So I Just Saw Ghostbusters (2016)

This has not been a movie-heavy summer for me.  I’ve leaned more towards watching new television with my free time and generally avoiding the annual summer blockbusters.  I never went to see Captain America: Civil War even though most people agreed that it’s a fantastic action movie, and I skipped X-Men: Apocalypse despite my great love for the franchise.  It seemed unnecessary to fork over a large sum of money to see one movie that, while highly praised, looks to be very much established in the conventions of its genre (that is, it’s a male power fantasy that features a mostly white, mostly male cast doing things that lead to various explosions) and another that everyone agreed is simply mediocre.  Superhero fatigue can set in for anyone, and this was just not a summer for me to indulge the genre at movie theaters.

Of course, that logic didn’t apply with the new Ghostbusters movie; Rachael and I agreed pretty early on that as long as it wasn’t an objectively bad movie, we were going to pay to see it in theaters.  That’s not because the movie has such impressive visuals that it’s best appreciated on a big screen; in fact, as a buddy comedy the film’s special effects are mostly ancillary outside of the big climax (which struck me as the weakest part of the film; you really do get tired of seeing explosions after a while).  There’s nothing here that must be seen on a big screen.  No, the reason we surrendered our money to see this movie in a theater is because it’s a summer blockbuster about women doing the stuff that is normally reserved for men in other standard event films.  That’s a factor that we both want to see develop into a trend that will eventually become part of the cultural fabric of moviemaking.  The film industry is hugely risk averse, and monetary support of things that you want to see more of is essential to getting studios to buy in.

“But was it any good?” someone is going to ask.

Yes.  It was fantastic.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t flawed.  It is, and I’ll discuss the flaws I noticed a little bit later, but first I want to talk about the things that it does right.

The main characters of Erin, Abby, Holtzmann, and Patty are all thoroughly likeable.  They spend most of the movie simply being friends with one another, laughing, pulling pranks, sharing serious details about their lives.  Erin has a crush on the incredibly dim receptionist Kevin that’s based entirely on him being a big dumb Australian beefcake, and everyone else regularly teases her about it.  Holtzmann builds incredibly dangerous things out of spare parts and gleefully causes (let’s be honest, most of the) explosions throughout the movie.  Patty immediately accepts the weirdness of her new friends and runs with it, even though she’s an outsider to their work.  They all have their quirky personalities that make them the kind of characters that you want to spend a couple hours with.

Kevin the receptionist is a delightfully doofy inversion of the usual token woman trope in action comedies; he’s not smart, he’s not objectively useful, his only explicit value is as a sexual object, and he’s directly endangered in the third act to give the heroes a personal stake in saving the day.  Anyone who complains about all these tropes being bound up in a male character should remember that female characters in other stories are repeatedly subjected to these same tropes, and one instance of inversion is meant to poke fun at how horrible the tropes are in the first place for any character; when you get a Kevin in every movie that comes out for years on end, then we might be able to have a discussion about the problematic portrayal of men like this.  In the meantime, this example is hilarious, right down to one of his last jokes where he explains that he picked up a sandwich while he was looking for the Ghostbusters in the deli on the corner as they were battling a twenty storey ghost, and Abby, frustrated with Kevin’s incompetence, seizes the sandwich and throws it away off screen; the punchline is that Kevin then casually asks someone off screen for some help, and they throw the sandwich back to him.  Even as a useless, sexually objectified plot device, Kevin is still swimming in a sea of male privilege.

Besides the characters, the general comedy beats worked really well for me.  I giggled pretty much nonstop, which is all I ask for with a comedy.  Especially gratifying was the opening sequence, which involves the guy who plays Gabe on The Office getting terrorized by a ghost (I have nothing against the actor himself, but Gabe is just such a terrible character on so many levels that I took a lot of pleasure in his discomfort nonetheless).  The cameos of the original Ghostbusters cast were all pleasantly spaced as small bits of fan service throughout (Sigourney Weaver’s is probably the best, and she fittingly got the last one in the movie; make sure you hang out through the ending credits, which are generally done in a way that’s engaging all the way to the end).  The overall tone is generally light and positive, even as you realize that this is a movie about ghosts trying to break through the barrier between worlds and destroy the living.

Ghostbusters Poster

At least Patty got on the poster; that’s better than you can say about Winston. (Image credit: IMDb)

Now, we should talk about the movie’s flaws.  On a purely narrative level, this movie’s plot is pretty much a beat for beat rehash of the original.  Some details are different, like the fact that the villain is an angry guy rather than an ancient god, but the plot arc remains generally the same with the same character archetypes that were used in the first movie (Erin, Abby, Holtzmann, and Patty are roughly analogous to Ray, Peter, Egon, and Winston respectively).  You have their first big success followed by being publicly discredited followed by the mayor’s office begging for help followed by a big damn heroes moment and universal acclaim across New York.  It feels like Paul Feig was trying really hard to pay homage to the original in a way that would appease the franchise’s hardcore fanbase plus all the manchildren who have been complaining nonstop about the reboot starring four women instead of just owning that some people weren’t going to be pleased no matter what and trying to do something genuinely new with the concept.  This problem’s overall pretty minor though, as the metatext of this Ghostbusters movie is very different from the original.  At its core, the thematic arc of the new movie is about the importance of believing people’s experience; the old one was mostly just a parody of the spate of paranormal thrillers that were so popular in the early ’80s (and also a treatise on the superiority of science over superstition).  If you can sum up the original’s message by way of its classic tagline, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” then you could say that the new movie is best captured by the words, “I believe you.”  It’d be a stronger film if it leaned more on that new idea rather than looking to the old one for support.

On a character level, there are a few problems with Holtzmann and Patty.  Pretty much everyone on the internet is in agreement that Holtzmann is supposed to be read as a queer character; her interactions with Erin can frequently be construed as flirty, and both Paul Feig and Kate McKinnon have said that they interpreted the character as queer.  On one level, it’s fantastic that a gay character is portrayed in a major role in a summer comedy without her sexuality being made fun of (contrast this with, say, Mr. Chow from the Hangover series portrayed by Ken Jeong) or depicted as something strange about the character.  On another, there’s something dissatisfying about Holtzmann’s sexuality being left to mere subtext.  The voices that I listen to most often in the queer community often talk about the significance of queer subtext in popular fiction; in a culture where your sexuality hasn’t been socially acceptable for decades, you tend to take what scraps you can get in the way of finding characters with whom you can identify.  It’s great that Holtzmann’s sexuality doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it’s still important that the fact that she’s gay be made actual text in the movie rather than reliant on Word of God.  Otherwise, you still run the risk of erasure, as I can’t help wondering really how apparent Holtzmann’s sexuality is to people who aren’t already looking for it in a positive way.  As for Patty, well… she’s still a Black stereotype.  She’s immensely likeable, but she still checks all the boxes of what Hollywood imagines Black characters need to be in movies.  This essay by Tanya DePass enumerates all the problems with Patty’s character better than I could; you should read it if you haven’t already.

Overall, the new Ghostbusters is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that moves forward on a lot of important progressive fronts.  It’s far from perfect in the ways it treats its characters, and it honestly could lean on the nostalgia less, but it’s a solid movie that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing.

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