PREAMBLE: THE GHOST OF FRANCHISE PAST
I can’t remember whether I first learned about Ghostbusters through the TV show or the toys, and I’m not sure if that matters. In the mid-eighties, so many franchises that were marketed towards children was a television show with a colossal toy line tied in, and they bled together seamlessly. It’s pretty plain to see – at least in the part of my brain that wears a tinfoil hat – that there was some insidious angle to this method. Perhaps it was to indoctrinate a generation of people into embracing mindless consumerism so big businesses could spend years getting away with horrible crimes against humanity by dangling newfangled baubles in front of the doe-eyed masses. I’m pretty certain this is how everyone is able to ignore all of those pesky child labour reports.
Oh, good, I’m already veering.
I was drawn to the show because I always loved monsters, and luckily for me Ghostbusters provided plenty. Each malformed face or gangly body that made its way across the screen filled me with delight, and it was a joy watching them get blasted and sucked into floor-traps. When I learned about the live-action films, I couldn’t wait to watch them both, and gladly absorbed them when I got the chance.
After that, my interest largely waned. I do remember briefly getting into Extreme Ghostbusters when I was technically far too old for such a serial. Past that, and one issue of the comic I’d read where the heroes didn’t fight the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that were advertised on the cover, I’d distanced myself from the franchise. It existed in the back of my mind, though. My interest was reignited when Bob Chipman released an analysis of the first film, and it left me so impressed that it actually warranted a re-watch. Well, I had it playing in the background while I was doing other things, but shush, I’m making a point.
So, imagine my surprise when I learned that Paul Feig was working on an all-female reboot of the franchise. “Hot damn,” I thought to myself. “I’ve never seen Bridesmaids and I’m not rushing to see it, but a lot of my friends said it was really good. Maybe I’ll give the new film a shot! I’m sure it’ll be great!”
We all know how everyone else felt.
When the trailers dropped, it attracted ire from a number of sides. The whole internet ignored everything else that happened on March the third to get mad and opinionated about a remake. While there were true believers in the film’s quality, there were complaints that whatever new film the studios cranked out wouldn’t have had the same staying power or appeal that the first film did. There were, also, rumblings among the more foul ranks of the internet who thought that the film was part of some leftist agenda to destroy masculinity, that having an all-female Ghostbusters would somehow bring about the end times for men. Even Sony itself got in on the action and used the vitriol from the grosser old-guard fans as marketing fuel, in a gesture that very much screamed: “See this movie or the terrorists win.”
I’m not here to talk about the internet misogynists, though. Everyone else already did that for me. Hell, the film itself already did that for me. I’m here to crack a different nut. I want to know what it is about this film that has left people so deeply polarized, and I want to give some of the significantly-less odious critics and naysayers the benefit of a doubt. So, let’s ask: what is it about a remake of a thirty-two-year-old comedy movie about ghosts that put the world on its head?
PART ONE: A SPIRITED ADVENTURE
Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, I saw the film the day it came out, and sorry, but I didn’t hate it. Let it be known that I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with it, either.
If you’re looking for a review, here it is. The film itself had a lot of really fascinating components that I was really hoping to see explored in greater depth. Stringing all of these aspects together into a narrative, however, didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth. Not every joke landed, but the ones that did stood out. Not every ghost looked good, and I wanted to know why some ghosts looked like pilgrims and death row inmates while others looked like parade floats and dragons. There were ideas in there that I liked, though: the swarm of ghost rats rushing out of the subway, the executed prisoner still conducting electricity from his time on the chair, and the colossal Uncle Sam/Baron Samedi figure skulking around in the trailer. All good.
On the characters, some of their beats were off by a country mile. Erin and Abby were interchangeable, and it would have been good to see more tension between them, especially if Wiig played up the angle of Erin being more of a frumpy academic while McCarthy kept to her character’s childlike wonder and attitudes. That being said, Patty and Jillian were fun to watch on screen. I especially liked how Jillian’s immature mania bled away whenever she spoke about tech or her new friends, and also welcomed Patty’s blunt observations of the world around her while bringing a deep knowledge of history to the table. I also appreciated the gender-bent dumb blonde stereotype that was Kevin. I’ve known a few guys who have gotten away with all kinds of crap because they were handsome and charismatic, despite not being as knowledgeable or as together as they looked, so it was nice to see that lampooned.
Then there’s Rowan. To be honest, there were a lot of missed opportunities here. It’s interesting to see how other kinds of people would flourish in a Ghostbusters universe, and bringing in a Unabomber/Elliot Rodger figure into the mix was a curious decision. Unfortunately, what we ended up with was a one-dimensional caricature, with the actor hamming up each line, and no clear idea as to how he gained the know-how to summon spirits and increase their power beyond reading it in Abby and Erin’s book. It would have been interesting if he was Abby’s first assistant, someone Abby had to let go of because of his creepy tendencies and obsessions. That would have added more to Abby’s character and contributed an interesting arc to her story, knowing that she had actively trained the film’s antagonist and creating a problem that she and her new team would have to fix.
Despite my criticisms of Feig’s Ghostbusters, it’s not like Reitman’s original film was perfect, either. It bothers me that Winston’s role was minimized in the final version, given that the original character was meant to be an overqualified ex-marine rather than just a working class hero, but even with that change he would have been an interesting addition to the cast early on. Dana merely existed to be proven wrong about Venkman, and in the middle of all that be kidnapped by the big bad and turned into a preening seductress until the all-male cast rescues her. Walter Peck’s sudden introduction in the third act annoyed me to no end, because he came out of nowhere and seemed to be there to put a wrench in the team’s plans. You could have easily had Lewis shut the power at the firehouse and had the team arrested for destroying city property, and it would have had the same effect. Plus, characterizing Peck as an environmentalist with genuine concerns is uncomfortable at best.
There’s no denying that both of these films hit the right notes for so many people. Whatever I have to say about Feig’s Ghostbusters is pointless. People liked it. At the very least, the general consensus was that it was fine. Patty and Jillian’s presence have black and lesbian moviegoers throwing up the horns with joy. Bigger than all of that, kids love it, with boys and girls buying the toys in droves.
The passion and investment in the franchise must be perplexing for people who aren’t familiar with the development. How exactly did all this start? Let’s step back for a minute – like, way back – and have a history lesson.
PART TWO: RAISED INTO A LIGHTNING STORM
Not much in Ghostbusters was all that new. Ghostbusters was hardly the first supernatural comedy, nor the first property to use weird science to capture or monitor entities from beyond the veil. William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder is an excellent example of that. Even the Filmation serial where Ghostbusters got its name from had a device that sent spirits back to the netherworld.
It was, however, a product of the era’s attitudes, particularly towards science and spirituality. The film was birthed by Dan Akroyd’s interest in the paranormal, and in the bevy of articles he’d been reading on quantum physics and pseudoscience. Plus, as other, better analyses of the franchise have detailed, the first Ghostbusters film was itself a reaction to both Satanic Panic and the past hundred years or so of paranormal investigation literature. It took the ideas of people who wondered whether or not ectoplasm could be collected, and the fears of our plane of existence being invaded by otherworldly horrors, and decided to put clown wigs on them both. This wasn’t the only string in the film’s bow, mind. The lead actors’ collective star-power, by-products of their time spent on Saturday Night Live, was a big draw.
Then the second film came out, and everyone responded with a collective shrug. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who follows the sequels to comedies. However, I think the main reason for Ghostbuster II’s failure was because the animated series had been running for a couple of years prior to its release, and it almost seemed like the producers pushed to make the film more like an extended episode of the cartoon. I can’t exactly blame the studios for their reluctance to make a third film, or even consider it, given the second film’s critical failure and fan favourite Bill Murray’s increasing disinterest in sequels in general.
Plans for a Ghostbusters III were laid, but over time it slowly dawned on moviegoers and the fandom that it might never come to pass. Certainly, there must have been some diehards who saw how everything from Terminator to Bridget Jones’ Diary were getting some extra films in their roster and were holding out hope, but the death of Harold Ramis must have been the final nail in that coffin. In fact, reading through Reddit threads and comment sections, that seems to be a prevailing complaint from the Ghosthead ranks (once you filter out everyone whinging about “Feminist Propaganda,” that is). The fans think they deserve a sequel. They’ve been dedicated to the cause for so long, and had been holding out hope for over two decades, only to have their hopes finally dashed.
I have a few questions on that matter, personally. First and foremost, would anyone really embrace a direct sequel to the original films, decades after the last film in the series came out? Bringing back the original cast for one last hurrah wouldn’t exactly save it, neither would a direct passing of the torch to the next generation of talent. Look at some of the other “long-awaited” sequels and see how well they handled that concept. Hell, Tron: Legacy and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have set off some alarms that a Ghostbusters III this late in the game was not a good idea.
Secondly, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with remakes, or reimagining a beloved property. While many remakes are by nature lazy or overblown attempts to make decades-old lightning strike twice, they can be welcome if they approach it from a different perspective and somehow connect the property to the current zeitgeist. John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the best horror films out there. Not only did it draw more from the original story, but it also tapped into the collective hypochondria experienced in the 1980s as the HIV epidemic spread. Speaking of monster movies, many know that the original Godzilla was a manifestation of post-nuclear terror in Japan, so it’s imperative for the titular beast of Shin Godzilla to represent the fears of post-Fukushima Japan. Plus, couldn’t it be said that reimagining old Shakespeare plays so that they take place in any number of new settings, from 18th Century Denmark to 20th Century Chicago, part of the appeal for modern fans?
This isn’t to say that anyone is in the wrong for being against remakes as a concept. Believe me, I was there with you when the first trailer for Total Recall hit. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should always throw our hands up and cry foul when an old property gets a new coat of paint – especially if it might become something special to a new crop of film fans.
And that, good reader, is what I saw.
PART THREE: THE PHANTOM OF THE CINEPLEX
I went to see the film in the middle of the afternoon, because at the time I was working evenings and weekends. The theatre I went to was packed. It was full to the brim with parents and their children and gaggles of excited teenagers. There was one seat left in the house, and it just so happened to be next to one of the biggest haters in the world. This young man, who for some reason left the house in track shorts and what looked like a wool blazer, sat there with his arms folded and harrumphing throughout the whole film.
As the movie played on, there were a lot of jokes and moments that didn’t exactly hit me, but the audience seemed to love them. The saltier-than-the-Dead-Sea fanboy barely reacted to anything he saw. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him looking around the room, eyeballing the crowd and trying to understand why they were enjoying the film more than he was. In the end, he left five minutes before the movie finished, and his visible disgust was drowned out by the huge pops from a room full of families and teens. I’ll never understand why that young man spent thirteen dollars for a ticket on the opening weekend for a film he knew he wasn’t going to like, but the whole experience gave me pause.
What I came to understand was that this film was not for me, or for my generation of fans, but tailored more for the newer generations. That’s why the comedy doesn’t affect me, or why the visual effects irked so many people, or why the Ghostbusters in this new film have a slew of gadgets designed to dismantle and incapacitate spirits rather than simply sealing them away. To try and get inside the head of a massive faceless corporation for a minute, it’s evident that Sony realized that Ghostbusters hit home for a lot of children, and that the past thirty years of merchandizing was directed at children first, then collectors and diehards second – many of whom were most likely the first generation of children that the film spoke to.
So, no, Feig’s new film is not the Ghostbusters I grew up with. It will never be that film, because that film was already made and it has already left its mark. For those of you who are genuinely mad at the film’s existence for legitimate reasons (and not because you now have to share the hobbyist playground with girls and apparently you think that’s a bad thing for some reason) check your shelves or Netflix queues. I guarantee you that the original film hasn’t been destroyed. All your old toys and lunchboxes are still where you left them. Harold Ramis’ grave hasn’t been unearthed and a Sony rep didn’t take a shit on his body. All these things, and whatever fond memories you have with them, haven’t gone anywhere. They are still with you, and continue to be.
In the end, remakes are not the destruction of art. They are alternatives. It’s like a cover of a popular song, or a Mona Lisa with anime eyes and a Freddy Krueger hand. No, they’re not original, and they don’t always work, but they do deserve a chance to disappoint or impress you. The other alternative is that you could just not see the film and do something else with your life.