Ghostbusters (2016) Review

July 18, 2016

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In the 1989 film Ghostbusters II, Peter, Ray, Winston and Egon discover that “mood slime” is being powered by all the hatred and aggression in New York to bring the city to the brink of yet another ghostly apocalypse. If mood slime were a real thing, the male-entitlement-fueled rage directed at the new Ghostbusters reboot surely would have been enough to open a massive portal to the spirit realm and bring the world as we know it to an end. As it stands, that rage manifested in hate-filled tweets aimed at the film’s director, Paul Feig, and the main cast, especially targeting Leslie Jones, while also earning the film the highest number of dislikes on a movie trailer in YouTube history, all because the beloved franchise had been reimagined with an all-female crew.

The onslaught of aggression toward the remake is not at all surprising to anyone participating in online culture these days, where attacks against women remain a daily occurrence. In fact, online misogyny is so tiresomely predictable that the film anticipated it. In one of its most grimly funny moments, Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin (Kristen Wiig) see a comment left on a YouTube video they have posted: “Ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts.”

I very quickly found myself pulled into the new Ghostbusters.

But while plenty of people were decrying the film’s very existence for somehow retroactively ruining their childhoods simply by suggesting that women could also be professional paranormal investigators and eliminators, there were also many of us who were thrilled to see even the suggestion of this kind of reimagining. Before its release, I had many conversations with friends and colleagues that usually went something like this: “Oh god, I hope it’s good. It might not be. But it’s so important. Please be good!” And in truth, it’s unfortunate that any film should have to shoulder such expectations. There’s no sense that if a high-concept sci-fi comedy with male leads bombs, it means that men aren’t funny, or that men simply shouldn’t play characters in a particular profession.

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But even as female-led comedies continue to make and break box office records, there is still an overarching sense that they just aren’t good or won’t be successful, and that if they aren’t successful, it’s somehow a commentary on women as a group, and what kinds of roles they should or shouldn’t play. While these illogical sentiments continue, there is a tremendous amount of undue pressure put on comedies that star women to be masterpieces. In a better world, there would be plenty of comedies starring women, some great, some forgettable, and it wouldn’t be a big deal. But this is the world we live in, and the outrage directed at the very existence of the new Ghostbusters indicated that it is, indeed, a very big deal.

Even with all the pressure and expectations the film had to carry, I very quickly found myself pulled into the new Ghostbusters. Very often, ensemble movies and TV shows have one female member of a core group otherwise made up by men, severely limiting the range of female representations we get and making “female” a defining character trait. (Katha Pollitt coined the term “the Smurfette Principle” to describe this phenomenon.) When there are a variety of female roles in a single piece of media, we get a wider spectrum of personalities and character traits, which helps avoid boxing women into obnoxious and played-out stereotypes. With the new Ghostbusters crew, we are presented with a range of women: geeky scientists, quirky engineers, and tough historians.

The story follows a similar arc to the original: ousted from their academic positions, scientists with an interest in the paranormal start catching ghosts who are wreaking havoc around New York, face bureaucratic hurdles that threaten to put a stop to their work, and end up fighting an epic battle to save the city. But like Kylo Ren of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the terrifying Kilgrave of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, this film’s villain is a personification of male entitlement. Rowan North (Neil Casey) works at a hotel but sees himself as a scientific genius whose gifts were never properly recognized, and so he aims to take the power that he bitterly feels entitled to by harnessing the energy of the spirit realm. When he’s confronted by the Ghostbusters, he gives them a spiel about how hard it has been to be so brilliant and never get the respect he deserves. Abby, of course, knows exactly what it feels like to not be treated with respect, just as any woman who has had to struggle against the boys’ club mentality of scientific circles would, and she says as much. The camera cuts to Patty (Leslie Jones), who no doubt could teach Roland a thing or two about what it’s like to not be respected by society, and she doesn’t need to say a word; her look says it all.

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While the film successfully avoided the Smurfette Principle, I couldn’t help but feel like Patty fulfilled the role of the token black character. This became especially pronounced during a ghostbusting session at a metal show. There’s an amusing gag in which Abby successfully crowdsurfs to get at an evasive ghost but when Patty attempts to do the same, she is dropped by the crowd and exclaims, “I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a woman thing but I’m mad as hell!” A few moments later Jillian (Kate McKinnon) praises her teammates Abby and Erin for their hard work but jokingly tells Patty to “try harder.” Both of these are amusing gags and while they were used as an opportunity to acknowledge racism and sexism, it felt like the film was singling out the one woman of colour on the crew. And like Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore in the original films, she’s presented as the “working-class” member of the team, leaving her job at the MTA to join up, while the other three come from highly educated, scientific backgrounds.

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Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin, on the other hand, is a male subversion of the old stereotype of the female secretary who is kept around more for her looks than for her skills. Kevin is as inept as he is attractive, and his sheer obliviousness about how to even do the most basic things like answer the phone properly leads to a number of funny moments throughout the film. Erin fawns over Kevin constantly in a way that’s both amusing and kind of pathetic. On its own, this would be frustrating, but again, because Ghostbusters gives us a range of women with notably different personality types, no one character is holding all the weight for womankind, so the film has more freedom to explore comedic territory without reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Ghostbusters gives us a range of women with notably different personality types

Kevin here fills the same function that Annie Potts’ Janine filled in the original film, though Janine, if anything, was far too competent to be working for the Ghostbusters. Alas, her skills as an administrative assistant only earned her mockery from Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. Annie Potts is one of many cast members from the original film who make cameos in the new one; Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver all show up as well. And not all the cameos are by human actors. There’s a gag involving the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and also an appearance by Slimer. That’s fine in and of itself, but unfortunately this time around Slimer is joined by a female Slimer who is the very definition of a Ms. Male Character. While Slimer remains just a green ectoplasmic blob with a face and is perceived as male, his companion has practically every female signifier in the book–lipstick, long blonde hair, and a bow–to differentiate her as female.

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Despite frustrations like this, the Ghostbusters reboot takes the beloved franchise from the 80s and manages to give us more of the rollicking comedic sci-fi adventure we loved in the 1984 classic while simultaneously wiping out much of the sexism that plagued the original. We also saw this with The Force Awakens, and it’s a trend I can certainly get behind.

Some internet misogynist may have commented that “ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts” on that video the new Ghostbusters upload to YouTube, but in the end, just like the heroes of the original, they bust the ghosts and save the day. The final moments of the film clearly nod toward a possible sequel, and if the early box office results are any indication, we may well get one. In any case, it’s great to see a funny, entertaining film in which women triumph in spite of the sexist attitudes they encounter, and it’s made all the more sweet by the fact that this film also represents something of a triumph against legions of entitled men in the real world who felt so threatened by the simple idea of women busting ghosts.

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