Ghostbusters: The Problem Is the Brand

The Ghostbusters reboot has been haunted by unwarranted vitriol, but the film still has one Stay Puft-sized problem.

The hunt is on. After being mocked all their lives for believing in the supernatural, three scientists, plus a new working stiff teammate, have discovered that ghosts are indeed real. And they’re in desperate need of busting. Thus when that fateful phone call finally comes—it’s from a stranger pleading for their help at a posh spot (this time a theater)—the jumpsuits are donned, the proton packs are loaded up, and the Ghostbusters pile into Ecto-1 for their first heroic day on the job. They even get a new theme song to blare alongside the sirens.

It is exciting, it is amusing, and it is also exactly like something we’ve seen before… but done not nearly as well. How could it be when the Bus Boys’ “Cleanin’ Up the Town,” a flashy and still surprisingly retro number (even for 1984) is replaced by Fall Out Boy’s “Ghostbusters” remix? The latter being three minutes of eardrum poison that’s been surreptitiously delivered to audiences via the repackaging of a beloved brand. And therein lies the problem.

While the current critical consensus for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot leans slightly toward the positive, few would suggest it is on par with the original 1984 film, which is a shame since there is so much about the 2016 version that goes right.

Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were hilarious in Bridesmaids, and they share an even stronger chemistry now in Ghostbusters. Both women offer a natural warmth and anchor for the laughs, which while infrequent still occur enough to keep good vibes flowing, especially whenever Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon are allowed center stage. McKinnon, increasingly the current MVP on Saturday Night Live as they head into another election year, plays Dr. Jillian Holtzmann like a mad scientist who is constantly observing her co-stars through a microscope and overstuffed petri dish. Jones, meanwhile, brings her familiar brand of explosive interpersonal comedy like a coathanger tackle through the big screen. All of them have moments where Feig cultivates his now patented humor, which again shows preference for spontaneity and improvisation. He even allows a few moments for Chris Hemsworth to shine as the brain dead slab of meat that Wigg’s Dr. Erin Gilbert keeps around for a rainy day.

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Yet, where Ghostbusters falls apart is not from any of the casting, but with its inherent premise. While the new trendy word of the decade is to call something a “reboot,” for all intents and purposes Ghostbusters is a remake of the 1984 classic, and this is never anything less than an albatross around this new movie’s neck. Yet, the reason for creating this unwinnable scenario has nothing to do with politics, gender, or any litany of other trollish complaints. Nay, its impetus can be traced to one specific moment in the film before even the first scene has commenced:

Buried within the sea of production company title cards that followed Sony’s Columbia Pictures banner, there was a new one that marked this film as a “Ghost Corps.” production. And if you haven’t heard of that term before, it’s because Sony Pictures Entertainment invented the label last year to manage what they hope to be a large, sprawling, and shared Ghostbusters universe. Unfortunately, this underlying mission statement, one focused on making a massive never-ending franchise as opposed to a strong and original take on a funny premise, is the specter that haunts almost every frame of Ghostbusters. Likewise, its presence is far more malevolent than any Class Five Free-Roaming Vapor.

From the very opening, Ghostbusters circa 2016 more or less follows the beats of the 1984 vintage with the utmost respect. The newer version begins also in an ancient (by New York standards) structure that is touched with the faintest menace of the supernatural. In lieu of taking place in the New York Public Library, it is now a fictional mansion on the Upper West Side, and instead of it being a librarian having her hair gone gray with terror, it’s a snooty tour guide who is so oblivious that he runs toward the ghost’s haunted basement in a panic. It’s actually one of the more effective redos in the 2016 film with Zach Woods oozing a cartoonish amount of effete smarminess before he gets his ghostly just desserts.

But just like the subsequent scenes that build up to Wiig’s Erin getting fired from Columbia University, or the team discovering ghosts are real for the first time and then getting slimed, it all feels like we’ve been here before, and rarely do these 1:1 comparisons end favorably for the newer film.

On its own, Feig has crafted a diverting if forgettable lark through New York’s supernatural underbelly. But the movie’s need to constantly repeat story elements or even exact scenes from what came before causes his current bag of empty, if blandly satisfying, popcorn to be contrasted with one of the greatest comedies ever. A filet mignon of laughs, if you will. Whereas Ghostbusters (1984) was structured as one long and perfectly told feature-length joke by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ screenplay, this one offered by Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold is a hodge-podge of SNL-like sketches with wildly varying degrees of success.

I suspect a large part of this is due to Ghostbusters being a passion project for Aykroyd, who openly talks about his obsession and belief in the supernatural, and the other being an obligatory assignment by a studio in desperate need of a shared universe based on its pre-existing back catalogue. One film aimed to channel all of these ideas into a sustained piece of comedy and world-building, and the other is just building off a pre-existing brand while trying to come up with some new punchlines for a well-worn setup.

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Consequently, Ghostbusters (2016) is constantly invoking comparisons to an older film’s shadow until it is finally lost in the eclipsing dark. Ignoring the misogynistic vitriol that drips across the internet like a smear of ectoplasm with extra mucus on the side, this newer movie’s biggest problem is not the cast; it’s that the film primarily exists to repeat what audiences already know to mostly inferior results.

In many ways, the pre-release of Ghostbusters (2016) now stands as a case study in the virulent sexism that still bubbles beneath the culture, even in things as benign as summer blockbuster entertainment. But its post-release should mark a reminder of another problem that is also systematic in modern Hollywood: the abject terror of new ideas leading to tired franchises running on fumes.

Our critic Don Kaye aptly compared Ghostbusters to another Sony Pictures “reboot” that was really a remake when he noted the same numbing sensation found in The Amazing Spider-Man being present here. Like Sony’s newest blockbuster, that film aimed to repeat almost verbatim a previous success’ formula, right down to the ending shot of the web-head swinging through the concrete jungle. Oh sure, Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s superhero made his final aerial-dance during day, and the Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield version was swinging through the city at night, but that arbitrary distinction sums up the misguided logic of the whole enterprise: redo the first Spider-Man movie but make it “darker” like that popular Christopher Nolan guy’s The Dark Knight. Similarly, Sony opted to remake the original Ghostbusters’ basic structure and plot, but with the director and two of the leads of Bridesmaids. Each idea fumbled the chance of doing something original or unique with the material.

This is the by-product of a system now more concerned with brand-appeal than storytelling.

A new Ghostbusters movie with this cast should not have been such a disappointing experience. Building off the Ghostbusters films that already came, or simply choosing to begin in a world where Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon have always been the Ghostbusters, and hit the ground running toward a new destination might have allowed the stars and director the freedom of going their own way. Instead, the same studio logic that demanded there be a third Ghostbusters movie (no matter who stars in it) has also followed the maxim of making it the same, but different.

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Well, it is the same, but the key difference is it’s noticeably less. In that sense, it is a posterchild for Hollywood blockbusters in the 21st century.