I can’t wait for the sequel to Ghostbusters 2016. The characters are so engaging, their world is so fun and the actresses are so incredibly likeable that I’m excitied to see more… in a film that doesn’t feel endlessly beholden to bow in the direction of the 1984 original every five minutes. And perhaps in a film whose script actually works in the third act. But definitely in a film that is as funny and full of energy as this one.
In this version of Ghostbusters, which has tons of nods to the original but is set in a different continuity, Kristen Wiig is Erin Gilbert, a physicist about to get tenure at Columbia University. When she discovers that a ghost hunting book she wrote years ago with her then-best friend has been republished and could impact getting tenure, she goes off to confront the pal: Melissa McCarthy as Abby Bates.
Abby works out of the basement of a rinky dink college alongside Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann, and the two have made real progress in coming up with tech to deal with the paranormal. A series of events occur (as they tend to do in narratives) and soon enough Erin is joining Abby and Holtzmann on a ghost hunt at a historic mansion where they come face to face with a free floating apparition that gaks up a gallon of ectoplasmic goo, and for these three women it’s off to the spook show as they begin battling phantoms and haunters across New York City. Along the way they pick up some more help - Kevin, the receptionist who is so stupid that it’s clearly only his astonishingly good looks that have allowed him to survive this long (played with comedic excellence by Chris Hemsworth) and Leslie Jones as Patty, an MTA worker who also happens to be a New York City history buff, a helpful skill when tracking down the deceased.
The first half of the film, which brings these characters together and has them playing off one another while occasionally meeting up with supernatural threats, is an absolute blast. Director Paul Feig gets the Ghostbusters formula pretty well - make the characters funny and, for the most part, the ghosts scary. In this film the ghosts have an incandescent black light essence that recalls The Haunted Mansion aesthetic, but with the added punch of being actually scary looking. The designs - which would look at home on the cover of Fangoria - are made appropriately fantastical by the glowing and shimmering effects, and I love this film’s vision of ghosts - they're all on a fear level equivalent to the original's Librarian ghost.
But the movie has an overarching plot, and once that truly gets started things get shakier (which, to be fair, is similar in the original film). See, the uptick in supernatural events in New York City isn’t an accident, and it turns out someone has been setting up devices intended to break the veil between life and death and bring a cataclysm to Earth. That guy: an angry, lonely, bullied nerd.
We have to talk about this a bit, because the movie sure does. This new Ghostbusters has been a target of scorn since it was first announced that it would star an all-female main cast. Angry misogynist nerds rose up to whine and complain, using any argument they could, including the INSANE one that the original wasn’t even a comedy (the original is, first and foremost, a comedy). The sound and the fury has only increased as the movie has gotten closer to release, and in many ways this new Ghostbusters has transformed from just a movie to a political stance - your thoughts on feminism and progress are defined by whether or not you’ll give this film a fair shake. At some point this all became clear to the filmmakers, and so the movie includes scenes where the still-forming Ghostbusters look at YouTube comments on their ghost videos and find angry, misogynist nerds proclaiming (and I’m paraphrasing here) “bitches can’t bust no ghosts.” Towards the end the Ghostbusters attack the bad guy (who has taken on the form of the Ghostbusters logo!) by shooting their proton beams at his dick.
These two bits (which are both great) stand out because the rest of the movie is so matter-of-fact about the gender of its protagonists. Sure, we could talk about the way all the film’s obstructionist authority figures are men, or the way that the one woman in the mayor’s office becomes their pal or the fact that Erin’s outfit is the subject of scorn from her dean, but in general you could have made this exact same movie with male leads (and a hot woman in the Kevin role) and change almost nothing. That, I think, is the most explicitly feminist thing about the movie - it’s just a movie that happens to star mostly women. Their gender has little to no impact on the story… although like I said, it hangs over the film on a thematic level.
Anyway, once the movie kicks into plot mode and the Ghostbusters - who still feel incredibly inchoate when the third act rolls around, not at all like the seen-it-all blue collar workers of the original - go to take on Rowan, the angry nerd who wants to end the world, everything starts to stumble. One of the third act’s central conceits, that Rowan’s piercing of the veil turns modern Times Square back into its filthy 70s version, comes across as half-baked. A procession of historical ghosts - a Puritan! A Revolutionary War soldier! - never makes a real impact. The battle itself is long and doesn’t play to Paul Feig’s strengths, as it’s never fully character-based (any character could take the part of any other character in the final battle, which is not a good sign). The battle doesn’t really even stick to the film’s own rules, as the proton packs destroy ghosts as opposed to holding them. The climax, it must be said, is whiffed.
Which is too bad because everything else before that is so promising. Even stuff that I didn’t like in the script, co-written by Katie Dippold and Feig - like a lengthy scene that gives us the origin of the Ghostbusters symbol - has a nice comic energy onscreen. Feig took a lot of stuff that clunked on the page and made it funny as hell in the movie, although credit, of course, must also go to his cast.
And what a cast it is. Each of the actresses is playing to her own strength, but together they make a formidable comedic ensemble in that every one of them presents an interesting potential match-up with every other one. Kristen Wiig is the straightest of the group, although her straightness is in service of a simmering comedic desperation and aggravation that allows her to explode into great comedy. Opposite her is Melissa McCarthy, not playing her usual slob character but rather an endearingly aggressive true believer. Leslie Jones is a burst of pure electricity in every one of her scenes, even when she’s just reading a magazine. And Chris Hemsworth is a wonder, truly allowing himself to get completely absurd as Kevin.
But the MVP, the real breakout player, is Kate McKinnon. Her Holtzmann is just THE BEST, and she’s operating on a totally different level than everyone else in the movie. The most obvious comparison to the original film would be Egon, but McKinnon is definitely doing her own thing, which is incredibly mischievous and puckish, funny and yet weirdly dangerous. If Egon put unlicensed particle accelerators on his friends' backs it was because he cared more about science than about safety. When Holtzmann does it it’s partially because she thinks it’s funny and cool. And all credit to Feig - I’m sure the temptation to give McKinnon more to do and more screen time must have been strong, but he uses her exactly enough that she remains always funny and surprising, never wearing out her welcome.
With a better script this new version of Ghostbusters could have given the original a run for its money; that 1984 classic was the result of a lot of elements coming together in just the right way, and this version has so many of those elements - a great cast, a true affection for the supernatural, a varied comedic tone - but it just blows it on the story.
Still, the pieces are in place. The movie, for the most part, works. It’s easily one of the funniest comedies of the year, and I loved hanging out with these characters (which is such a huge part of the success of the 84 movie). Even though it’s stuck having to wink and nod at the original (the cameos, by the way, are fine. Bill Murray’s is, predictably, the best. Harold Ramis’ is touching), this film manages to carve out its own space, and I want to see Feig and his cast return to continue exploring it and expanding it. And hell, their Ghostbusters II HAS TO be better than the original Ghostbusters II.