I can’t wait for it to be five years from now, so we can all find out what everyone really thought of the Ghostbusters remake.
Let’s put two things on the table right up front:
1. The trailer for the remake of Ghostbusters is bad. Extraordinarily bad. Bad in a way that movie trailers had largely stopped being after 1997 or so. That’s not a pre-judgment of the film, which would be unfair – lots of good movies have had bad marketing – but as a piece of art in its own right, it’s the sort of thing a studio should be embarrassed to have released.
2. Remaking Ghostbusters is about the worst idea anyone in Hollywood has had in a long, long time – and if you need a metric for that, feel free to keep in mind that one of the principal creative forces behind this remake is also attached to Play-Doh: The Movie.
Granted, remakes of classics are almost always a bad idea. Good remakes exist, sure, but they’re few and far between. Even if they “work” the best you can usually hope for when your source material is a legitimate classic is to maybe be good enough to be thought of as a notable footnote to its own place in history; you’re not going to “usurp” the truly great ones. When the world thinks of King Kong, it first thinks of Fay Wray, not Jessica Lange or Naomi Watts.
More typically, good remakes occur in cases where the original was somehow flawed or limited in its own right. Ideally, the reason to do a remake should be that the core premise or central hook is a great idea that (for whatever reason) wasn’t fully explored in its day – think John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, or Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. Maybe because technology wasn’t up to snuff, or because the tenor of culture in its day wasn’t equipped to grapple with its themes, or because the filmmakers and/or cast was notably ill-equipped in some way, but in those circumstances a remake can become something remarkable. None of those circumstances, however, apply to Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters is a modern classic, one of the best genre films of its era, and one of the all-time great works in the sci-fi/fantasy canon. This is not just another 80s nostalgia comedy getting pulled out of mothballs (few people will have much to say against a remake of Police Academy or Revenge of The Nerds); Ghostbusters is a genuine landmark film, up there with Star Wars and Raiders of The Lost Ark in the pantheon of “why bother?” remake prospects – films whose unique combination of elements can’t even hope to come close to repetition. Yes, the core premise (exorcisms as preformed by guys who are more like exterminators than priests or wizards) is strong, but what really makes the film a transcendent next-level thing is the once in a lifetime chemistry of its component parts: Those actors, that script, that director, that moment in time re: mid-1980s New York City. If you want proof of just how miraculous that right place/right time collision of elements was, you need only recall that almost the entire gang of creators and performers came back for Ghostbusters II… and even they couldn’t pull it off twice.
Frankly, you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of looking at such a remarkably stacked deck and deciding you’re going to take a shot at it anyway. It doesn’t make it a good idea, but fortune does favor the bold – and director Paul Feig’s main new spin on the material being to remake one of the quintessential all-male ensemble buddy movies with an all-female lead cast (and one of the current blockbuster landscape’s top action-hunks as their secretary) qualifies as an absolutely inspired choice: It’s unexpected, it’s novel, it immediately gives the remake a sense of identity all its own, and it comes with a built in firewall against at least one strain of creative laziness: You can’t just look around L.A. for whatever young-ish comedian reminds you the most of Bill Murray.
But while there’s nothing innately “wrong” with a movie becoming part of a broader cultural conversation, the level of specifically sexist hate being thrown at the new Ghostbusters has already managed to all but completely overwhelm the presence of the film itself. The raised voices and hateful rhetoric (which, it must be noted, are both coming almost entirely from folks who have not only not seen the film, but also clearly made up their minds before even seeing the trailer) have effectively taken the film from being a related topic in an ongoing debate about gender, demographics and cultural shifts to a proxy in the fight itself – a Passion of The Christ-type situation where some use their opinion about the film as a shorthand for their own broader views… or attribute views onto others based on theirs.
In these situations, the film becomes less a work unto itself and more of a referendum on whatever subject it’s been chosen as the standard bearer of: Being “against” the Ghostbusters remake becomes a shorthand for being “against” women in comedy, race/gender-blind casting, the boogeyman of “political correctness” etc. – to the extent that even if one of the haters was to see the film and like it, most would be disinclined to admit it to themselves.
On the flip side, almost nobody in the wider population would want to be associated with the kind of person who spews the kind of sexist venom that has greeted this particular film. So how many people (especially those in the entertainment press) will be bending over backwards to like it even if their more immediate reaction is quite the opposite – whether because they don’t want the haters to be right, or because they don’t want to be lumped in with them? It’s not likely that having its heart in the right place will “save” the film if it’s a genuine dud, but if it turns out closer to below-average or just okay, it’s rather easy to imagine folks subconsciously bumping an average take up to positive in order to feel more securely aligned with the correct side of an argument that stopped being about the movie a long time ago.
Those are more extreme hypotheticals, reliant on an unlikely scenario in which the film is either so unassailably excellent or excruciatingly awful as to pose a cognitive-dissonance challenge to the preconceptions of a supporter or a detractor. More likely, as is the case with most modern Summer blockbusters, the film will land somewhere just to one side or other of the middle; with those predisposed to enjoy it and those predisposed to the opposite reaction likely having their confirmation biases, well… confirmed. It’s that scenario where the film ceasing to be the center of its own discussion is most unfortunate, because it just means more talk about what the quality (or lack thereof) “represents” rather than whether or not it’s any good (or why.) And that’s a shame, because there are plenty of reasons to be alternately optimistic or trepidatious about this remake that have next to nothing to do with some overblown “culture war”.
While the gender-change for the main cast is certainly more immediately noticeable, what most sets the film being sold by the trailer (as opposed to the unknown quantity that is the actual film) and the original apart are the totally different approaches to humor. The original drew its comedy overwhelmingly from dialogue and subtle gags (the “big” showpiece stuff was for showing off the creatures and the effects), while both the standard and “international” trailers for the remake are selling a succession of sight-gags, slapstick, and loud, in-your-face mugging. It looks, to be charitable, like the same sort of trailer you tend to get for an Adam Sandler offering: People running, falling down, crashing into things, shouting obnoxiously into the camera, etc. – and that’s not a good sign.
Yes, absolutely, it goes without saying that the finished product very well could be entirely different. Most trailers these days are cut to make films look as fast, simple, loud and obvious as possible, in order to appeal more broadly across age, language and cultural barriers, for one thing. For another, there are probably enough pratfalls and physical gags in the original film to cut a similarly loud, obnoxious, off-putting trailer for the original.
In fact, the first Ghostbusters is practically a master-class in how to be broad and sophisticated at the same time: The founding trio being frightened by the ghost in the library (a scene that gets an homage in the new trailer) is a funny physical gag, but not because the Ghostbusters stumble around causing slapstick mayhem while fleeing – the fleeing is the joke in itself. After a long, deliberate buildup of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz speaking about the haunting in dry, matter-of-fact scientific terms, when confronted with the real thing they run screaming for the door. That’s funny. The same scene in the new trailer ends with Kristen Wiig getting a faceful of ghost-puke. Amusing? Maybe, but consider that the even the sliming gag in the original was more sophisticated. Venkman gets “slimed” at the Sedgewick Hotel offscreen, and the joke isn’t “Peter’s got goo all over him!” so much as the scary ghost attack he’d braced himself for being more annoying than anything else – and Ray’s oblivious, excited reaction to it.
Could Wiig’s ecto-vomit splattering have a similarly clever component in context? Of course. So could Melissa McCarthy’s Exorcist-riffing possession bit, or Leslie Jones’ bug-eyed flailing and Kate McKinnon’s hyperactive “sexy chipmunk” mugging. But if we were to assume that the trailer is representative of the finished film, it would be a hugely missed opportunity – not just because Ghostbusters, if it must be remade, certainly deserves better than to be remade as a gender-inverted supernatural answer to Pixels, but also because the actresses involved here deserve better and are entirely capable of it.
Wiig, McKinnon and Jones are stand-up veterans and three of the top modern veterans of the Saturday Night Live talent farm – all well-versed in the kind of sharp, dialogue-driven wit that was the soul of the original film. McCarthy may be known for physical comedy, but also possesses tremendous range and wordplay skills to stack up against any of the others. It would be a tremendous shame to not showcase any of this, in favor of instead cycling these performers through cheap pratfalls ripped off from Far Side cartoons (super-genius Wiig pushing on a “pull” door) or other movies (Jones’ failed stage-dive comes directly out of Mean Girls and likely a dozen other sources).
Speaking of Leslie Jones, a separate discussion of her character specifically has cropped up around the trailer that illustrates another (for lack of a less overused word) problematic side to treating loving (or hating) a movie as part of a cause: It can obscure the ability to talk about other issues within the film itself. Jones’ character (reportedly an MTA subway worker who joins the team after a ghost encounter) is the lone non-scientist of the team, and the trailer arranges her dialogue to draw a pointed distinction between her NYC street-smarts and the others’ expertise with “the science stuff.” Sure, it’s another broad characterization that could easily have greater nuance in the film itself, but there’s no getting around the fact that the trailer is selling a scenario where on a team of four the only member who isn’t some kind of STEM-wizard is also the only black person.
As implied character dynamics go, that’s pretty unfortunate, made more so by the fact that Jones big humor moments in the two (currently) available trailers are a pratfall based around her being significantly larger in stature than the other Ghostbusters, and bellowing pseudo-scripture at the camera while slapping a possessed McCarthy. Once again, it’s fairly likely that this all plays much differently in context (Jones is a remarkably gifted veteran humorist and much of her comic persona, particularly on SNL, is grounded in subverting the tired “loud black woman” stock-character). For now, however, being seemingly unconcerned with even appearing to prop up tired stereotypes like this is a bad look for the trailer. That’s an important discussion, but is there any room for such nuance in a rush to anoint the film as a progressive godsend? A movie gets to be many things, good and bad, and have layers – a cause doesn’t.
(Since the comparison is inevitable: Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore was also the “regular guy” Ghostbuster, but he wasn’t “street smart” – the character was originally written as a highly-skilled ex-Marine meant to be more technically competent and professional than the three oddball scientists, and in the final film his key contribution is being better able to communicate what’s going on to the various authorities than his socially awkward colleagues).
It’s not just character nuance that the trailer doesn’t seem interested in communicating. There also doesn’t seem to be much of a theme at play, which is worrying given that part of what helped the franchise endure so long prior was the surprising thematic depth inherent in its concept: Science versus the supernatural; technological-acuity as a curative for spiritual villainy; a finale where human characters thwart a literal apocalypse and defeat a god, etc. The remake is supposedly grounded in a storyline about re-forging a broken friendship between Wiig and McCarthy’s characters, onetime BFF’s pulled-apart by differences in scientific vocation (one a “real” scientist, the other a true-believer ghost-hunter,) which is a good starting point… so why isn’t it being sold on that? Do they think the audience will only show up for what they assume is a lowest common denominator gagfest, or is that the film they’ve actually made?
There’s also no answer to perhaps the most pressing question of all: Why make so much reference to the original and do a remake instead of a passing-the-torch sequel, which would have likely drawn a lot less anger from fans by officially “preserving” the original continuity?
That’s all the more reason why it’s a real shame that, however the film turns out, we’re probably going to hear more about what people think about the bigger symbolic issues being projected onto the film than we will about whatever the actual “sense” of the new Ghostbusters is in the prevailing pop-cultural zeitgeist. It’s possible that may always have been the case – that even if we weren’t stuck reacting to the sexist backlash, we’d instead be stuck arguing the merits of all remakes instead of just this specific remake. Still, it’s unfortunate all the same.
In many ways, Ghostbusters feels like something that might have been doomed from the start; a profoundly unnecessary remake of a movie that the broader moviegoing culture wasn’t asking to see remade, and that fans were always going to be resistant to. But it deserves to be gauged on its own merits as a movie – not on what its merits (or lack thereof) mean to angry dudes on the Internet.
Ghostbusters hits U.S. theaters on July 15, 2016.