I wrote pretty much everything I need to write about the long-gestating (and long-feared) Ghostbusters adaptation when I reviewed Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the end of last year. And I thought everything I need to think as I came to grips with that movie in the repeat viewings to follow.
Does it excel? No, there’s too many storytelling problems and cut corners to make it perfect. It’s also far too beholden to the stories that have come before it to truly strike out on its own, feeling as though it’s dancing on the eggshells of decades of expectations.
But there’s something fundamentally good at its core. Not only an abiding admiration for the mythos on screen, but a deep desire that they carry on beyond the first generation that loved them. To that end, this film has created some fantastic new characters that connect with a new generation and sensibility of film lovers and future nerds and is composed with such a sense of propulsive fun that it almost doesn’t matter that scotch tape holds it together.
Am I talking about Force Awakens or Ghostbusters? Both, but check the headline to find out where this is gonna go.
If you’ve seen the original, you know what’s about to happen in Ghostbusters. A team of four busters (three scientist, one coming into science a bit later on ((yes, I know Zeddemore has a PhD, it’s not mentioned in the movie)) investigate paranormal activity in New York City to find that a malevolent figure threatens the world with ghost-based apocalypse.
Our scientists are Erin Glibert (Kristen Wiig), a Columbia physics professor laughed out when her ghost-hunting past is discovered, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin’s old partner and best friend and the firm believer in the supernatural, and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a mad scientist/engineer who puts the team’s equipment together. Our buster who comes into science is Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a history buff who joins the team after finding a ghost in the New York Subway system.
Our malevolent figure is Rowan (Neil Casey), a “picked-on nerd” who seeks revenge on the world by planting a series of devices around New York City to unleash “the fourth cataclysm” using the angry souls of the dead. Simple enough.
Before I get back to all these folks and how great they are, there are two things we need to talk about. I hate to do it, but even if I think both miss the point, they’ve gotta be addressed in this review.
First is the “controversy” around this film. From its announcement, there’s been a very vocal group that has sought to shit on this film’s very concept with reasons that amount at best to a misunderstanding of the work of director/writer Paul Feig to at medium a sense of nerd entitlement that has made that word ashes in my mouth as of late to at worst a deep and scantily-clad misogyny.
Fuck those people. That’s the dignity and discussion space I’m affording that particular contingent.
Second is what doesn’t really work about this film. When I said Ghostbusters was held together by scotch tape, I meant it. The propulsive energy of this film means that it’s skirting by most of its story points and it’s asking you not to think too hard about how it’s rushing through what’s going on. There’s a lot of “Wait, when did that/why did that happen?” that the film just needs you to accept. My guess is there’s lot left on the cutting room floor and it means the film feels a bit thin.
It’s also a film that’s just entirely too beholden to the original. It’s loaded to the brim with callbacks and references and cameos from the original Ghostbusters that feel like wasting time, like you’re pleasing a group at the cost of losing your own soul. It’s time the film could have spent establishing its own identity that it doesn’t take.
There’s also the nosedive this thing takes in its third act. Feig’s action skills are definitely his weakest and the entire third act is one big Ghostbuster action sequence. It feels far too generic and, besides a single glorious moment (which we’ll get to in a second), largely pretty inert. The movie’s strength is not in the action moments and the final act’s conceit just seems half-baked. It’s an idea that plays to some of what the film is working with throughout, but there’s not the weight or action creativity that it could have.
Overall, this is a mode of filmmaking that my feelings are still mixed on, where the film is fun and enjoyable and it works, but very much in spite of its own instincts. It’s character-based filmmaking and its filmmaking based in pleasure.
Which isn’t to say that’s not what this film needs. On the contrary, it is where this film excels. The central busters are great and work together extremely naturally as a team. You want to spend time with these people, which is why the original worked too.
Wiig and McCarthy are probably the two most underserved in the discussion around this film, and it’s mostly because they have the more…expected roles. Both do fine as our leaders and their friendship is a sweet emotional core to the film, even if they don’t excel.
Leslie Jones was the big question mark going in, and I think she does a fine job. She’s a representative of the energy of this film, huge and loud and really damned likeable. It feels like no one else could have played the character, partially because Patty is so based in Leslie Jones’ comedic persona.
Sorry, gonna jump back to the controversy for a second. A not so quiet contingent of the Ghostbros (yeah, just exposed myself) against this film argued that Leslie Jones’ character was a racist stereotype. Besides my sudden pleasure that a group of people do apparently earnestly care about the representation of black women on screen, I’m also just baffled that a group of people apparently didn’t bother basic research. Yes, she’s big and loud and brash…because that’s who Leslie Jones is. Just like every other star, Leslie Jones got to import her comedic persona into this film. Let’s not be telling a black woman how she can express her femininity or her blackness, shall we?
Anyway, let’s move on from that to the bright and shining star of this film…KATE MOTHERFUCKING MCKINNON. HOLY SHIT does she own this film. She plays Holtzmann as something entirely unique, a set of comedic controls and ticks that form a character equal parts mad scientist and quirky best friend. She’s insanely good in this film, always dominating the screen in a way that equals watchability rather than mugging. This is the kind of performance that makes stars, especially given how hard she owns her big action moment in the finale, the one moment of action grace.
Seriously, if nothing else, it’s worth your money to watch Kate McKinnon do her thing in this film. She is the next great comedy star if Hollywood knows what’s good for them.
Where I said before that the film feels too beholden to the original, it’s in these characters and the story they tell that the film feels as though it’s striking out and creating something of its own. Not just them, but the supporting characters that surround them, particularly Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), who is just ruthlessly hilarious as the busters’ too-dumb-to-live secretary, and Rowan, who Casey does a phenomenal job in giving a malevolent sorrow, and more importantly, in making textual the battles that went on around this film.
The villain is an angry nerd, furious at a world that he doesn’t feel gives him the respect or the opportunity that he deserves and taking it out on the thing that seem to be holding him back. Our central four receive little respect and have to fight and claw against a populace that doesn’t seem interested in giving them a shot. At one point, we hear an internet comment under one of their videos stating “ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.”
By the way, let’s talk about Feig’s surprising adeptness with creature designs. The ghosts are legitimately creepy, given an ethereal glow and a decay. They do look really really cool, and are actually utilizing the advances in technology to feel like it’s not just imitating what came before. You know, like a reboot should. It’s the mentality that carries this film.
Ghostbusters is trying to bring this mythos into the world that exists now, creating an identity that a generation can latch onto that maybe didn’t see themselves in Ghostbusters before. They’re fighting new battles and there’s something admirable about the way the film carves out a new generation, and most importantly a generation of young nerdy girls, a chance to see themselves on-screen and kicking ass.
Because that’s who this film is for. I’m along for the ride, but Ghostbusters is about finding a new way to share being a nerd with those who haven’t seen themselves in nerd culture. It’s great that there happens to be a series of great characters and performances to accompany that, and it sucks that it couldn’t be in a film that’s a little tighter and a little more trailblazing. There’s fun to be had, but it’s among flaws.
But that’s missing the forest for the trees. There’s a generation for whom this is the Ghostbusters, and I’m excited to see them grow up in a world that will allow them to be nerds on their terms, and not mine.
Rey and Finn. Holtzmann and Tolan. Get used to it folks.