“Ghostbusters” Are Back (They Never Really Left)

“Ghostbusters” Are Back (They Never Really Left)

I really wanted to go see Gremlins for my ninth birthday in 1984, but my dad decided that movie looked too violent — so instead my party turned into a Ghostbusters party, and I was immediately obsessed. I bought every book, sticker, and shirt I could afford; including one “Who You Gonna Call?” sweatshirt to wear, and one to keep mint in my drawer to don when my independent ghostbusting business got its first call. That call never came, but for a while I asked my family members to call me “Ray.” (Egon was too nerdy, I decided, and Peter was way too cool to even aspire to an identification with.)

Despite my rabid fandom, I never got into the “Real Ghostbusters” animated series that followed (the title resulting from the fact that there was a previously existing “Ghostbusters” live-action series, rushed back to screens in cartoon form after the unrelated movie became a hit) — or the 1989 movie sequel, which I regarded as an embarrassment. Even as a kid, I understood that there was something singular about the original movie.

Though its direct franchise derivatives were underwhelming, Ghostbusters became one of the most influential movies of the ’80s: it disproved the common assumption that adult comedy and special effects couldn’t go together. A cavalcade of sketchy spectaculars followed, from Beetlejuice to The Mask to Cool World. That strain eventually recombined with the DNA of the Spielberg/Lucas summer blockbuster; toss in the spectacle of Michael Bay, and you have the fantasy monoliths that serve as annual cinematic tentpoles today.

Now, the Ghostbusters themselves return to a world that should be theirs to reconquer. The world of onscreen comedy has changed, though: the new Ghostbusters isn’t sharing multiplexes with Revenge of the Nerds and Police Academy. In what was easily the best decision the franchise has made since 1984, women instead of men were cast to play the eponymous sleuths of the supernatural.

That was obviously the right choice on every level, which — this being the fractious 2016 — of course meant it was controversial. A noxious movement, one that’s Gamergate-like in its disingenuous sexism, has taken root in certain semen-stained corners of the internet. While those explicitly arguing that the reboot is ill-conceived (and we know why) are just a small, vocal minority, the movement has earned a slew of attention because it’s a reflection of the thinking that has kept studios from backing female-led blockbusters in numbers that even approach equity.

Suddenly, the new Ghostbusters became a high-stakes test: if this stellar woman-led cast can’t make a big splash at the box office, the thinking goes, it will be equivalent to the groundhog seeing his shadow. Many moons might pass before someone puts up the money to try it again.

If the new film does flop, though, its stars won’t be to blame. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones enliven every frame of what’s in many respects a disappointing retread of the original.

Props to director Paul Feig and to the film’s producers (who include Dan Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman) for realizing that the quality of the cast was integral to the success of the original film, though the new Ghostbusters illustrates that the first one had a few other things working for it too: notably, funny dialogue, as well as special effects that supported the film without overwhelming it. By the end of this new Ghostbusters, when Wiig and McCarthy are floating in an abstract universe of CGI, it’s hard not to be a little nostalgic for the marshmallow-splattered, cigarette-smoking Ghostbusters of 1984.

The 1984 film also had a sterling supporting cast with genuinely amusing subplots — think of Rick Moranis as Louis, Sigourney Weaver as Dana, and Annie Potts as Janine. At the preview screening I attended, none of the original stars’ cameos was greeted with such loud enthusiasm as that of Potts, whose dry indifference was perfect for the original film. Her counterpart here is Chris Hemsworth, and while it’s a funny conceit to cast a handsome but dumb hunk as the new Ghostbusters’ receptionist, Hemsworth’s role swells to an exasperating size. Potts, for example, never got a closing-credits dance number.

(There’s also a totally fair criticism of the new movie that’s been eclipsed by the sexist censure: the fact that, once again, there’s one and only one black Ghostbuster and once again, that character isn’t a Columbia scientist but, rather, a working-class outsider who arrives late to the party. Not only is that retrograde; casting the incomparable Leslie Jones in a comedy and then delaying the introduction of her character seems like a tactical error.)

If the new Ghostbusters is ultimately swallowed in spectacle, it starts out strong: when the four fighters don’t have to shout over their own weaponry, their confident rapport and facility at character comedy make this a fun film to watch. McKinnon and Jones especially shine; not saddled with all the plot-advancing dialogue Wiig and McCarthy have, they milk each shot for everything it’s worth. McKinnon, in particular, steals the show with her wide-eyed but unflappable mad scientist who looks at proton accelerators the way Garbo looked at men.

Cannily, the new film comments on its own critics: the Ghostbusters share videos of their exploits on YouTube, where they’re immediately trolled. Then, they save the world.

Jay Gabler