Ghostbusters (2016)

As I’ve written here in the past, the original Ghostbusters is a movie I can’t really perceive objectively. Along with a few other movies I watched as often as possible when I was young, such as The Breakfast Club, The Dark Crystal, Tron, Aliens, and of course the original Star Wars trilogy, sequences from it are burned into my memory as somehow fundamental to the way movies work. There was no way any attempt at remaking this movie could possibly supplant it in my mind.

Complicating matters is that, as we know, the movie has been plagued by premature judgment, with an unfortunately subpar trailer compounding fears that the style of humor would be inferior, and an all-female principal cast obliging viewers to praise or pan the movie on political grounds rather than aesthetic ones. One’s opinion of the film would therefore become not a thumbs up or down on whether it was enjoyable, but a referendum on whether women should be allowed to bust ghosts.

And then the film came out, and people actually started to see it after they’d decided if it would be any good or not, and I got very worried when I saw that every woman I followed on Facebook or Twitter loved the film fervently and unconditionally, and almost every man gave it a half-hearted and mixed review.

To my relief, it turned out to be a reasonably enjoyable film. Comparisons I’d heard to The Force Awakens turned out to be solid on a lot of levels. In both cases, the parallels and callbacks to the originals were present but hardly as oppressive as I’d heard. Though this one takes place in a continuity where the original never happened (or was somehow, improbably, successfully covered up 100% by a more competent government than we see here), it never gives the sense of trying to overwrite what came before so much as comfortably slot into the present day and peacefully coexist. The beginning and ending are probably the most predictable parts if you’re familiar with the original, and most of what happens in the middle is almost inevitably what a movie based on this premise has to do.

Though my male and female friends disagree over whether this is the best movie ever made or just okay, they seem mostly united on the worthiness of the cast. I agree: I thoroughly enjoyed all four members of the ghostbusting team and loved the subtlety of the parallels and differences with the original cast. I hate to fall in line with the boring majority on this issue, but yes, Kate McKinnon absolutely stole the show as Holtzmann, often with nothing more than a maniacal sideways glance. She stalks every scene like an almost-feral animal, looking like she wants to lick everything and everybody she sets eyes on, almost casually belting out a stream of scientific jargon, enthusing about the number of uses she could find for an unused cadaver “this week.” I’m having a hard time thinking of a time we’ve ever seen a cooler scientist on the big screen, male or female, and that’s such a welcome thing. The supporting cast is just as great, for the most part, led of course by Chris Hemsworth as the hilarious himbo receptionist, and of the many cameos (including, yes, many of the original leads), only Ozzy Osbourne’s is one you’d want to cut.

Of course, most of the supporting cast are men, and of them almost all are at best cowardly or oblivious, and at worst filled with apocalyptic delusions. I described the average male in this movie as “charming despite massive inadequacy” in a Facebook post, which might explain why some men who have grown sensitive to our portrayal in the 0.25% of films in which we are not overblown superheroes felt miffed. As one of my friends pointed out, “charming despite massive inadequacy” used to be the default for female characters, and the partial shift that’s happened in recent years to “sidelined despite massive superiority” (see Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond for just one recent example of the kick-ass girl who doesn’t really matter to the plot; see also Black Widow in Avengers, and so on) isn’t much of an improvement. The only one here that bugged me a bit was the villain, for three reasons.

The first reason is that I really found the impending demonic invasion in the original film exciting, an ominous counterpoint to the goofy comedy at play. It somehow made more sense to me than the idea of some weird little psycho creating his own ghost-unbusting equipment based on our heroes’ theories, somehow hiding all of it in his workplace (?) and unleashing it on the city to fulfill his delusions of grandeur. The second reason is that the weird little psycho was either the weakest actor in the entire film, totally bland and unconvincing, or he was directed to seem like it. Perhaps, in an age where villains continue to be more seductive than heroes (Loki, the Ledger and Leto Jokers, and even Angry White Vader Fanboy Kylo Ren continue this trend), they deliberately set out to make this villain as banal as possible, someone you’d never want to dress up as for Halloween (though someone is doubtlessly planning to already). I can respect that, even if it succeeded so well it took me out of the movie.

And the third reason is that I wince pretty much every time a TV show or movie, especially a genre one, trots out the nerdy virgin male villain as an almost literal whipping boy. I get where it comes from; we think the internet is reality, and even though all of us are on it, we still have this idea that the meanest people on it have less of a life than we do, as evidenced by the fact that — what? They use computers? It’s a bit outdated as stereotypes go. But even if it were true that behind every single horrible tweet is a downtrodden pasty geek in his mom’s basement, when we look at who generally gets out from behind the keyboard and causes real harm in the real world past high school age, we’re just as likely to be talking about so-called alpha males. They’re guys who love guns and abuse their wives, or maybe they’re husband and wife teams. Or maybe they’re just rich white charismatic sociopaths, which even describes some of the worst internet trolls. So for the villain of this movie to be so clearly at the bottom of the food chain almost lends credence to his persecution complex. Fortunately, Melissa McCarthy’s character gently but firmly skewers said complex by matter-of-factly responding to his only-I-know-my-suffering complaints with, “no, people dump on us all the time too.” Whatever the truth is about the villains of the world, it’s true that almost all of them are still men of one stripe or another, and that the systematic, institutionalized “bullying” women experience daily has made almost none of them into homicidal maniacs.

It’s hard for me to imagine this film achieving the same iconic, quotable status the original has, just as it’s hard for me to imagine The Force Awakens becoming as quotable as Star Wars. But quotability is, shockingly, not the highest virtue a film can attain. As much as I love Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson, most of their dialogue could probably have survived being spoken by other actors; it was a tight script with the potential to stand alone. Here, the comedy often came not from the lines themselves but the performances of the ensemble; the hemming and hawing and underplaying of the lines undercut their crisp quotability, but that delivery was also what made them funny (apart from “that’s gonna leave a mark,” which probably hasn’t been funny since Animaniacs was on). Most of Holtzmann’s genius, as I’ve mentioned, was physical and vocal; “I think they’re dead” is not funny on paper, but absolutely hilarious in context coming out of McKinnon’s mouth.

And then again, who knows? Maybe a generation of kids who are turning 10 this year will see this fun, funny, breezily confident, perfectly charming, and more than adequate new Ghostbusters movie and it’ll make the same impression on them the first one made on me. “Aquariums are submarines for fish” might be the new “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” “Safety lights are for dudes!” might be their “Back off man. I’m a scientist.” And a new wave of girls AND boys might grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal for four women to save New York City when all the men around them are (like me, I dare to hope) charming despite massive inadequacy. There are far worse possible worlds I can imagine.

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