Thoughts on: Ghostbusters (2016)

You’re probably wondering why I’m even bothering with a blog post on this topic at this point in time. After all, I’m clearly beating a dead horse at this point, but considering that I finally ended up watching the latest Ghostbusters film early last month, I figure it’s worth discussing the film itself, in addition to the controversies surrounding the film Of course, I’ll be dealing with those first, because with those out of the way, I can feel free to judge the film on its own merits.

I guess the best place to start would be with my gut reaction when I first heard the movie was in development. Ironically, it was akin to the reactions I had to other remakes like Robocop, Total Recall and such: apathy with an undertone of disgust. Frankly, I’d hoped that after Harold Ramis passed away, that would put the concept of another Ghostbusters movie to rest for the foreseeable future, but the exact opposite happened instead. Frankly, I ended up liking that video game Atari released on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Wii — to me, that was essentially the last mainstream Ghostbusters story I really needed. Granted, I’d be lying if I said I was a maniac for the series: sure, I had seen the first two movies (I even actually liked Ghostbusters 2, albeit not as much as the first) and was familiar with both animated series, particularly Extreme Ghostbusters (I guess I was the right age to remember that far more fondly than most), but I wouldn’t really place Ghostbusters as one of my favorite media franchises. My initial reaction was less due to the perceived bastardization of Ghostbusters specifically, more that Ghostbusters was just another good film that Hollywood was chewing up and spitting out a mediocre remake to feed into pop culture’s never-ending addiction to nostalgia while simultaneously removing the unique charm that made the movies popular in the first place and reducing any message the source material might have had in lieu of an exercise in sheer cashgrabbery.

Of course, I think we all know what happened next: the trailer got posted on YouTube and got an unprecedented dislike-to-like ratio, at least for any video with that many reactions. From that point on, the people behind the film, particularly the film’s director and co-writer Paul Feig, went into extreme damage control mode, branding anyone who disliked the film’s trailer on YouTube or made any “criticism” toward the film as misogynist trolls. It got so bad that they even shot entirely new scenes to poke fun at the online reactions — which honestly, just ended up adding to the movie’s already-bloated budget (at least compared to Feig’s earlier projects). Coupled with a constant media tour, with the stars of both the new movie and the originals, constantly talking about how brave the new cast was to deal with their “adversity” and lambasting the trolls as pathetic losers, it would seem that the new Ghostbusters was positioned to be a blockbuster in the making.

…of course, we all know this didn’t come to pass. With a worldwide gross that only barely outpaced the film’s budget (which apparently didn’t include the marketing budget), Ghostbusters 2016 would end up being considered a failure, effectively killing off the chances of a proposed franchise. Of course, Paul Feig did have one trick up his sleeve: campaigning for fans of the film to drive home video sales, but after a couple of weeks of decent sales, this would also falter, driving the final nail in that iteration’s coffin, to the extent where now Sony Pictures is considering an animated reboot, with male and female Ghostbusters.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about the whole Ghostbuster 2016 debacle were the reviews. Rotten Tomatoes managed to manipulate their professional review listings in order to reward the movie with a coveted “Fresh” designation, a meaningless gesture especially given the fact fewer and fewer people are trusting news outlets in general.  Of course, even reading many of the positive reviews brought a classic phrase to mind: “damned by faint praise”. Despite the constant media onslaught, declaring that “women are funny, get over it”, surprisingly few of GB2016’s reviews proclaimed the movie to be legitimately funny, generally playing up the historical relevance of remaking a comedy film from the 1980s with four women in the lead instead. Ironically, during the film’s post-mortem, even publications in favor of the film realized that trying to politicize the act of watching a movie probably worked against the film.

I’ll admit, I’m happy the movie failed. Granted, I’m usually happy when an ill-conceived remake fails, but GB2016’s failure made me all the more happier because it essentially confirmed that the scummy tactics they tried to use in order to make their film a success — specifically shaming anyone who didn’t want to see their film with whatever scarlet buzzword is relevant at the time — weren’t quite the slam dunk as they probably hoped. I only wish that the film had taken Amy Pascal down with it, but alas, she’s still around, oddly waffling on whether or not Sony’s Spider-Man spinoffs take place within the MCU (I’m hoping no, personally. I think they’d stand better independently.)

So, onto the film itself. Now admittedly, my thoughts are a bit muddled on the film. This isn’t particularly a review, per se. More like a collection of the thoughts I had throughout the movie and since watching it — at least the ones I’ve managed to remember. Personally, I didn’t really like the film, but given all of the press surrounding it, I don’t think I was even capable of liking it at that point. I did chuckle at a few scenes, but more often than not, it was more of a “Jesus Christ, that was terrible” chuckle, as opposed to one borne out of true amusement. Admittedly, I think most of my laughs actually came from Chris Hemsworth’s character: in the end, the funniest character in a movie that supposed starred four funny women was the sole male character with anything resembling development and screen time. These echo the sentiments my dad shared with me when he saw the movie while it was in theaters. Truth be told, these days, Dad’s the one film critic I actually trust, but probably not for the reasons you’d expect. See, my dad will watch just about anything. And generally, he’s pretty laid-back and easy to please — we’ve joked that his favorite films were Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy because he could take a long nap and not miss any major plot elements. Having said that, the man is my canary in the coal mine when it comes to films. Dad likes just about everything, so when he doesn’t like something, that pretty much confirms that it’s shit. Long story short, he didn’t really like Ghostbusters 2016 that much. Having seen it myself, I’d have to agree with him.

I guess the first thing to keep in mind with this movie is that it’s not a strict 1:1 remake of the 1984 comedy classic. This is particularly noticeable when looking at the film’s cast of characters. Most people assumed that most people seemed to expect that Holtzmann would be the female equivalent of Egon, Erin would be Ray, Patty was obviously going to be Winston (for obvious reasons that are obvious), leaving Melissa McCarthy’s Abby as the Venkman equivalent. In truth, if anything, it seemed that Holtzmann was Venkman, while Abby and Erin were both essentially Ray. This sort of messed with the dynamic of the film, as the two most prominent characters essentially followed the same archetype, while at the same time lacking the — wow, there’s no good way to phrase this, is there? — “straight man” character, generally provided by Harold Ramis’s Egon Spengler in the first two films. As such, the interactions between the four Ghostbusters seem to rely mostly on comedy, and as such, comes across as artificial, especially when taking into account the various ways that the four women come together in the first place. Compare that to the original movie, where Aykroyd, Murray, Ramis and Hudson all had some kind of on-screen chemistry, with a much looser and less scripted approach to dialogue, but in the process, actually coming across like actual friends, something the 2016 version desperately needed in my opinion, for reasons I’ll get to later.

Then, we have Patty Tolan rounding out the Ghostbusters themselves. While Winston Zeddemore, her clear counterpart from the original film, was a down-to-Earth everyman who famously said that “if there’s a steady paycheck in it, [he’ll] believe anything”.  Winston served as a nice contrast to the rest of the ’84 Ghostbusters, acting as sort of an audience surrogate when compared to three scientists dabbling in the paranormal. Patty was clearly meant to inhabit the same role in the 2016 Ghostbusters’ team dynamic, but apparently Paul Feig thinks “relatable” means “racist caricature that would get cut from a Tyler Perry movie”.

There were two particular scenes focusing around Patty that stuck out to me. The first was the bit where Abby gets possessed and Patty just starts slapping her and yelling stereotypical black Christian stuff: that entire sequence pretty much defines her entire character. The other scene that comes to mind is more baffling than anything: when the Ghostbusters are trying to catch a ghost haunting a concert, Abby decides to crowdsurf to get closer to the ghost. Patty tries to do the same thing, the crowd disperses and she lands on her back. “Okay, so I don’t know if it was a race thing or a lady thing…” I mean, given the fact that another woman was able to successfully crowdsurf right before you, one with a similar build and wearing the same hefty equipment as you, it was clearly not a “lady thing”.  Just struck me as a weird scene, probably would’ve made more sense if they had just gone with the racism angle.

Then you’ve got Chris Hemworth’s Kevin Beckman. Effectively an airheaded blonde stereotype — except this time, he’s a man! — who’s hired on as the Ghostbusters’ receptionist, simply because Erin wants to get in his pants. Even if I cared about this movie, I don’t think I could even bring myself to be offended by Kevin: I thought he was the funniest character in the entire film, after all. Kevin’s character just essentially made me believe that Feig had never bothered to see the original films: Kevin struck me as an attempt at effectively getting revenge for how Feig likely perceived the receptionist character would’ve been in the original movie. In the end, I think it just does a disservice to the original character: Janine Melnitz was definitely one of my favorite characters from the previous iterations, especially when she was played by Annie Potts.

That brings me to the movie’s use of cameos from members of the original movie’s cast. Despite the fact that the film was “trying to do its own thing”, they clearly didn’t think the movie could stand on its own merits, trying to get as many actors and actresses from the original movie back as possible. Not to mention the fact that Sony seemed to force Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson to shill the movie during their seemingly never-ending media tour. Most of them were relegated to small parts — Aykroyd was a cab driver, Hudson was Patty’s uncle, Sigourney Weaver was Holtzmann’s mentor — aside from Murray, who played a skeptic who the Ghostbusters inadvertently murder in an attempt to prove that ghosts are, in fact, real. I can’t really blame the movie for that bit: after all, when Ghostbusters 3 was still on the table, Murray said he’d only come back if he could play a Slimer-like ghost, so I’m positive Murray insisted on being offed. The real issue is that the cameos themselves kind of distracted from the movie itself — trying to avoid comparisons to the source material is kind of difficult when you’re shoving things like a bust of the late Harold Ramis in the audience’s faces.

That brings me to another point about the movie that bothered me: the Ghostbusters seemed a lot more sociopathic in this movie. Abby and Holtzmann literally blackmail Erin into joining up with them — getting her fired from her job in the process. Then, when they try to get her a new job, their boss ends up realizing he should have fired them years ago and does so — leading to them ransacking their entire lab on their way out. Erin decides to hire a man that’s clearly more child than man, simply for the sake of getting in his pants: seriously, flip the sexes on that one and the entirety of Western civilization would be calling for your head. They end up killing a guy and effectively goad another man into committing suicide, which leads to them being escorted out in handcuffs, officially disavowed by New York’s city government, but otherwise free to do whatever the hell they want. Patty literally forces her way onto the team, for seemingly no reason. And apparently, the justification for this is that they feel “like outcasts”. Remember that point, because I’m going to come back to it later. Maybe the new Ghostbusters were supposed to come across like the cast of Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in the sense that they’re just terrible people in general, but at least Seinfeld and Sunny’s characters were likable in a dark, perverse way — they were all flawed assholes, but at least their misadventures were entertaining and, perhaps more importantly, they would occasionally suffer hardships. The Lady Ghostbusters didn’t even have that going for them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s a bad sign when I hate the protagonists of a work when I’m apparently supposed to love them.

Another thing that bothered me about the movie itself is that it seemed like the Ghostbusters didn’t really suffer any actual hardships throughout the film. Sure, Erin, Abby and Holtz all got fired from their respective jobs, but they were still somehow able to afford a decent-sized property for an office. I mean, oh no, renting out an entire old firehouse is too expensive, but they were still able to set up shop somewhere and they were even right above Abby’s favorite Chinese restaurant. The mayor and his assistant actually believed in what they were doing, but had to publicly denounce them to keep the citizens of New York from panicking. But hey, I guess only faking arresting them and letting them do whatever the fuck they want is holding the womenfolk back, am I right ladies? They manage to get away with stealing equipment from their former employers, causing insane amounts of property damage and literally killing a man, but they’re totally down on their luck, right? I mean, shit, even the mayor’s assistant — who in the original film was a significant antagonist to the Ghostbusters and even got them shut down, while inadvertently freeing every ghost they’d already caught — is a beacon of support for the Ghostbusters in this one, and it’s clear that she’s the real brains behind the Mayor’s office. She even gives them the firehouse in the end, to show her gratitude for the Ghostbusters saving NYC from really bad special effects. Hell, I think the most danger the Lady Ghostbusters actually faced were mean comments from the internet! I hope it was worth ballooning your budget and making your film an even bigger failure to do reshoots and add those scenes. Sure, they definitely did more harm to the film — both narratively and financially — than good, but you sure showed those anonymous online trolls who’s boss, eh Feig?

Of course, then we come to the film’s actual villain, which I consider its greatest failure: Rowan North. The entire movie keeps trying to make it clear that Abby, Erin, Holtz and even Patty are outcasts by giving us scenes where Abby and Erin admit that their friendship sprung from the fact that they were made fun of when they were kids because they believed in ghosts. Meanwhile, you had Rowan, a man with multiple degrees working as a janitor at an old hotel and being treated like shit by his clearly unintelligent supervisor. Then you’ve got another scene where two waitresses fighting over whose turn it was to interact with Rowan, because he’s “creepy”. I mean, the man was so desperate, he didn’t even hesitate when committing suicide in order to grant himself immense power. I dunno, maybe it’s because I’m a straight white man, but I pitied Rowan way more than anyone else in the film. Hell, it eventually got to the point where I started rooting for him. Of course, the Lady Ghostbusters ended up defeating him — by shooting him in the dick, natch — but ironically, in the process of trying to create a gross creepy caricature of the online trolls “harassing” them, Paul Feig ended up creating a character that I could actually identify with: a man that the world treated so poorly, that the only option he felt he had was to destroy the entire world. It’s almost poetic. Another thing I liked about Rowan were the scenes where he possessed Kevin: they definitely let Chris Hemsworth show off his acting range, that’s for sure.

In the end, the entire movie feels like an exercise in spite. Now, you’d think that as I’m essentially 90% spite (the other 10% being useless trivia), I’d respect the film for that. Yet, in reality, all this gives me is further insight into why Ghostbusters 2016 failed as a film — which may also explain why it failed at the box office. The thing about spite is that it’s an inherently negative emotion. Yet, it seemed that the Ghostbusters reboot’s goal was to create a work that was to be beloved and to surpass the original work, an admittedly positive goal. The problem stems from the fact that they essentially tried to use negative emotions to fuel a product that clearly had positive intentions. Perhaps this is why the movie came across as unfunny to me as it did: perhaps due to their advertising strategy of branding everyone who didn’t think the movie was funny immediately as “misogynistic monsters” just made it impossible for me to truly enjoy the movie on any level, even ironically. Or maybe, maybe that strategy ended up permeating into the film itself. It’s really hard to separate the film from its advertising, a case that I feel applies to most media — the only problem is that it’s only really noticeable when it has a negative effect on the film itself.

Perhaps the most important thing Ghostbusters ’16 brought me was clear evidence of the “zero-sum game” currently going on in media in general. It seems that, in recent years, every form of media is becoming more and more politicized, particularly towards the left wing. Now frankly, I don’t really care about that — I’m a firm believer in the words of Jay Sherman, “If the movie stinks, just don’t go.” Creatives should be free to put whatever they want into their works and I should likewise be free to ignore media for whatever reason I want. The problem stems from a particular group of progressive-minded people — call them “regressives”, “social justice warriors” or whatever — who believe that only things they agree with should exist and everything else should be censored or outright destroyed. One particular argument I’ve heard from these people is that the existence of progressive media isn’t a “zero-sum game”, that it doesn’t outright destroy more conservative media, and frankly, I agree with that. However, attempting to manipulate existing media, to change it completely in order to shove in a hamfisted political message or outright preventing the release of works that are deemed offensive by a political minority is quite another. After all, they don’t want to take away “your toys”, they just want to shame you into not buying them in the first place. Oh and also, they don’t want them sold in any capacity (official or otherwise) in your country. Who cares if they get banned, they’re terrible anyway. Of course, then you’ve got the other side of the occasion — I call them “culture war profiteers” — who provide the controversial media in question. Almost makes me think we’re being played, but given what has been happening to domestic media, something tells me this is all on the level.

I think that Sony Pictures’ tactics for advertising the film pretty much illustrates this entire mindset. I’d argue that Paul Feig and co.’s smear campaign against anyone who didn’t immediately profess that Ghostbusters 2016 (now known as “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call”) was at least as good as the original (if not objectively superior in every conceivable way) as a sub-human monster when it seemed like that would generate a box office success was starkly contrasted by the cowering that came from the same people when the film ended up bombing. Then, when the film came out on home video to short-lived fanfare, Feig’s arrogance resurfaced, claiming that enough sales would guarantee a sequel. This was of course followed by a total drop-off, which killed the momentum full-stop. Ghost Corps is now considering a second reboot, with a balanced cast. Even Ghostbusters shillmaster Dan Aykroyd himself ended up turning on the film. It just makes me wonder what the rest of the cast thought about it, especially given those rumors that Sony threatened them with legal action if they refused to participate.

Like I said, I watched Ghostbusters: Answer the Call with some friends online, mainly to knock it and because apparently torturing myself amuses them. It wasn’t the only film I watched, and yet, I’d have to say it was the worst of the bunch by far. The other films we watched were the 1999 Best Picture American Beauty, the infamous Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and DC’s first true female-led superhero film (superheroine film?), Supergirl. American Beauty, my favorite of the bunch, brought back feelings of nostalgia, as it effectively acted as a time capsule of the long-forgotten 1990s, where it seemed like the biggest problem we had to deal with was boredom. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was clearly too large of a first project for Square, though the names they got for the film was impressive in and of itself, the film’s major failing was, well, the movie itself. An incomprehensible story and poor pacing made the whole thing feel like a tech demo for the then-impressive technology behind the film.

However, I’d consider Supergirl to be a perfect foil for Ghostbusters ’16: female-led projects meant to capitalize on existing male-centric works. But while Ghostbusters’s tone had a dingy bitterness to it, Supergirl was quite the opposite: it was almost like the film was just happy that it was allowed to exist at all. Sure, it’s not a legitimately good film, but something about the cheesiness of the whole thing and the overall light and happy tone of the film makes it much more palatable in my opinion. There was a certain innocence to the film and that made the film engaging to me, regardless of its quality. Ironically, Supergirl was the last film in the Superman franchise made by the production film that had handled the series from the original 1978 film, before it changed hands for the fourth film, leading to the franchise’s hibernation. Conversely, Ghostbusters 2016 had nearly no involvement from Ivan Reitman, the man behind the first two films, despite his best efforts. I don’t know, it just strikes me as kind of ironic. Maybe that’s why Wonder Woman ended up succeeding: it focused more on creating a movie people actually wanted to see, as opposed to just threatening them if they didn’t see the movie in the first place. I hope more studios end up learning that lesson.

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