In the summer of 1984, crossing the streams was the ultimate male taboo the original Ghostbusters broke to defeat ghoulish evil from another dimension. In 2016, it’s female solidarity among four heroines whom the world has labeled hysterical, defying the odds and historically ingrained sexism, that ensures that the world as we know it can keep turning.
More than thirty years after Ivan Reitman’s iconic first Ghostbusters movie delighted fans and mildly impressed critics, the rebooted, estrogen-fueled new Ghostbusters comes loaded with a mission. After all, in the new millennium just being a woman and a hero in a mainstream summer blockbuster is both triumph and political statement.
Unfortunately Ghostbusters also comes saddled with the trappings of 21st century studio filmmaking: lulls in pacing, kiddie-safe comedy, choppy editing, and the general sense that a sharper, ballsier version exists in an alternate Hollywood universe. Nevertheless, with a crackling sense of purpose and a surplus of reverence for their predecessors, new Ghostbusters Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Saturday Night Live standouts Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones plant their own flag on a beloved sci-fi comedy franchise—even if it’ll still take a miracle from beyond to convert the hypercritical haters.
McCarthy is arguably the Bill Murray of the group, having teamed up with writer-director Paul Feig on career-boosting comedy vehicles like 2013’s The Heat and last year’s surprising Spy. But it’s her Bridesmaids co-star Kristen Wiig who carries the dramatic thrust of a story penned by Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold, in which New York City can only be saved from a brewing supernatural apocalypse by a quartet of misfit paranormal exterminators.
Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a meek physicist up for tenure at Columbia University who wears her unhappiness with the strict patriarchal establishment on her face and in her stodgy, joyless wardrobe. When her academic future is threatened by a ghost from her past, Erin begrudgingly ends up on a hunt for paranormal activity with her estranged ex-BFF Abby Yates (McCarthy), a fellow scientist who never stopped believing in the supernatural, and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), Abby’s oddball-genius engineer. They come face to face with a class 4 apparition who projectile-slimes Erin head to toe. She hardly minds. After a lifetime of being doubted so much by others that she began to doubt herself, being ecto-barfed on by a plot-driving wailing ghost named Gertrude is instant vindication. Even her wardrobe loosens up, freed from self-imposed repression.
The women open their own ghostbusting agency and start investigating a string of spooky happenings that have been plaguing Manhattan, brushing off skepticism from all sides—the university set, the bewildered media, a singularly misogynist paranormal debunker, and an image-conscious mayor played by Andy Garcia. It turns out the abandoned firehouse rental market is still exorbitantly pricey in 2016, so the ladies move in above a crappy Chinese restaurant. You won’t see a single Chinese person in the greater metropolitan NYC of Ghostbusters, but the film does set up a recurring joke about Abby being obsessed with wonton soup. LOL?
Better laughs come when the Ghostbusters hire a male secretary named Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a dim bulb with a pretty face who Erin takes an unsubtle shining to. It’s a role Hemsworth commits to with relish: Thor, God of Thunder, fetching the lady Ghostbusters coffee and answering their phones. He’s terrible at all of it but they keep him around just to have something nice to look at. The joke is broad and obvious, and yet so, so very satisfying.
Rounding out the squad is Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker who leaves her thankless job to join the team after being screamed at by the ghost of a deranged death row inmate in the subway. It is vexing to find that Patty, an African-American woman, is the only Ghostbuster who’s not a scientist, even if she is a low-key NYC history buff whose gregarious energy and expansive knowledge of the city adds actual life skills to a team of science-dork eggheads.
Thankfully, Jones is such a force that her natural strength and charisma brings human balance to an otherwise underwritten character. When a crowd of metalheads fail to catch her after successfully helping Abby crowd surf toward a demonic specter, Jones’s ad lib pierces through the screen: “I don’t know if it was a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.”
McKinnon’s Holtzmann, meanwhile, is the secret weapon of this Ghostbusters. Aside from spewing rapid-fire technical jargon as the team’s resident eccentric gearhead, McKinnon oozes visceral charisma with the swagger—sans the womanizing douchiness—of Murray’s Venkman. She flirts brazenly with Erin, emanating cocksure confidence even if we learn very little about Holtzmann as a character. Hemsworth might be the beefcake on paper but it’s McKinnon who’ll leave moviegoers crushing.
For the most part the script knows what it’s up against, and so do Feig and his stars. Huddled around a computer screen after their ghost sightings go viral on the news, the ladies encounter a new kind of dark evil even more insidious than ghosts: internet trolls.
“Ain’t no bitches… gonna bust no ghosts,” Wiig’s Erin reads aloud, puzzled by the animosity.
McCarthy’s Abby, the fearless leader of the group, knows better. She chimes in with a message to haters on and off-screen, jabbing back at the unprecedented wave of backlash Feig, Sony, and the film’s stars received the instant the reboot was announced and later, when its first trailer garnered the most hate in history on YouTube: “You’re not supposed to be reading what crazy people write online.”
Their villainous foil misses the point, too. SNL and Inside Amy Schumer writer Neil Casey gets his big screen break as Rowan, a bitter white dude turned murderous by a lifetime of bullying who manages to make the world’s problems all about him. He’s a self-righteous sad sack who fails to see the irony standing in front of him: four women unsupported and written off by society, one of them African-American and another who may or may not be gay but can’t say so because she’s trapped in a PG-13 summer studio blockbuster. “We get shit on all the time,” McCarthy’s Abby counters.
Ghostbusters die-hards might disagree, but the remake is conceived with more complex aims than the first two films. The greatest upside is a new generation of youngsters now have a Ghostbusters movie of their own, with a disparate team of adult women to idolize, that holds dear the rules and tone and sweet core of the original films. Ghostbusters is remake as homage, swapping the gender of its heroes while keeping the bones of the plot and signatures of the first film.
Feig overdoes it with the weightless CG ornamentation as an action-packed third act rushes into gear, and crams in too many earnestly cutesy flourishes only parents with young kids might love.
There is, for example, a choreographed dance sequence led by Hemsworth, of all people—but why it exists is an unanswered, and probably unanswerable, question. Better to willfully forget about it, like you will the updated cover theme song by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott that plays after several plays of the Ray Parker, Jr. classic.
The biggest enemy these Ghostbusters face, anyway, is the audience. Franchise fans who grew up with the 1984 film will worry that Feig has bastardized the Ghostbusters they love. At my screening, the grown man next to me enjoyed it so much he snored softly throughout the final act. But two young boys who caught an early screening told me they loved it—and loved Holtzmann most of all.
It’s those youngsters who Ghostbusters will serve best, the kids growing up in 2016 dealing with new realities like YouTube commenters and gender parity in the workplace and, sadly, domestic terrorism. And as a shot across the bow for women in Hollywood and girls looking for big screen role models that look like them, it’s a step forward.
The fact that they’re women never defines these heroes, but the way the world reacts to them reflects why the gender swap is significant. When these Ghostbusters are labeled delusional by a skeptical public and smeared by a city government that slanders them for the greater good, they’re not just crazy people—they’re crazy women, a pejorative far more loaded than it ever is when foisted on men. As the Ghostbusters have always been, they’re heroes who must prove themselves not just to their peers, but also to their audience.
That was a far easier task for Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd, and Hudson to do in 1984 as comedians and actors starring in a comedy designed to showcase their talents. McCarthy, Wiig, Jones, and McKinnon tackle the challenge of doing that while proving their worth as heroes without being heavy-handed about it, striking a natural chemistry that’s easy to root for and believe in. They don’t rise to the occasion because they are women but because they’re the only heroes equipped for and interested in the job.
Plus, they’re already used to being underestimated. They’re women, after all.