Ghostbusters
★★☆☆☆

To many people, the idea of remaking Ghostbusters is akin to remaking Jaws or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz.  I was not excited about the prospect (Ghostbusters is, after all, one of my 100 favorite movies) but I didn’t count myself among the throng of hostile, belligerent fanboys who tried to do everything in their (non-existent) power to stop a sequel, a remake, or, worse, a franchise reboot of the much-loved 1984 comedy. When I first heard that the cast of the new version would be all female, my admittedly closed mind opened up. I hoped this could be one of those rare cases where filmmakers change just enough key elements of a classic movie to not only justify a remake but to cleverly update a story by making it even more relevant and meaningful to a new generation. 

The original Ghostbusters was a landmark in film comedy. It was the movie that effectively combined the anti-establishment counterculture of the 1970s with the conformist culture of the 1980s to create a perfect hybrid of traditional Hollywood craftsmanship and anarchistic, satirical attitude. The male stars in this quintessential tale of misfit semi-scientists that save New York from an onslaught of unruly phantasms were comic icons of their day whose status has remained nearly unchanged thirty years later. Recasting the picture with female stars of similar stature (actual hilarious comedians, not young, sexy, mildly-funny celebrities) opened up the potential for a film with the same revolutionary spirit. But a great remake requires more than a high-concept spin on the original, and a great movie requires a whole lot more than a talented cast. Director/co-writer Paul Feig squanders most of the exciting possibilities of his new film, falling victim to all the usual traps of a remake as well as his own worst practices. 

In the first Ghostbusters, producer/director Ivan Reitman and screenwriters/stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis pulled off a seemingly impossible task: they took the uproarious but often childish, disorganized, and misogynistic ethic of The National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live and plugged it into the well-established structure of a time-tested movie formula, the going-into-business plot. Rather than these two stylistic approaches clashing with each other, they combined for a rare cinematic amalgam. The original picture is as funny or, in many cases, funnier than the other slobs-vs-snobs comedy classics of its day, Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes, while also possessing as solidly-plotted a narrative, and as sophisticated a mise en scene, as any A-list feature of the period. Ghostbusters was also the first major comedy to successfully use state-of-the-art special effects to enhance its laughs, rather than dilute or upstage them. And finally, even though the film was mostly shot in LA, it ranks as one of the greatest New York movies ever made.

The new version possesses none of these attributes. The script by Feig and Katie Dippold (who also wrote Feig's only decent feature film to date, 2013's The Heat) contains no more than the rudiments of a story. Kristen Wiig plays a Columbia physics professor who loses her job when a childhood friend (Melissa McCarthy) outs her as the co-author of a book exploring the existence of paranormal phenomena. The two team up with an engineer who builds equipment that detects and traps ghosts (Kate McKinnon) and an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City (Leslie Jones), to hunt them some ghosts. The ostensible villain of the piece—a milksop cipher played by Neil Casey—is a bullied loser whose occult dabblings can somehow bring about the apocalypse. When all hell (or wherever these spirits come from) breaks loose, the four underdog heroines must fight the unleashed demons in addition to a skeptical mayor’s office, the press, rival scientists, haters on social media, and the public in general. 

When remaking a movie, filmmakers frequently choose to either scale everything up or rein everything in, and bigger usually wins. But in the case of the new Ghostbusters, each element feels smaller and cheaper. This downsizing is an intentional choice, and Feig plays it for comic effect: whereas the old Ghostbusters set up their headquarters in a spacious abandoned firehouse, the new Ghostbusters can only afford the cramped top floor of a Chinatown restaurant. Their costumes and gear look more authentically homemade too. But the cut-rate aesthetic extends throughout the entire production, making the movie come across like a dashed-off, inconsequential lark instead of the big-budget movie event it should be, by all rights.

Where the original Ghostbusters began in an iconic New York setting—the dark and spooky stacks of the imposing public library—the new version opens in a fictional haunted historical mansion. Instead of tracking the rise of the Ghostbusters in the public consciousness, the New York of this movie seems almost entirely devoid of any actual inhabitants.  And although the practical, photochemical effects of the first picture had flaws that were apparent even to '80s audiences, they’re still hilarious, memorable, and totally credible thirty years later, while the generic CGI spectacles in the new movie instill few laughs themselves, and the only FX gags that are memorable are references to the original film.

Indeed, the nudges to remember the old film are relentless. This remake is so hobbled by callbacks, cameos, and inside jokes that it has no real chance to stand on its own. An overflow of self-awareness might work well enough if the referential gags were funnier or more cleverly weaved into the plot. But most simply stick out like big signposts that read “Look who it is!” or “See what we just did there?”  Nearly every member of the original cast puts in an appearance to ostensibly bless this new version. But only Ernie Hudson’s cameo has any semblance of comic pay off. The stone-faced Bill Murray looks like he’s participating under actual duress. And Sigourney Weaver, the original's only female lead, gets a walk-on so inconsequential it's not even included in the body of the film.

The new film also lacks the astute production design of its predecessor. Reitman filled his well-composed frames with distinctive New York statuary, architecture, and iconography that foreshadowed and supported the genuinely spooky and quasi-credible backstory Akroyd and Ramis devised to explain exactly how and why New York gets overrun with ghosts. By contrast, Feig shoots actors making goofy faces, and makes no attempt at visual storytelling at all—perhaps because there's very little story here to tell.  The first movie layered inspired one-liners on top of a well-constructed narrative. The new film is just about the one-liners, and we don't even get an explanation of where the ghosts come from, or exactly how the lightweight antagonist unleashes them on the city. Like all of Fieg’s features, and so much of today's mainstream comedies, the cast all appears to be improvising around a very loose script. None of their lines engender much genuine laughter, and, in perhaps the most damning comparison to the endlessly quotable original, almost none of the jokes linger in your memory even five minutes after credits roll. I can't help but blame this comedy paucity on the obvious lack of a properly developed script.

Each of the leads is a gifted comic with impeccable timing, but nobody gets to really spread her wings. Wiig, stranded in yet another straight-man role, is a wet blanket who frowns a lot and occasionally makes a joke at her own expense. McCarthy milks the crass fat-lady shtick a bit less than in her previous films, but doesn’t replace it with anything more layered or adroit. Jones scores a few laughs early on but grows tiresome as the picture drags along. And McKinnon, the best performer in the current Saturday Night Live cast, delivers the same delightfully impish, unexpected clowning that she does on that show, but her inspired winking and mugging is less effective in the context of a narrative feature as it is in a collection of uneven five minute live sketches.

Feig lavishes superfluous screen time on Chris Hemsworth (star of Thor and The Avengers), who plays the male bimbo the Ghostbusters hire as their receptionist. Hemsworth gets about twenty more opportunities to score laughs than either Wiig or McCarthy, even though he isn’t especially funny. Apparently, contemporary directors and audiences swoon when an impossibly attractive movie star possesses any comic ability whatsoever.

Casting Hemsworth as a gorgeous dumb blond for the female leads to ogle and treat like a pet is indicative of the level of feminism on display in the film, but there’s an important external feminist subtext to this production. If it makes money it will prove (once again) that mainstream comedies about women can succeed. As someone who wants to see more such pictures, and who continuously rants about how we all need to vote with our dollars if we want Hollywood to produce and reward more diverse types of movies, I dutifully bought a ticket to Ghostbusters on opening night. It’s just too bad this purchase was also a vote for more dumb remakes, not to mention more insufferable Paul Feig movies. Is it too much to hope that someday the summer's biggest female-driven blockbuster will be directed by an actual woman?  Had this remake been produced in the ‘90s, it’s not difficult to imagine Penelope Spheeris at the helm—or Amy Heckerling, Susan Seidelman, or Martha Coolidge. All vastly superior filmmakers to Feig.

Hollywood’s current business model indicates that this will not be the last Ghostbusters movie. It’s even possible we get a competing, all-male reboot, as well as more films with this cast. But the real problem with trying to make Ghostbusters into a Marvel or Star Wars-like franchise is that the original picture, magnificent as it is, was built on a light and finite premise that could not support even one sequel. The dismal Ghostbusters II (1989) reunited the entire cast and creative team of the 1984 original, and did well at the box office, but it turned out to be little more than an uninspired, low-energy retread that botched the delicate balance of character comedy, visual effects, and plot mechanics. This remake is no worse than that sequel, but no better either. 

Directed by Paul Feig
Screenplay by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig
Based on the film directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis

With: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Matt Walsh, Andy García, Cecily Strong, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McDonald, Karan Soni, Steve Higgins, Katie Dippold, Ozzy Osbourne, Al Roker, Pat Kiernan, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts

Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Editing: Brent White and Mellissa Bretherton
Music: Theodore Shapiro

Runtime: 116 min
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color