An Entertaining Remake Burden by a Better Original
Any remake of a beloved film is sure to be met with plenty of negative responses by fans of the original even prior to a moment of the film being shot. But 2016’s remake of Ghostbusters has to be one of the most divisive, vitriol-inducing, fan base-enraging films to come out in many years. But is it really that surprising to say that Ghostbusters is neither the childhood violating piece of garbage that countless internet commentators proclaimed it to be nor a necessary, totally successful comedy in its own right?
That consensus may be a less than satisfactory answer for either side of the debate surrounding Ghostbusters, but it’s one that can see a film for just being a film, detached of all pretense and preciousness regarding long-loved films of bygone eras.
The plot of 2016’s Ghostbusters largely follows the beats of the 1984 original, with disgraced scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) forming the Ghostbusters, who toil away against public scrutiny to study and fight supernatural occurrences. Meanwhile, a looming cataclysm devised by the mad scientist Rowan (Neil Casey), threatens to consume New York City.
It’s a tricky thing to consider the positives and negatives of any remake, given the undeniable nature of wanting to compare a new film to the tenets of the original. By design, any remake is meant to be compared to the version that came before, as the original film is the sole reason why the new iteration has been created. Yet a good remake should also be able to stand on its own, free from comparisons to what came before. Unfortunately, Ghostbusters’ insistence on consistently winking and nodding toward the original version makes comparing the two a necessary part of the movie itself. But all those references don’t do the 2016 remake any favors, as they not only highlight what the original did better, but keep the remake from being able to completely do its own thing so that it may feel fresh and exciting. Then again, 1989’s Ghostbusters II did the same thing, so copying the original Ghostbusters to a less successful outcome is not a new thing for this franchise.
Those references come in a steady stream of rather clunky cameos and numerous scenes that echo the original. And while that’s necessary with any remake of a franchise this beloved, there’s far too much of it here to let Ghostbusters work as its own vision. Instead, the film feels quite typical in its structure. There are no major failings to be found; in fact, Ghostbusters is quite innocuous in how middle of the road it really is. But little beyond the chemistry of the cast and some solid CGI-heavy action scenes stick in the memory.
However, there’s a unique subtext to much of the narrative found in Ghostbusters, as the four female leads find themselves battling prejudice from men in varying positions of authority and a main villain who is very much the epitome of a modern outraged beta male. In fact, the four female heroes seem to be at odds with the legacy of the very franchise they are in, climaxing in a battle against a supernatural creature who takes the very form of the Ghostbusters logo. While the subtext may not be subtle, it’s most certainly appropriate for a film that stirred up this much backlash. It’s not clear if these themes were present from the start in creating the remake or whether they were woven in when the online outcries came pouring in, but they are highly relevant in any manner.
What’s strangely missing from Ghostbusters, a horror comedy that’s lighter on the horror than the original, are the laughs. While director Paul Feig keeps the film moving along at a quick pace and injecting most of the scenes with a light, fun tone, the big laughs come few and far between. Most of them are brought by McKinnon’s Holtzmann, who plays the eccentric scientist as odd and weird as possible, and Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the Ghostbuster’s dumber than rocks receptionist. In addition, Jones’ Patty is quite charming; bringing a lot of joy and energy as a character that has little in common with her fellow Ghostbusters but who is equally capable and intelligent. By and large, McCarthy and Wiig play the straight women to the others’ comedy, providing exposition and dramatic tension due to the rocky past between their characters, but very few of the actual laughs. That’s not to say that they don’t work as their characters, they just don’t entertain in the ways seen in past Feig films.
While the very broad performances by McKinnon and Hemsworth may not work well for those who want their humor to be a little drier, they are crucial to keeping Ghostbusters light on its feet. As the film carefully walks a familiar yet far more plot-centric approach to the narrative than the 1984 version, it’s the camaraderie and warmth of the characters that keep things as enjoyable as they really are from start to finish. Surprisingly, Ghostbusters is far more focused on action and suspense than the original, with numerous action set pieces and an extended wild climax that sees the heroes battling a legion of ghost for the fate of New York. And whereas the 1984 original was more interested in comedic riffing and a more blue collar approach to busting ghosts, the 2016 remake can almost be classified as a lighthearted supernatural adventure film instead of a comedy. Maybe all those special effects shots limited the amount of improvisation that the lead actresses excel at in so many other productions?
But the action is competently shot, wisely being built on the unique personalities of its four leads and featuring tons of special effects. While none of the ghosts have the practical effects charm of Ivan Reitman’s classic, the countless spooks and specters found in the remake are well done. They’re far from frightening. Rather, they are candy colored cartoons, filling the screen with vibrant menace that makes the film appeal to audiences of all ages. None of the creatures here have the same memorable creativity as the original’s Slimer and Mr. Staypuft (although they both make fan service-heavy cameos), but they work for what they are meant to do.
For a film that caused so much heated debate upon its arrival, there isn’t much to be passionate about in 2016’s Ghostbusters. And for a film whose status as a remake resulted in so much backlog and so many plot details that are beholden to the original, the best parts of Feig’s film are the moments when it feels like its own unique film. And with actresses as talented as the four leads (and the very funny Hemsworth) here, there’s hope that a sequel or an entirely new project can use them to a far more effective and memorable capacity.
Next, read my review of “The Nice Guys.”