s company.
To be fair, one of the issues with the film’s final act is the fact that it separates Abby and Erin. It seems like there is some material that has been cut from the movie’s climax, as Erin branches away from the group as the crisis unfolds. Given how much emphasis the film puts on bringing the two characters together, it seems strange that they should spend so much of the final half hour separate from one another, particularly when there seems to be no real plot justification for the separation. (Indeed, it feels slightly formulaic, a comedy convention without an in-story reason.)
Jones and McKinnion also do good work. Jones is reliably down-to-earth in contrast with the madness around her, even if there is something rather questionable in casting the film’s only African American lead as the stock “street smart” archetype. However, it is something of an original sin, inherited from the original film’s treatment of Winston. To be fair to Ghostbusters, the film does take care to flesh out Patty Tolan. She is afforded a bit more background and development than Winston Zeddemore was, at least in the finished cut of Ghostbusters.
Kate McKinnion is the film’s revelation. Holtzmann is the character saddled with most of the exposition, filling the role previously inhabited by Harold Ramis as Egon Spangler. McKinnion takes to this with a great deal of relish, taking a fairly conventional archetype and amping her performance all the way up to eleven. It is a performance that embraces the absurdity of the film’s premise, and runs with with it. McKinnion steals most of the scenes she is in, even when relegated to the background of the shot.
Feig is a very good comedic director and a solid action director. Ghostbusters keeps moving forward, with considerable speed. The gags come quick and fast, with a self-awareness that never threatens to suffocate the film. Feig knows when to allow his cast room to bounce off one another, and when to keep the plot moving. Feig strikes a fine balance between the demands of a summer blockbuster and a comedy, although perhaps not as fine as he did with Spy. There is an energy and verve that makes it hard not to enjoy the film.
Ghostbusters is endearingly direct when dealing with the film’s cultural context. Erin finds herself responding to misogynistic comments on YouTube. One of their most prominent critics is played by a tongue-in-cheek member of the original cast. The villain is a spoilt manbaby, who resurrects the dead to bring about New York’s “glory days” in a very literal expression of the white male nostalgia that seems to run through so much of contemporary political discourse.
The film gleefully (and cheekily) mocks the castration complex that seems to run through a vocal strand of criticism of the concept. The four heroes manage to defeat the climactic monster through castration imagery, with Holtzmann explicitly confirming it in dialogue. Later, Holtzmann tinkers with a number of gadgets that come with some distinctively Freudian subtext. When she announces “the nutcracker”, one of her colleagues asks why she calls it that. “I use it to open nuts,” she innocently responds. Ghostbusters is having so much fun that it is hard not to love it.
If there is a problem with Ghostbusters, the problem is rooted in contemporary blockbuster aesthetics. These problems are nowhere near as severe as they are in films like Independence Day: Resurgence or The Legend of Tarzan, but they are still present. The issue with the plotting of Ghostbusters is that the film feels somewhat overstuffed. The original Ghostbusters had an endearing and relaxing looseness to it, a sense that not everything had to fit together perfectly as long as the film flowed. There are times when Ghostbusters feels wound too tightly.
This is most obvious in the structuring of the film. Ghostbusters feels the need to provide a singular antagonist with his own character arc, who provides a logical reason for the escalating paranormal activity in New York City. This reflects a current style of blockbuster movie writing where it is not enough for an object to exist as part of the movie’s basic premise. Instead, there must be a singular reason for the thing to be the way that it is. Coincidences and concurrences are to be dismissed as bad writing, everything must be tied to a chain of cause and effect.
The recent James Bond movies are a prime example of this. Skyfall and Spectre are fascinated with the why of Bond, interrogating many of the franchise’s underlying assumptions and offering explanations for things that do not really require an explanation. Does the audience need to delve into Bond’s traumatic childhood to explain why he is the way that he is? Does the viewer really want a strong causal connection between Bond and Blofeld? Does the film have to show how Blofeld really got those scars and does that have to tie back to James Bond?
In modern blockbusters, everything must have a reason. In the original Ghostbusters, the audience only needed a line or two of exposition to explain how a fridge in a skyscraper could become a gateway to another dimension. There was no explanation needed to account for the paranormal activity in the film. Perhaps it served as a metaphor for the struggles facing New York in the eighties, reflecting a climate of urban fear. Perhaps Dan Aykroyd just really wanted to make a movie about ghosts. One might as well ask why Marty and Doc Brown hung out in Back to the Future.
Ghostbusters immediately establishes that there is a definite cause for the ghost activity seen in the film. During the first paranormal attack, the camera pans down to an ominous-looking device. At the second attack, our heroes find the charred remains of a similar device. “What’s attracting the ghosts?” one asks. It turns out that there is a singular mind orchestrating the attacks, with a sinister end-game in mind. Naturally, it involves an attempt to open a portal and summon an apocalyptic event.
This aesthetic bleeds through the rest of the film. “So, why ghosts?” one character asks at one point, inquiring as to why Erin and Abby fixated upon the paranormal at a young age. There are a lot of valid answers to those questions ranging from “it’s interesting to wonder what lies beyond” to “ghosts are cool”, but the film settles on a very linear cause-and-effect narrative that roots Erin’s fascination with ghosts in a childhood trauma. Even Slimer finds himself elevated from a one-scene gag to a crucial part of the climax, as the script tries to tie everything together.
It is interesting to wonder where this fixation on causation came from in the structuring of Hollywood blockbusters. There are any number of possibilities. This could be seen as a response to the nitpicky school of internet film criticism that treats every coincidence or concurrence as a horrible contrivance, and objects whenever a film refuses to offer a clear cause-and-effect narrative for any significant plot element. This is very much a preemptive response to the school of criticism that wonders how Bruce Wayne got back to Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises.
Another possibility feels more rooted in the larger cultural context, a reflection of twenty-first century sensibilities. In the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror, in the internet age, people have come to see the world as an increasingly interconnected web of cause and effect. Things no longer happen in a vacuum, and the thought that the world might be a chaotic place is horrifying. After all, conspiracy theory has become a boom industry, offering cause-and-effect explanations for seemingly random events. What is conspiracy theory but a narrative structure imposed on history?
There is an irony in all this. As with conspiracy theories, this approach to narrative arguably feels even more contrived than suggesting that different things might simply be happening concurrently. Seeking to impose a logical and rational story structure upon the threats menacing our characters relies on an even great set of coincidences and contrivances. It makes the world seem particular fake, as if drawing attention to the narrative threads that hold it all together. The plotting and structuring of Ghostbusters feels inorganic.
Still, this is not a fatal flaw. It is a problem with a lot of contemporary Hollywood storytelling, and it is not a problem particular to this one film. However, it is the biggest problem with Ghostbusters. It feels a little too tightly wound together, ignoring that a large part of the fun of Ghostbusters is the improvisational ad hoc nature of the premise. These are four unqualified scientists hunting ghosts in New York. It is enough for the villain to exist, it is perhaps too much for the film to devote so much time and energy to a dastardly plan far less interesting than its four heroes.
Indeed, the best thing about Ghostbusters is that it feels like a modern blockbuster that recognises diversity is inherently a good thing and that watching four female actors bounce off one another in a supernatural action comedy can be just as fun as watching four male actors bounce off one another in a supernatural action comedy. The worst thing about Ghostbusters is that it inherits a few of the less flattering stylistic obsessions of contemporary tentpole cinema. It seems like a fair trade-off.