After more than 30 years, the Ghostbusters franchise has finally returned – and as a reboot no less. With various scripts considered and discarded over the years, and Bill Murray reticent to commit to even a limited appearance – not to mention Harold Ramis sadly stepping off this plane of existence in 2014 – a Ghostbusters 3 that was continuous with the first two films seemed unlikely to ever happen. So enter director and co-writer Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) with a new take: start fresh and retell the origin of the Ghostbusters, only with women in the lead roles instead of men.
The resultant uproar was two-pronged, a confluence of the culture of outrage mixed with the often nastier side of the angry white male “movement.” Those appalled by the notion of a remake – fair enough for a film beloved by many and considered a comedy classic – found themselves bedfellows with a more virulent strain of online trolls who seemed to think that women weren’t fit to wield the proton packs simply because of their gender. The second idea is of course complete nonsense. But the first issue is less easy to dismiss since it goes right to the heart of Hollywood’s ongoing, and more-blatant-than-ever, obsession with brand extension instead of smart, original, organic storytelling.
Which brings us to the new Ghostbusters, an amiable, moderately entertaining and intermittently amusing movie that in the end falls very short of making a convincing argument for its own existence. The plot loosely follows that of the original by essentially being a rehash of how the team – now played by Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones – is brought together by the provable existence of ghosts, and how they stumble upon a plan to open a portal between our world and another, more evil dimension to bring about a demonic invasion and the end of humanity.
Beyond that, the details are different: Wiig’s Erin Gilbert has left her paranormal past long behind as the film opens, parting ways with McCarthy’s Abigail Yates, after they had collaborated on a book, to pursue a more respectable career as a professor of physics at Columbia University. But that pesky book is still around, and that combined with evidence of an authentic haunting at the “Aldridge Mansion” is enough to get Wiig thrown out of her job at Columbia, and back in business with Abby and her off-center partner and engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon). The trio are soon joined by Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA worker who runs to the nascent ghostbusting team for help when spectres begin appearing in subway tunnels (so that’s why there are so many delays these days).
From there on, it’s both familiar and different: the four ladies track manifestations around New York City in situations that echo those of the first film (someone gets slimed, they trap a ghost, etc.) But there’s no counterpart to Sigourney Weaver or Rick Moranis, the neighbors whose building is the doorway to hell, and there’s no parallel to EPA lawyer Walter “Dickless” Peck, who had the original team arrested in the 1984 film. There’s a new human villain (Neil Casey) who is instigating the whole portal opening thing this time, but to be honest he barely registers in the film. We get to see some well-known props and locations, and even a few very familiar faces in cameos that range from odd to distracting.
All four leads are immensely likable and charming, and do a lot of heavy lifting to carry the fragmentary plot cobbled together by Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold. I’m shocked to be writing this, seeing as I’m neither a fan of McCarthy’s previous work nor anything associated with Saturday Night Live (where McKinnon and Jones are both most recently from), but McCarthy projects a lot of warmth as Abby, Jones is as boisterous and full of vinegar as you would expect a New Yorker to be, and McKinnon arguably steals the show: she’s always fiddling with something in the background or looking at others like they’re some strange new variety of insect. Wiig is a bit more dour than the rest, although she’s also the only one who exhibits any sexuality by lusting after the team’s red-hot but incredibly vacant receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth sans long hair and hammer).
Feig handles the visual effects fairly well. They’re burnished to a very high and colorful standard with some of the bigger manifestations having real weight to them. But his direction of the actors often stumbles into that curious combination of rushed and slack that seems to befall every comedy director these days from Apatow on down. The improv may seem funny on the set, but on film it just meanders until someone finally decides to shut the camera off. There’s a bit less of it here than in Feig’s earlier films (probably as a result of having to play to CG effects that come later in production), but it’s still a chronic problem and not just for this director.
I never hated the 2016 Ghostbusters while watching it; I say that as someone who doesn’t revere the original but enjoys it on cable once in a while. It too works intermittently, and the effects look way cheesier now, but at the same time no one will ever match Bill Murray’s laconic, tossed-off brilliance. The cast is the new film’s greatest strength, but as they go through their paces one starts to get the same feeling one had watching The Amazing Spider-Man a few years ago: why are we telling this story again, just with different people and a few remixed aspects?
In that sense, Ghostbusters fails to make the case less for its quartet of female paranormal investigators, and more for even being made in the first place. It’s kind of fun, you’ll chuckle here and there, and you’ll appreciate the hard work that the ladies do to make it come to life. But as a remake it doesn’t do anything to enhance the original or expand on it, except perhaps to add bigger and better special effects. It does extend the brand – something Sony Pictures has wanted to do for the better part of three decades – but its impact and presence, like a ghost, is fleeting and ephemeral.
Ghostbusters is in theaters this Friday, July 15.