(Plus other thoughts on reboots, fandom gatekeeping culture, and what qualifies as feminist representation.)
I can’t remember the last time so much controversy surrounded a movie sight-unseen prior to the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters — most of it from appalling misogynistic chucklefarts that don’t deserve a word more devoted to them. For those of you concerned about the actual quality of the film, have no fear: it’s a winner. Funny as hell, rollickingly good fun, feminist in a way that’s sorely needed, and something that, while inviting inevitable comparisons to the 1984 classic, can and should be judged on its own merits.
Ghostbusters follows a group of four scientists, led by Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates (Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy), as they investigate various ghostly incidents happening across New York City. Erin and Abby have a history — they were friends since childhood, united in their drive to prove the existence of the paranormal, but fell out several years prior to the film’s start. A seemingly random haunting reunites them, joined by Abby’s engineer partner Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and former MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones).
There’s very little about Ghostbusters that isn’t a success. Katie Dippold’s script sparkles, tackling a project that fell under mass scrutiny before a single frame was seen with wit, restraint, and a distinct awareness of gender politics. After three box office hits (all starring women — how about that!), director Paul Feig knows how to balance humor with lovely moments of pathos. The charming quartet of performers strikes a skilled balance between honoring the spirit of the original while also allowing their own goofy, flippant brand of comedy to flourish; the rapid-fire improvisational style that characterizes most McCarthy-Feig flicks fits wonderfully within the Ghostbusters framework, and recalls the oddball genius of Ramis, Murray, Ackroyd, and Reitman that made the first as beloved as it is.
Like most remakes before it, Ghostbusters has to manage that thorny, delicate line between finding its own voice as a film while honoring the material that inspired it. Stray too far, it may not be recognizable. Stick too close, people cry foul that it’s a lazy copycat. And like most reimaginings, it’s not a perfect mix, but it is a solid one. There’s affection in almost every frame without being too slavishly devoted, aside from a handful of awkward references that don’t land (you don’t need to have characters say “Who are they gonna call?” and “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” we get it). The cameos are delightful, especially Murray’s and Annie Potts’s; a slo-mo fight scene set to the iconic theme is a highlight; and the essential elements that characterize the franchise remain intact.
On the flip side, the obvious fun had with the scenes of inventing nonsensical gadgets takes center stage over fully fleshing out the characters. There’s so much time spent figuring out how to Bust that the pacing wobbles, especially with the Save-New-York third act that verges on overlong and over-the-top (even if the sheer spectacle of it is gorgeous). The only non-scientist of the bunch is the only black woman, which feels token-ish, and other people of color are few and far between. Overall the film could have taken a bolder step into originality without losing any of its strengths, but at the same time there’s little harm done by sketching a familiar outline.
Because Ghostbusters works. There’s a vibrant energy to the proceedings, a defiant determination, thanks to an exquisitely matched group of performers. The chemistry between Wiig and McCarthy grounds the emotional story of a slowly healing friendship. Leslie Jones brings so much joyous heart and courageous resolve to Patty and deserved a movie of her own to shine. Then there’s Kate McKinnon, who rips the rug away from veteran comedians Wiig and McCarthy in a role that’s already become iconic. A quirky twitch of her eyebrow has a theater in hysterics, and when she awkwardly admits how much this newfound family means to her, it hit me to my core. (Infuriatingly, the studio wouldn’t let Feig confirm in-film that Holtzmann is a lesbian.)
That’s what the series is about, no matter the decade: friendship. Specifically between bullied, insecure outcasts, whose passions and interests have made them the subject of constant mockery, and this time, specifically between women. There are movies that celebrate nerd guys, and it’s past time for a similar rallying cry for girls. This is a story about the conjoined strengths of four distinctly different women who have unbridled enthusiasm for what they do. They build each other up for their skills and support each other as people. They laugh and tease and squabble and flirt without denigration. There’s no objectification via camera or menfolk— they get to wear hoodies and tennis shoes and overalls and skirts and the delirious smorgasbord of whatever constitutes Holtzmann’s wardrobe. They revel in their talents. No one fat-shames. Three of them are played by actors over forty. Nothing they do is for the benefit of a man, and neither plot nor character arcs depend upon their gender. They learn that despite wanting external validation, they don’t need it — and female acceptance/friendship is what helps them realize that. They feel good about themselves, and that’s hella empowering to witness.
Despite several choicely placed sexist dismissals, these Ghost Girls aren’t women fighting against the glass ceiling. They exist, because this is the way the world is. Women are scientists and engineers and non-fiction book enthusiasts. The books in Erin’s office are published texts by real female physicists. The more that women are normalized as the unquestioned, competent leads in blockbusters, the less they have to be normalized. Slowly but surely, with movies like this, the industry can change the status quo.
It may annoy some male viewers that the men don’t really matter — Chris Hemsworth shows off impressive versatility as the hilariously moronic secretary who the Busters keep around just for his looks, and the villain (Neil Casey) is an entitled internet troll, but how many women have suffered the same lack of characterization in how many male-driven movies? A lot.
I take reboots on a case-by-case basis. Some are dynamite. Others need to be dynamited in a dumpster fire. I cherish the classics as much as anyone (Ghostbusters has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid despite that goddamn ghost blowjob scene), and I want studio systems to support imaginative new ideas rather than endlessly recycle old material. So in a perfect world, would I prefer a movie about four lady ghost hunters that was entirely original and not based on an old premise? Of course. Would that movie get made with a $144 million dollar budget, top studio backing, and a massive marketing campaign? Nope. So I’m taking the good and celebrating it until the projectile-sliming ghost cows come home.
If you’re going to reboot something, do it like this. Understand the elements, but turn it on its head. Reinvent the norms. Challenge the assumed, explore the unexplored and ignored. Flourish in the opportunities we have to diversify and commentate. Cross the streams.
You can absolutely dislike this movie for reasons that aren’t misogynistic. You can hate it’s a remake of something you love, and maybe it’s not your style. Totally fine! But think about where your issues stem. If it boils down to the fact the ‘Busters are women, then you need to unceremoniously shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down. Your childhood is ruined? Cool story, bro. Funny how I didn’t see this level of visceral harassment about, say, Jurassic World or Robocop or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Halloween or any of the other ten thousand recent remakes.
This one isn’t about you. It’s about normalizing the presence of women in STEM fields. It’s about normalizing women as protagonists. It’s about this:
Art is a collective emotional experience. The property means something to you, but it isn’t yours alone. The dudeocricy doesn’t get to proprietarily gatekeep who enjoys it. Ghostbusters, and all beloved stories, belong to the culture at large: everyone who grew up watching since 1984, and the scores of new children who will grow up watching this one.
“I wanted for little girls to be able to see themselves up on the screen […]. The original one exists, so you can see boys doing it, but how fun for girls to have this experience!”
Ghostbusters isn’t the be-all end-all solution for cinematic feminism. But for those girls who love science and didn’t think they could pursue it as a career because they were mocked; for the girls who aren’t popular in school, who are passionate about what they love, and needed to hear the Ghost Girls say it’s okay to be who they are; for the girls who want to strap on a proton pack without shame and know they can now; I adored this movie down to my soul.