Monday, July 18, 2016

Far From Ruinous, "Ghostbusters" Is a Celebration of a Childhood of Busting Ghosts

Proof of my childhood obsession. I wore this
constantly, usually along with my proton pack.
People have been lobbing unjust grenades at the latest Ghostbusters movie since it was first announced, based partly on the fact that Sony was rebooting the property at all, but also simply because it was going to star women instead of men. The narrative: this film was ruining childhoods and PC culture had gone too far. It's a pretty hilarious fear when you consider this tweet from David Ehrlich, senior film critic at Indie Wire.

Ghostbusters (2016) is finally out in theaters now, which means there's actually a product to judge, as opposed to blind speculation. The film is getting mostly good reviews, but it's hard to say if that's a knee jerk reaction from reviewers keen to knock nostalgia-huggers and misogynists down a peg, or a legitimate reaction to the film itself, which in the here and now isn't so much a movie as it is the locus of a warped culture war.

Based on the finished product, writer/director Paul Feig certainly has a sense of humor about all of it. Early in the film, after they post a video of an encounter with a ghost on the Internet, the leads read some of the comments, including "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts." They brush aside the criticism, saying something about the pointlessness of putting stock in what Internet trolls type in the middle of the night (zing!).

But the film also addresses what it's like to be a woman in a man's world in the way it consistently puts the leads up against obstructionist men who seek to delegitimize them. Every female in the film provides them with help in some way, whereas every male functions as hindrance or a road block. Reflecting on it now, it's hard not to consider the way our culture treats women and the victim-blaming that follows sexual assault.

That's all in the subtext, but I don't want to overstep. Questioned credibility and presumed incompetence is an inherent part of a Ghostbusters outing, or really most paranormal-tinged movies in general. Believe me when I say this is a popcorn film first and foremost, and one of my favorite things about it is that the sex of the leads is largely irrelevant. By doing nothing more than modifying a few jokes, this film could easily star the likes of Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Bill Hader, and Craig Robinson instead of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The fact that it doesn't isn't an indication of out of control political correctness, it's just the way it is.

It really is amazing how nostalgia manifests itself. Sometimes, there's out-sized excitement when studios bring back beloved properties (e.g. Fuller House, Jurassic World), and other times there's this type of overblown negativity. I remember getting into a conversation with an angry fan just after the release of the first CGI Alvin and the Chipmunks. She was incensed that a movie studio was stomping on the sanctity of her childhood memories, taking something she had loved and denigrating it for monetary gain. I remember arguing that a cartoon about singing chipmunks wasn't exactly a beacon of artistic integrity, that it was always a mediocre property designed with a bottom line to make money and sell merchandise. It's basically processed junk food, but it has been all along - the quality is really no different, the perspective is.
Kate McKinnon is amazing.
Ghostbusters is a bit different in that regard, because it has a deserved reputation as an outright classic. As such, someone could certainly make a legitimate argument that doing a follow up besmirches the original solely for the sake of commerce. At least they could have 30 years ago. The reality is that the franchise itself has already been diluted with oodles of lesser entries -- multiple cartoons, video games and a true sequel -- none of which can hold a candle to the original.

Unsurprisingly, this film doesn't either, but it's not a bad successor by any means. That's mostly because it's very funny, but there's also the refreshing fact that it's preoccupied with being its own thing. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of callbacks and cameos, but when it comes to tone, this one is very different. A laconic edge hangs over the original film, which is tons of fun no doubt, but also carries the same melancholy that defined every Bill Murray/Harold Ramis collaboration.

It's often said that Ramis grounded Dan Aykroyd's fantastical treatment for the first film, and while this one doesn't get as crazy as his original vision, it definitely leans more toward the Aykroyd vibe, which is unsurprising given his status as executive producer. It's still got an air of anarchic mischief (mostly due to the bemused live-wire that is McKinnon who's Holtzman feels like the greatest possible amalgamation of Peter, Egon and Ray), but it's more joyful than cynical, excitably spastic and consumed with an over abundance of technobabble and gadgetry.

While the central players in the original had a blue collar, been-there-done-that vibe, these new characters are fresh-faced and beyond giddy. In terms of plotting, that makes sense (the original takes place over a far longer period of time), but it's more than that. Honestly, I lost count of how many times a character says something like "that was awesome" or "this is so cool," but we're talking multiple dozens.

And it is cool. Whereas the original film played things pretty simple (proton pack to subdue ghosts, traps to capture them, and a resolution featuring one foe), the new one introduces an armory of gadgets, allows for ghosts to be vaporized, not just trapped, and ends with an action-packed slugfest between our heroes and an army of ghosts. Needless to say, the toy possibilities are endless. And that's kind of appropriate given that this film is less an ode to the original film as it is to The Real Ghostbusters cartoon and what it felt like to play Ghostbusters as a kid.

The Times Square throw down is indicative of the different approach here.
Getting more specific on the particulars of the film, I'll say that I'm a big fan of all these funny ladies bouncing off of each other, although I thought the script went over the top with all the scientific speak. I greatly enjoyed Chris Hemsworth's commitment to stupidity, and thought hanging the spine of the film on the fractured friendship between Wiig's Erin and McCarthy's Abby was a smart move, even if the resolution felt formulaic. I liked the way Slimmer and Stay Puft were used, but at the same time I was pretty underwhelmed by the film's inability to introduce new fun adversaries like them.

Speaking of adversaries, the big bad guy ultimately morphs into the ghostbusters logo (a nod to the opening credits of The Real Ghostbusters), but before that I found him to be the weakest part of the film. I guess they weren't exactly going to vilify the environmental protection agency in 2016, so an angry nerd makes sense, especially when you consider how well his arc plays off of the central one involving Erin embracing outsider status.

As far as science fiction antecedents with a debt to Ghostbusters are concerned, this doesn't quite measure up to Men in Black but it's a step above the likes of Evolution. It certainly doesn't trample all over any childhoods, and I say that as someone who's whole childhood was defined by Ghostbusters with a dash of Ninja Turtles, '60s era Batman and Monster Squad thrown in.

Some may not like that a group of women are leading the film, and they may even stoop to suggesting Ramis is rolling over in his grave (more on this in a great essay by his daughter), but screw 'em. This puppy brought back vivid memories of running around the school yard pretending to be ghostbusters with boys and girls, not to mention the original badass girl ghostbuster, Janine. The film is a celebration of what it meant to love Ghostbusters as a kid, and girls should get to play in that sandbox too. I stand by that claim, even though I acknowledge it is nudgingly muddied, at least on the symbolic level, by the image of four females literally shooting the Ghostbusters logo in the nuts at the end of the film (zing!). B