The release of a new reboot for an established franchise is often a time of controversy, more often than not, these are Kobayashi Maru moments, damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenarios. Older fans cling on dearly to the original, claiming blasphemy for any changes that deviate from the gospel, while new fans have to be won over, in order for the continued existence of the franchise. It is near impossible to do both and many films have failed spectacularly. Stepping up to the captain’s chair is Paul Feig and the Ghostbusters reboot/remake/sequel.
When ghostly apparitions start appearing in New York, physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and paranormal investigator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) attempt their research on the existence of the ghosts, enlisting the help of Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patti Tolan (Leslie Jones). As their investigation deepens, they start to realize that these are not just random hauntings and might be part of a grander, sinister plan.
Ghostbusters is an example of a film working better as the sum of its parts than its individual aspects. The characters, setting, plot beats all work as a whole, functioning as the Ghostbusters’ origin story. The structure is very much in the vein of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, we meet the first of our protagonists, before encountering another Ghostbuster or familiar plot element (the introduction of the familiar Ghostbuster’s logo is pretty cool). This method leads to an extremely natural story progression, adding pieces to the overall story as it goes along. The script keeps the storytelling tight. Scenes are usually short, snappy and get its point across before overstaying its welcome, what emerges is an extremely entertaining first two thirds of the film, it might have a two hour running time but you spend much of it giggling or spotting the cameos, there is a sense of purpose to the film, it wants to entertain.
Still the first two acts may have put the film clear of the ‘bad movie’ category but there are still a couple of gripes. Specifically, while there are several major differences from the original, like the cast, I still feel it could have been more different. While we get an intimate and interesting look at the lives of the Ghostbusters in the first two acts, the third act is only slapped on as an obligation, as we venture into a CGI fest climatic battle. It is every summer blockbuster finale where our heroes are locked into a pitched battle against overwhelming odds to save New York. We have seen this before, way too many times in way too many movies. It regrettably dilutes the overall quality of the film.
As mentioned above, the film is the sum of its parts. The individual technical aspects are unable to stand out beyond a few stylistic choices. Cinematography is never a comedy’s main priority. Since more than any other genre, Comedy relies on the performances of the actors. The movie does try to deviate from formula, providing gorgeously vibrant colour palette, the Ghostbusters headquarters above the Chinese restaurant comes to mind. It is one of the movie’s best sets, setting the fun and amusing tone. In addition to the colours, there is also a strong emphasis on production design. We catch several glimpses of Art Deco architecture, which provides the film a robust visual imprint to separate itself further from the rest of the films in the franchise.
Until the third act that is, then the cinematography and the production design, similar to the script, gets watered down. It is unfortunate that Paul Feig, as good as he with characters and comedy, is still inexperienced an action director. It shows, the finale’s CGI and green screen heavy action set pieces look blatantly recycled from the visuals of recent action movies, there is even a Zack Snyder-esque slow motion action sequence. I perfectly understand a need for the characters to be kicking paranormal ass for the sake of the third act, I just wished it was shot in a more visually arresting manner.
While the visuals do try to do something different, the same cannot be said for the soundtrack. A friend whom I watched the film with put it the best. ‘It is almost non-existent’. Which is an accurate assessment, there seem to be nothing done to flesh out the film’s aural signatures, which is a shame since we are dealing with a franchise rich in sound design. The soundtrack lazily coasts on tradition, relying on the ghostbusters theme song too much to provide dramatic tension through nostalgia. On the bright side, we hear the old Ray Parker Jr theme more often than the new cover by Fallout Boy and Missy Elliot, which sounded too desperate to be cool.
Feig is at his best when he is busy fleshing out his characters and Ghostbusters is no exception, they are interesting, layered and offbeat. Ghostbusters hold some of the best character work in this summer’s blockbuster season, characters are organically built up and forged into relatable, human and humorous people. The bulk of the credit must go to the actors for successfully executing Feig’s vision. Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are great as the straights of the comedy act, Abby Yates and Erin Gilbert, shining in their unsung roles. With the exception of a few physical comedy moments, McCarthy functions more as the sounding board for the rest of the cast, as they bounce jokes off her. Kristen Wiig plays it meek but deadpan, occasionally venturing out of her straight mode to demonstrate the awkward charm she is known for.
This is by design, their ordinariness allows contrast. Having a balance of seriousness and humour prevents the film from turning into a farce, and allows the comic duo of Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon to charge down field with the ball in hand to wreak comedic havoc. The contrast also makes that conversation about Patrick Swayze’s movie career sound all the more ridiculous and memorable. I like Patrick Swayze too.
Kate McKinnon is endearing as the eccentric Holtzmann, with her steampunk glasses and shock of blonde hair, she is hands down the most iconic looking member of the team. Responsible for much of the physical comedy, she is more quirky than actually funny, dancing, smiling and scowling as you giggle at her outrageous antics.
If McCarthy and Wiig are the straights and McKinnon holds fort for physical comedy, then much of the funny dialogue are in the capable hands of Leslie Jones’ Patti Tolan. Loud and insanely quotable (“I guess he is going to Queens. He is going to be the third scariest thing on that train.”), Jones deserves way more screen time, commanding every scene she is in with her vivaciousness and assertiveness. The role of Patti Tolan may be the only non-scientist in the team, but it works here. Patti is as much an intellectual as the rest, she knows way more about the history of New York than the other three combined and she gets to show that knowledge in several major scenes.
On the other spectrum, there are characters that benefit from a smaller presence in the film. Chris Hemsworth plays the Ghostbuster’s idiotic receptionist, Kevin. Kevin is definitely a funny character but his lack of intellect occasionally derails the story’s momentum, it is just impossible to believe someone can be stupid enough to struggle with answering a phone or making coffee. For what it is worth, the film knows to dial back on his appearances in the narrative, limiting them to opportunities where the punchline can be maximized.
Kevin is just one of several cases of the men in this movie, they are either portrayed as idiots, cowards or assholes, or all three. It should also be noted that it actually pretty hilarious and played for laughs. There is nothing wrong with it and if anything, these supporting characters are written to increase the protagonists’ motivations and relatability. It is not new to write supporting characters in a negative light to make the protagonists stand out and I do not expect a film of this nature to change that. The strength of the supporting cast is pleasantly surprising, along with the original Ghostbusters, who turn up for nostalgic cameos, it is also great to see Zach Woods, Charles Dance and Andy Garcia (who has a killer ‘Jaws’ reference) fill the minor roles.
Ghostbusters does have flaws, a weak finale and a non-soundtrack. But when compared to the strengths, the cinematography, production design, the script and performances, the end product is coherent and masks its weaknesses. You won’t even remember what went wrong.
It is quite unfortunate that there is so much controversy surrounding the film (most of it unjustified). This is a great movie. Besides, you Ghostbusters fans are lucky, you tried to hate on your own product and still got something good, you know what us anime fans have to deal with? We got Dragonball Evolution. Don’t even get me started on that Ghost in The Shell adaptation. Count your blessings, people.
The trolls get it wrong, no childhoods were ruined in the creation of this movie. With a great cast, a sharp script and nostalgic throwbacks, Ghostbusters provides all the laughs and thrills you expect from a summer blockbuster.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/