Hey, Look, the New Ghostbusters Didn't Kill Ghostbusters

Films aren’t, and have never been, a zero-sum game.


Ghostbusters has a long history of getting the reboot. The original film, the quirkily creative summer blockbuster of 1984, has been made, over the decades, into an aggressively mediocre sequel, and an aggressively mediocre cartoon, and an aggressively mediocre sequel to the aggressively mediocre cartoon (and also: comic books, video games, a theme park attraction, etc.). The newest Ghostbusters, however, might be most notable in its unique ability to have—long before its trailer appeared and even longer before the film premiered in theaters—really Pissed People Off. The newest iteration would be, indignant fans of the original scoffed, a straight reboot, not a sequel, and thus might pose a threat to the Ghostbusters canon; for another thing, they scoffed some more, the eponymous specter-slayers would this time around be ladies, which probably meant that the beloved franchise would be converted, come July of 2016, into Sex and the City with slime.

Trolls, anger, hype, backlash, critics declaring their plans to boycott the film, a campaign to make the film’s trailer the most disliked YouTube video of all time: Soon, the new Ghostbusters was so freighted with the concerns of a shape-shifting culture that the movie’s quality, as a film and as a piece of summer entertainment, became at once beside the point and the only thing that mattered. For a moment, it seemed, the future of women in Hollywood—and the future of feminism itself—would be riding on the shoulders of Paul Feig, Ivan Reitman, Melissa McCarthy, and some CGI-ed ghosts.

Well. I am happy to report—not at all for the sake of feminism but definitely for the sake of summer entertainment—that the new Ghostbusters is good. It is actually pretty great! It’s funny, and nuanced in its funniness: hehs to haaaaaaas to lols. Big-budget movie comedies of the moment tend to involve jokes that mix the high and the low, the soaringly human and the stupidly so; Feig is one of Hollywood’s most skilled strikers of that balance. And so Ghostbusters, true to Feigian form, unapologetically combines ghosts and guns and gags and girl power. There are Abbott-and-Costello-y set pieces about a dog named “Mike Cat,” and Adam Sandler-y jokes about farts, and delightfully Seinfeldian riffs—callbacks to the original Ghostbusters’ fondness for Chinese food—on the proper ratio of liquid to dumpling in wonton soup.

There are also moments of visceral, apparition-driven spookiness: a squeaky door that calls to mind the Jaws theme song in its anxiety-making abilities; a guy (the human silly putty who is Zach Woods), violating all the rules of every horror genre, attempting to evade a ghoul by going into a basement. (“You idiot,” he mutters, realizing his mistake.)

The Ghostbusters of 2016 is, to be clear, a reboot of the original in only the broadest sense of the term. Much more than a scene-by-scene, character-for-character redo, the new version takes the story and the themes of the original and pays tribute to them, both subtly and (when the occasion demands it) without any subtlety at all. Peter Venkman, Billy Murray’s loutish, lying parapsychologist, has been replaced with Erin, Kristen Wiig’s bumbling-but-badass physicist; the Chinatown firehouse that housed the Ghostbusters business in the original—and that today, given New York’s housing costs, would be more at home on Million Dollar Listing than on Ghost Hunters—has been replaced by the dingy attic of a Chinese restaurant. This time around, too, the jokes are even snappier and more rapid-fire; the slimy spirits are even awesomer; but the proton packs retain every bit of their delightful mid-‘80s kitsch.

The new Ghostbusters is also, given its status as a reboot, extremely—sometimes almost painfully—aware of itself, and of its predecessors. There are pretty much all the original-cast-member cameos you’d expect (with the sad exception of Rick Moranis, and the even sadder one of Harold Ramis). There are many, many other bits of fan service, too (as when the door to Erin’s Columbia office, poking fun at the graffiti-laden door of Peter’s, is festooned with a sign reading “DO NOT WRITE THINGS ON THIS DOOR (STUPID)”). There’s also a very good marshmallow joke.

But if there’s any big flaw in Ghostbusters, besides the minor—several of its jokes fall flat; its ending is a little too neat, and goes on a little too long—it’s that the new film suffers, occasionally, from too much fealty to the original. The 1984 Ghostbusters, after all, featured ghost-to-human oral sex and a woman getting pawed by a claw-handed spirit. The new one mocks the old one’s blatantly casual sexism … by engaging in its own blatantly casual sexism. (This time, it’s directed at Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the Ghostbusters’ absurdly handsome and comically un-smart secretary.) The old Ghostbusters featured egregious-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness product placement—Coke and Bud and Cheez-It and Smuckers and Oscar Meyer; the new one mocks that … by engaging in its own egregious-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness product placement. (In one scene, the ghostbusting nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) munches voraciously on the contents of a can of Pringles, explaining, “You try saying no to these salty parabolas.”)

One major change, though: Instead of “ghosts” as a general menace, the new Ghostbusters takes a cue from the comics that are themselves the subject of endless rebooting, and appoints a more specific villain: a guy who is attempting to summon ghosts to do his evil bidding. Who tells himself, in full comic-villain stupor, that “the universe shall bend to your will.”

Might that villain also be a stand-in for all the nameless, faceless people who decried the mere existence of a lady-centered Ghostbusters as an affront to the original version, and also to the Hollywood studio system, and also to basic human dignity? Perhaps. The movie does, occasionally to its detriment, go out of its way to mock those people—and the platforms that host them, among them YouTube and reddit. ( “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts,” the new Ghostbusters read, from the comments section of a YouTubed ghost movie-within-a ghost movie.)

In that sense, though, Ghostbusters is engaging in one of the most valuable aspects of the culture’s current reboot mania: It is serving, in its very re-ness, of evidence of all that has changed, for better or for worse, since 1984. In the years since the original Ghostbusters premiered, 9/11 happened. The web happened. CGI improved. Feminism got normalized, and then commercialized. Ghostbusters has taken all those shifts and, in the manner of well-aimed proton packs, concentrated their energies. The new, lady-led cast offers an opportunity to consider how far women have come since 1984, and since 1989: While the originals featured Dana (Sigourney Weaver) playing a sexed-up damsel in distress, here, it’s the women who are doing the rescuing. Here, yes, Erin fights a ghost wearing high heels; here, a joke is made about the silly sartorial choice. The messages are more nuanced, too: Here, believing in ghosts makes one not iconoclastic, as it did for the men of the original, but potentially that most loaded of gendered epithets—“crazy.”

So Ghostbusters is, as every film will be, a product of its time. The new version features women gleefully flinging guns and getting tossed against brick walls and being friendly and being angry and shooting fire extinguishers, in one of the film’s most un-subtle visual metaphors, out of their crotches. It features women who are a little bit sexist, and women who enjoy a little bit of violence, and women who never talk about kids or manicures or sex. It is arguing that women are like men, and also unlike them. It is, in other words, a little bit conflicted about women—and about what feminism wants to argue to, and within, the world of 2016. It is unsure whether “girl power,” the thing and its qualifier, is something to be fought for, or to be railed against.

Which is to say that Ghostbusters is as conflicted as many people are about sex and gender roles and feminism and “empowerment.” Like its predecessor, it defines its times and is defined by them, and it is extremely difficult to tell where the one ends and the other begins. Like its predecessor, future generations will likely deem it both prescient and regressive, and in pretty much equal measure. A ghost is something that hovers and haunts, stuck in the awkward space between the past and the future. So, for better or for worse, are movies.