Ectoplasm in the City: The new “Ghostbusters”

This female-led reboot of the comedy classic has good intentions, but how well does it realize its feminist mission?


Since Sony greenlit the “Ghostbusters” reboot back in the fall of 2014, the uproar regarding director Paul Feig’s decision to cast an all-female team of Ghostbusters controlled the conversation and nearly drowned out any mention of the film’s potential. Because much of the Internet’s issue with the franchise’s reboot centered on misogynistic outrage, little attention was paid to the possibility that this well-intentioned, estrogen-inspired reboot could be misguided in its “feminist” stance.

Now, nearly two years later, “Ghostbusters” is upon us. In addition, an all-female reimagining of “Ocean’s Eleven,” led by Sandra Bullock, is in the works. Though the increase in female-led casts demonstrates a shift in Hollywood’s marketing, simply plugging in women into previously masculine films, proves about as progressive as remaking “The First Wives Club” with Channing Tatum, Adam Scott and Steve Carell. Or opening a chain of chicken shacks, hiring tan, chiseled, men to wear fitted cut-offs, and naming it Ding Dongs.  Cinema should not reduce itself to the level of the WNBA, wherein women perform a game designed by and for men with, paradoxically, increased scrutiny and blatant disinterest.

The Ghostbusters Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty (Leslie Jones) inside the Mercado Hotel Lobby in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.

The Ghostbusters Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty (Leslie Jones) inside the Mercado Hotel Lobby in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS.

Hollywood’s lazy pattern of progress through familiarization, however, positions Paul Feig as the most qualified man to tell a female “version” of a classically male narrative.  “Bridesmaids” (2011) sailed into theaters under the marketing ploy as being “‘The Hangover’ for women.”  It was followed by “The Heat” (2013), Feig’s finest work, which mimics the buddy-cop comedy of “Lethal Weapon,” and last year’s “Spy,” which retells the bumbling espionage tale most associated with “The Naked Gun.”  All of these films trample new terrain by feminizing a recognizable format.  So even though “Ghostbusters” may be Feig’s first official remake, his toes, calves and knees have waded into these waters throughout his Hollywood career.  

Tonally much brighter than its predecessor(s), “Ghostbusters” slides more easily into the Feig’s oeuvre than it does into the cinematic universe of director Ivan Reitman’s 1984 hit.  The original traffics in a darkness that Feig’s directorial style never embraces. But to regard Feig’s film as “missing” any of Reitman’s foggy touches robs this millennial “Ghostbusters” of its own filmhood.  Afterall, “Ghostbusters” would more fairly be compared to its contemporary sci-fi action-comedies (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” say) than its originator.      

Narratively, 2016’s “Ghostbusters” follows the grooves carved by the original, but the film veers into the more sentimental storytelling Feig’s temperament depends on. The film follows Erin (Kristen Wiig), a science professor praying for a tenured position at Columbia University. A book she wrote, years ago on the paranormal surfaces and delegitimizes her scientific background. After an unceremonious exit from Columbia, Erin seeks out her former best friend and collaborator, Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and her gadgetry-inclined protégé, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and quickly becomes re-enchanted with the supernatural.   

After a slew of promising leads, the trio commits to their calling, and hires the tall, strong-jawed Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) as their incompetent receptionist. As our heroes investigate one supernatural sighting after another, the string of horrors leads back to Rowan (Neil Casey), a bullying victim-turned-terrorist, and his plan to destroy New York City by summoning Manhattan’s greatest hits of ghostdom.  

Sadly, in a remake where some thoughtful reimagining takes place, Feig’sGhostbusters” preserves the sidelining of its non-white lead. Introduced despicably late into the first act, Patty (Leslie Jones), unlike the three white academics, holds a blue-collar job as subway employee who “knows New York” and can provide the team with a car. The shortsightedness of this glaring detail, especially in a film attempting to break ground regarding female visibility, exhibits a lack of awareness unfortunately associated with many white feminists. Patty also enjoys the least amount of character development and screen time out of the foursome, and, like the original’s Winston (Ernie Hudson), often simply reacts to ghosts as opposed to defeating them. Of all the tropes borrowed from the original film, Patty’s blackness and her corresponding peripherality should have been left furthest behind. Moreover, the whiteness and straightness of the other three women feels instinctive rather than voluntary. Ultimately the film’s visualization of its characters, tied too closely to the original, bars players of Latino, Arab or Asian descent and seems to think the casting of one minority lead is as good an affirmative action as any.

Besides this obnoxiousness, the film moves forgettably fast, aside from the obligatory cameos by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and company. Despite being Feig’s first attempt at a primarily action-driven film, Melissa McCarthy’s Abby is, refreshingly, the most grounded role of her career. Previously, McCarthy’s physicality has served as her character’s defining trait.  But here, Abby’s weight is unremarked upon.

In its best moments, “Ghostbusters” demonstrates Feig’s ability to articulate the intersection between occupation and friendship. His Ghostbusters’ dedication to their work despite the dismissive attitude the (male-dominated) public meets them with, energizes the remake.  The genial, unkempt nature of the original Ghostbusters, re-imagined for women, tidies them up, buckles them to their passions, and emphasizes the extreme access men are granted reflexively. Feig, once again, proves to be a director who listens to the quiet quips of female discontent. As in “The Heat,” the best jokes are meant more to be observed than cackled over.

Ultimately, the new “Ghostbusters” is admirable more for what it refuses to be than for what it is. The climactic sequence, although set in the heart of New York City, depicts its heroes as hell-bent on evacuation as opposed to ready for battle. “Ghostbusters” contribution to this summer’s pitiful roster of blockbusters alleviates the pure mindlessness of other releases, despite having to work twenty-five percent harder for its dollar.

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