Directed by Paul Feig
Starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey
Just as she’s about to finally get tenure, physicist Dr. Erin Williams (Kristen Wiig) finds a (figurative) ghost from her past poised to hobble her career: a tome on the supernatural she wrote back in the day with her old friend, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Going to visit Abby, who is still operating out on the fringes of parapsychological research while Erin has paddled for the calmer waters of orthodox science. Erin gets roped into investigating a (literal) ghost haunting a stately Manhattan home, a supernatural encounter that sends her back into the loving embrace of fringe quackery and establishing a supernatural investigation agency along with Abby, weirdo engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and, later on, transit worker and self-taught historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). And just in time to thwart a looming apocalypse, too.
The 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters is huge fun. It’s terrifically funny, snappily paced, and peppered with well-executed action sequences that build to an FX-packed climax that, if it doesn’t quite make sense narratively, certainly satisfies on a thematic and emotional level. If it existed in a vacuum, it’d be almost universally lauded.
Of course, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, being a reboot* of the much-loved ’84 Reitman/Aykroyd/Ramis joint. It’s always going to be compared to its progenitor, but it stacks up favourably. In fact, one of the film’s biggest weaknesses is the way it continually invites comparisons to the original by way of frequent cameos and callbacks. To be fair, some of them work wonderfully (the tribute to Harold Ramis is nicely handled; a last minute credit sequence cameo is spot on), but the film is better and bolder when it’s yelling “Check this out!” rather than “Remember this?”
And there’s so much to check out. I dig the effects, and this is one film that is absolutely worth seeing in 3D. Director Paul Feig throws a black border around his frame (for at least some scenes/shots) and occasionally lets the action spill out over it – a nice, cheap, carnivalesque effect that makes rivers of ectoplasm and marauding spectres seem like they’re coming right at the audience. The aesthetic of the spooks is cool – a little more in keeping with the Halloween-mask look of Ghostbusters II rather than the more genuinely unsettling stuff of the ’84 film, but distinctive and memorable. There’s a repeated motif of ghosts having their skeletons visible through their “flesh” is a nice touch.
I dig the gadgets, which have an even more homemade, kit-bashed look that before. Yeah,we get PKE meters, unlicensed nuclear accelerators, and particle throwers, but we also get ghost-bashing knuckledusters and dual-wielded spirit-blasters. the new Ecto-1 isn’t a rebuilt ambulance, it’s a rebuilt hearse – that’s neat. On a related note, Ghostbusters HQ is in a disused Chinese restaurant, rather than the classic firehouse, which adds a little visual flair and variety.
But what really works are the characters and the dynamic that exists between them. Everyone involved here is extremely funny, for one thing, but they all also get a little extra something something under the hood to make them distinct; Erin’s plaintive need to be believed (her “why I study the supernatural” story is quite poignant), Abby’s brassy enthusiasm, Patty’s confidence and unpretentious intelligence, and Holtzmann’s…
Well, Holtzmann’s everything. McKinnon has crafted a comedic icon for the ages. Holtzmann doesn’t get much of an arc – she’s basically a classical mad scientist whose job is to build gadgets – but McKinnon just steals scene after scene with her antics. Hotlzmann is just so weird, but also completely consistent – there’s a whole character there, not just a collection of tics. It’ll take several viewings to get a handle on everything McKinnon’s doing here. Hell, McKinnon alone makes the whole thing worth several viewings.
Also bringing the thunder, comedy-wise, is Chris Hemsworth’s himbo receptionist, Kevin, a man so monumentally pretty he sends Erin into paroxysms, and so monumentally dumb he… well, that would be spoiling it. Hemsworth’s every line is a crackup. He’s also wonderfully, ineffectually heroic. One of the key charms of Ghostbusters is its refusal to vilify; Kevin is an idiot, but a big-hearted one. Andy Garcia’s mayor is an obstacle and an egomaniac, but not a villain; and so forth.
The unfortunate flipside to that is that the actual villain, Neil Casey’s Rowan, doesn’t really register. A put-upon nerd who is setting out to destroy the world in revenge for years of bullying and disdain, Rowan’s third act shenanigans seem weirdly disconnected and unmotivated. To be fair, Gozer and co were great visual gags and monsters rather than great villains, too, but at least they had the excuse of being essentially unknowable Sumerian deities.
And that’s something that’s missing, too: the sense of the weird that permeated the original, coupled with some actual scares. GB ’84 was a comedy, for sure (no matter what some of the crazier GhostBros might tell you) but it was infused with a great, heady sense of semi-plausible occult nonsense and some genuinely hair-raising moments – the Terror Dogs, the fridge scene, etc. I suspect you need a genuine loose unit like Dan Aykroyd on the writing staff to capture that and it’s a shame it’s missing (apart from some weak sauce business about ley lines), but if that’s the price you pay to keep Aykroyd away from every other aspect of the project, then so be it (seriously, the best argument against the assertion that Ghostbusters should be in the hands of its surviving original creators is everything Reitman and Aykroyd have done for the past 20 years).
All up GB2016 is a win. It’s bright, breezy, hysterically funny, and fun (they’re not quite the same thing). This is a genuinely enjoyable and respectful reimagining of a beloved franchise, and one worth returning to again in a year or two.
*If we’re going to split hairs, I would definitely call it a reboot rather than a remake. It takes the same basic narrative building blocks and uses them to push off into new and interesting territory. Think Batman ’89 to Batman Begins, rather than Fright Night to, well, Fright Night.