You read that headline and gasped, didn’t you? I know, it came as a surprise to me, too. When I sat down in the theater on Friday, I expected a cute movie with lots of nods to the originals that would call upon my 80’s kid nostalgia in an attempt to win me over. Ultimately, I was braced for disappointment. Ghostbusters is a classic, after all, and the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig dream team isn’t for everyone. Their humor is hit-or-miss for me, so I accepted the very real possibility that, despite how much I wanted to like the new Ghostbusters, my initial impression of the trailer and the entire reboot concept would prevail.
For two hours (that passed far too quickly), I was gleefully proven wrong at every turn. The movie is funny, with more gags per minute than its predecessors. The production design is more exciting, the ghosts scarier (though nothing will ever top the horror of Winston’s phantom train encounter in the sequel). Ghostbusters‘s plot is, in essence, the exact same as the plots of the first two movies: a ragtag band of heroes that nobody takes seriously must save Manhattan from a siege of ghosts, and also there’s some kind of vortex. But this installment adds much-needed fixes to holes audiences have politely overlooked for thirty-odd years.
For example, the lack of a clear antagonist. While all the movies are, at heart, about bustin’ some ghosts, the first two featured villains who were either long-dead (only in the second movie did the villain actually appear on screen) or pasty bureaucrats. The reboot gives us an antagonist who shares the bleak motivations of Ivo Shandor, architect of the doomed apartment building in the first movie. Rowan North, played with twitchy perfection by Neil Casey, is connecting the dots on ley lines around the city, intending to open a portal to a ghost dimension in the basement of the hotel where he works. Though Shandor’s goals and North’s are ostensibly the same, North proves a more effective–and memorable–villain because he actually gets screen time, and the audience sees his evil plan acted out, rather than half-sketched in some jail-cell banter. When the villain isn’t dead and off-screen, or on-screen but confined to a few scenes of evil leering from a painting, watching him get his comeuppance is far more satisfying.
The mechanics of ghostbusting make more sense in the reboot, as well. By the mid-point of the first film, the storage unit where the ‘busters dumped their ghosts was filling up, and it took two to four members of the team to capture each ghost. In the reboot, the aim is to contain just one, for proof of the paranormal. Extraneous ghosts are disposed of with new weapons like proton pistols, grenades, and even a hand-held wood chipper. Without the need to indefinitely contain each spirit, the action sequences are bigger and more dramatic. The extended climax is so reminiscent of a FPS video game that you can imagine where the save points would be.
Of course, no movie can stand on the strength of its action sequences alone. When the cast was first announced, it was tempting to assign the role of Egon to Kate McKinnon’s wild-haired Holtzmann, or to equate Leslie Jones’s Patty with Winston Zeddemore based on race alone. Though Holtzmann and Egon share a common archetype, McKinnon wisely doesn’t confine herself to mimicking Harold Ramis’s performance. While Ernie Hudson was relegated to the role of the guy who occasionally asked questions as a way to spur more spoken exposition from the white characters, Patty comes in with enthusiasm for the work and a speciality of her own: she’s a brilliant historian whose knowledge of the city is integral to the plot.
As for McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, they’re as far from Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd as could be. And that’s a good thing. Murray’s Peter Venkman was a creepy, wannabe-womanizer. Aykroyd’s Ray constantly proved himself a liability. It would have been easy enough to build a new Venkman from McCarthy’s weirdo performance in Bridesmaids, but the script doesn’t push her to act in such broad comedic strokes. Her short-tempered, long-suffering Abby is more interested in exterminating ghosts and getting a decent cup of soup than she is in romancing clients. As the ambitious but clueless Erin, Wiig shares straight man duties with McCarthy, and her buttoned-up attitude is as far from the affable Ray as could be.
Some have claimed that Chris Hemsworth’s sexy secretary Kevin is misandry on par with the misogyny of the originals, but while Wiig’s Erin has a cringe-worthy crush on him, no one ends up actually bedding him. Contrast that with Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett, a smart, independent woman who is relentlessly pursued by Venkman and Rick Moranis’s Louis, and later ends up in bed with both of them (albeit possessed during her encounter with the latter). Even the ghosts in the original movie didn’t escape sexual objectification; in a scene that was always embarrassing to watch with your parents, one comely spook gives Ray a spectral blow job. You’d be hard pressed to find sex in the reboot at all, aside from Holtzmann’s aggressive charm. There are no clumsy romantic subplots, no Magic Mike-style ghosts. For all the allegations of estrogen ruining the franchise, there’s less romance in the female-led reboot than in the male-driven originals.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking the script spends its time trying to prove to us that girls can be ghostbusters. Apart from a few sly asides, the misogynist complaints from seething fanboys are largely ignored. Ghostbusters makes no attempt to win them back into the franchise, but it also doesn’t play up the rah-rah feminism angle it could have relied on. Before audiences even had a chance to see the movie, critical fans wanted to reduce the new characters to “just women”, while enthusiastic feminists exalted them as “yay, women!” Yet somehow, torn between these two extremes, Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold deliver fully fleshed-out characters with their own goals, motivations, and conflicts. These ladies aren’t anyone’s banner. They’re here to bust ghosts, crack wise, and build dangerous nuclear toys. Proving any kind of sociopolitical viewpoint is a fourth-place priority at best.
So, what about all the nods to the originals I was relying on to get me through what I expected would be just an okay-ish movie? There were tons of them! And they were all fun. At no time did they feel as though they were being used as a crutch; their presence felt more celebratory than nostalgic. Every time an original cast member appeared on screen, it felt as though we were being given their blessing to enjoy the movie, even though it isn’t the classic version. And I did enjoy it. I enjoyed it more than the originals.
So, what happens now? Now that I’ve seen the new Ghostbusters, found it funny and smart, and gotten myself in such a blasphemous position? Well, not much, really. I can still watch the original movies, and they’ll still fall flat for me in the same ways they’ve always fallen flat. But that’s never made me stop loving them before. My childhood is still intact. No one has confiscated my DVDs and banned me from ever watching the originals. Accepting that the new Ghostbusters is superior in several respects does nothing to tarnish the originals. In fact, it frees them. Now that we’ve seen that the originals could be improved upon, we can love them for what they are–flawed, dated, but ultimately fun comedies–and not the sacred cows of nerd culture they’ve become in the twenty-first century.