Warning: depending upon your spoiler sensitivity level, you may want to skip the plot synopsis (red) until after you’ve seen the film.
Ghostbusters (2016) comes to us in a world saturated with sequels and remakes and reboots that no one wanted, needed, or asked for—and finally, we get a reboot we actually deserve.
I have a lot of love in my heart for 1984’s original Ghostbusters, which came out in theaters when I was way too young to see it. I remember my parents showing me the movie when I was a bit older, and recall that I thought the first ghost in the library was absolutely fucking terrifying, and that Egon was my favorite ghostbuster. I have a moderate little wad of affection for the at-times cringe-worthy sequel, Ghostbusters 2. I got up extra early on Saturday mornings for years so I could watch The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series. I owned action figures. My Ghostbusters love is not a matter for debate.
Two years ago, for the thirtieth anniversary of the movie, I got to watch Ghostbusters (1984) properly in a movie theater. It was still funny, and fun, and I still loved it to pieces. But it broke my heart a little when adult me noticed the incredibly creepy sexism of Venkman that child me skated around and just thought was at worst an endearing quirk.
And now today, I rode my bike over to a movie theater so I could eat some overpriced popcorn and watch a new Ghostbusters that made it all better.
On its surface, this new Ghostbusters has a lot in common plot-wise with the old Ghostbusters. A team of scientific-minded paranormal investigators starts catching ghosts in New York City and notices that the ghastly activity is ramping way the hell up. They’re called frauds by some and loved by others. They figure out their technology, realize what the hell is going on, and try unsuccessfully to stop the coming spiritual apocalypse. Then it’s showdown time.
But one twist that really marks the departure from the original is that the villain of Ghostbusters (2016) isn’t an apartment building or an ancient god, but an ordinary man named Rowan (Neil Casey) who might as well be a stand-in for every internet neckbeard who’s been desperately trying to slime the movie since its inception. His entire motivation is anger at the world for not recognizing his genius and throwing itself at his feet—and it’s made absolutely explicit when he says as much to Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and she points out yes, this is the same sort of thing all of the female ghostbusters deal with daily. The difference is they lack Rowan’s profound sense of entitlement.
Makes you wonder how much of Rowan’s role (and his amazing sideburns) got scripted after the internet backlash started up. There’s also some delicious pokes about people being jerks in youtube comments.
In a way, 2016’s Ghostbusters is a film in dialog with its original. It reaches for the things that made the original film so great—the humor, the inherent ridiculousness of the supernatural crossing into an otherwise ordinary world, and ghosts that are just scary enough to make the stakes feel real without crossing the line into horror. It borrows a few of everyone’s favorite beats from the original (the team’s first encounter with a ghost, something giant destroying the city, etc) but turns them sideways enough to make it feel like a joke between friends, a wink, not outright copying like we felt from The Force Awakens. The story of Ghostbusters 2016 is very much its own, and the characters have their own lives. There is no female Egon, Venkman, Ray, or Winston—we get Abby, Erin, Holtzmann and Patty and they are decidedly themselves. It’s a parallel universe in which the events of 1984 never happened, but we can still see beloved old landmarks like the firehouse.
And it’s a reaction to the less-than-stellar parts of the 1984 film, tweaking them, mocking them, and holding a mirror up to them. Instead of an all-male team, we get an all-female team. Instead of Janine as the receptionist and Dana Barrett as the victim of both ghosts and Venkman’s creeping, we get Chris Hemsworth as the puppyishly dumb beefcake receptionist Kevin. And while Erin (Kristen Wiig) does a bit of objectifying and creeping at Kevin of her own, she notably doesn’t get rewarded for it at the end with a relationship.
The one part of the Ghostbusters (1984) legacy that 2016 doesn’t face so head-on is the profound injustice done to the character of Winston Zeddemore, the only non-white ghostbuster in the original. Ernie Hudson has written with heartbreaking eloquence about his experience of Winston’s character being diminished, of disappearing as the “soul” of the original team. There was a chance to have made that completely right with Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones)—and the movie does make a start. From the moment she appears, Patty is knowledgeable, independent, and determined. She decides to join the team because she feels she has valuable skills and wants to be part of the action. And from that moment, she is an integral part of the Ghostbusters who doesn’t ever disappear from the screen. She is undeniably the soul of the team that Winston was supposed to be. But listening to her get diminished as the only non-scientist was still damned painful.
So you get all of the above meta meatiness, and then the movie is fucking hilarious. I laughed more at this film than I ever laughed at the original. The end credits sequence alone almost killed me. The four women who make up the team are all excellent comedians in their own right, and what they make together is hilarious magic. Even better, they form a solid team of close friends—and the film never resorts to the sort of in-team friction as plot driver that we’ve seen in every damn Avengers-adjacent film. The fact that this is happening in an all-female team, where the women support each other and protect each other, feels even more profound because that is still so unusual, particularly in comedy.
Chris Hemsworth deserves his own paragraph here as well, for his amazing turn as a lovable buffoon who is a walking non sequitur with extremely nice pecs. This is probably the best role I’ve ever seen him in, and you can tell he’s having a hell of a good time—and so is everyone else, including all of the major castmembers of 1984’s Ghostbusters. There’s a Stan Lee-esque cameo in the film for each one of them, every appearance more delightful than the rest. Bill Murray wears a fedora. This is not a drill.
Perhaps the thing I’m the least thrilled about in the whole film were the CGI ghosts (though the mannequin was damned creepy) for the same reason I’m generally not thrilled any time there’s a lot of obvious CGI in a live action film. It’s less egregious when it’s ghosts, because they’re not supposed to look entirely real anyway, but there were too many of them. It felt like action for the sake of having an action sequence and using some of the special effects budget.
But really? It was hella fun. I’m going to see it again. I’m going to buy it when it comes out for home video and watch it regularly. And I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that if 2016 gets a Ghostbusters 2, it’ll be a damn sight better than the original.
And yet, I still can’t say that I love it more than I loved the 1984 movie. I don’t think that’s a judgment on the quality of the 2016 version, but rather an artifact of the original film being so ingrained as part of my nerd psyche. I grew up watching that movie. My older brother was a freaking ghostbuster one Halloween. The original, warts and all, is indelibly in my blood. And with that history in my head, the 2016 film will always feel a little derivative, a little unoriginal even if it does everything better than the first film did and I can watch it without cringing every time Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver are on screen together.
What I do wonder is how it will feel to those for whom Ghostbusters (2016) is their first love, and they go back to watch the 1984 film. I wouldn’t be surprised if this new one, with its hilarious women and doofy male receptionist accidentally poking himself in the eyes, will be their favorite, and rightfully so.