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Holes in the Sky… and the plot (a very late Ghostbusters review)

When Ghostbusters(2016) came out, I actually wanted to go see it and review it, but I happened to be busy that week and it bombed so hard that it was basically gone the next week, so I never got around to it. However yesterday I made a comment comparing the reviews of it to my fears about the reviews on the new  Wonder Woman movie (more on this in a bit) and a few people told me they really liked it and it was really good. My friend Brian, in particular, said “you should totally watch it and write a review like immediately!” Turns out it’s on Starz right now, and I was spending last night working on my comic strip anyway. I don’t usually do movie reviews of non-new releases. Or at least I haven’t yet. But it was Brian’s birthday yesterday… so you know what… Happy Birthday, Brian… here’s your review.

So uh…. SPOILERS… I guess… not really…  (I’ll get to this too).

One of my biggest problems with Ghostbusters when it came out was the lack of fair reviews. No one seemed to care about the movie. They cared about feminism. Both good and bad. What I mean is most of the chatter I saw about it came in two types: 1) “This is stupid. This is the worst movie ever. Why can’t chicks stick to their own movies. Why can’t they just stick to their own crap chick flicks and stay away from dude stuff! This is the worst movie ever!” or 2) “This is an important movie for women! We need more roles for strong women actors! If you hate this you hate women! Best movie ever!” What I didn’t see much of was the one thing I really wanted to see… “was this a good MOVIE?”

So I watched it. And the answer is… it’s not. It’s also not a bad movie. It doesn’t really deserve praise or derision. It falls pretty much exactly in the realm of what is quickly becoming one of my favorite ratings, particularly for tentpole franchise films “well, yes that was a movie.” Which is to say that it in all ways technically fulfilled the qualifications of motion picture cinema and while doing so did not actively annoy me for the 116 minutes that it was on screen. I was mildly entertained because I’m distracted by shiny colors and sparkly moving objects like a 6 month old. But I can’t say much more about it than that.

But it isn’t BAD. I have to stress that. It’s fine.

I was talking to a few people about it before I watched it and they said they liked it better than the original Ghostbusters, an they thought it would age better. I didn’t and I don’t. But not by much. To be fair though, I don’t love the original Ghostbusters. I’d give it maybe 2.75 out of 5 stars. It’s ok… and for it’s time it’s really innovative. And really Bill Murray in his prime drives that movie. It’s not his best performance, but he really makes it what it is. He turned a mediocre action comedy (this ain’t Caddyshack, folks) into something that could become a cult classic. That makes it fun. But as a movie. It’s really just a bit over mediocre. I might have maybe given it three stars if I were actually reviewing it in 1984, but it hasn’t aged well. Most of prestige of that film is wrapped up in it’s legend… not in what actually happens on screen. And that’s fine. Lot of movies that are far worse are very fun. Rocky Horror Picture Show is a shitty shitty shitty movie… that’s kind of the point.

No one in the new version has quite the charm of 1984 Bill Murray… and that includes 2017 Bill Murray. They’re not awful or anything like that. But the four principle leads are kind of typecast. Kate McKinnon probably does the best, but that’s because she hadn’t had an opportunity to really shine in a movie before this. And much like I said about her role in Office Christmas Party, she’s basically just one of her SNL characters. At least she goes for it though. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy don’t. They’re scaled down versions of characters that I’ve seen them play before… and better. And Leslie Jones is playing Paul Feig‘s idea of Leslie Jones. It’s basically the same character she plays on SNL but toned down by a white man to be less scary (seriously, I felt like her basic screen direction was “can you black it up!!! but you know, don’t black it up too much? Maybe a mid to late era Eddie Murphy and really tone down the Richard Pryor. Thanks!”). None of them are bad. They’re…. fine…

An interesting problem with the movie is that I’m not sure “why” it exists. Ok. I know why it got made. But I don’t know why it exists. Probably the thing I found most interesting about it is the metatextual self-referentialness of it. There’s several points where it basically comments directly on the cultural context in which it exists. That is to say, that in a lot of ways, it is a movie about female Ghostbusters that tries to make the argument that female Ghostbusters should be allowed to exist despite what the critics of the idea are saying. In other words, it comments directly on the controversy surrounding it existing in the first place…  a controversy that only exists because the movie was being made. These are the points in which I was most invested in the movie. There aren’t enough of them. There are other points when the movie attempts to make a feminist statement about the culture in general… they were “fine” but a little too on the nose. Again, I can’t really complain about any of them.. It’s just that I’ve literally seen every single member of the cast (as well as Feig as a writer) do a much better job of making that statement in far better movies.

Really though, the reason it got made was because the world needs franchises. This is a simple truth that I touched on in my Logan review. Franchises make non-franchise movies possible. But in that respect, this movie was a failure. It holds the problem of many recent Hollywood reboots. They’re pointless. It’s only there to make money off of something that people already love. I’m a huge fan of the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart. What most people don’t know is that that isn’t the original film. It’s a remake. I don’t have a problem with remakes. It was remade because the original 1931 version, with Ricardo Cortez, kinda sucks. So it was remade as though the original had never existed.

See, I was never the guy who was against this movie because women can’t be Ghostbusters. I was against this movie because I didn’t understand why we needed a new Ghostbusters movie AT ALL. The original Ghostbusters is not that good. It was never that popular. The CARTOON was.. and it has built a loyal fanbase over the years that sort of associate it with the movie. But the movie was just kind of ok. It was notable for being a two franchise film that did alright in an era where franchises weren’t as much of a thing as they are now. When this movie was first pitched, my friend Link once said to me “its great because kids should have their own version of this thing that I loved when I was a kid.” Except that’s silly. Kids have their own things now. Kids in the 21st century don’t need to love Ghostbusters. If they do, great. But they don’t need it. They have Hunger Games and Frozen. Trying to force feed them Ghostbusters makes as much sense as trying to force us kids from the 80s to love Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. So as producers Hollywood needed to ask itself “why are we making this movie?” Because as far as I can tell, the entire pitch for it was “wouldn’t it be cool if we did Ghostbusters but all the characters were women?” And the answer was no… not really…

This film, however, heavily relies on nostalgia in order to try to make it work. Feig made the decision to make a reboot rather than a sequel. But unlike Maltese Falcon, he wanted to have it both ways. There are constant callbacks to the original film. Murray is a distraction from the film. He does provide one small plot point, but it would have been better served by an unrelated actor. He has way too much screentime for the very small amount of relevance he has to the movie. He serves no other purpose other than to say “Look kids, it’s Bill Murray. You know… from the other Ghostbusters? That movie? From the 80s? Bill Murray kids!!! Because this is Ghostbusters!” Dan Akroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver make similar forced cameos that add little to the film other than to remind people of the other movie. Of course the problem is most of the fans of the other movie didn’t want the reboot. Because “… and all the characters are women is not a movie pitch.” It is not a storyline. It’s a single plot detail and that’s not enough to make a truly compelling movie.

And that’s the thing. If this had more been a movie about feminism and women in a “men’s” job I might have been more interested in it. Why not remake Backdraft? Because geeks don’t care enough about Backdraft as a franchise property. Why not make an original movie about four women scientists trying to save the city from… I dunno… mole people or something? Because then you wouldn’t be able to trade on the Ghostbusters name. And that’s sort of the problem. There’s no real story here. It’s not really a culturally relevant story about feminism. It’s not really any story at all. At the end of the day this had to be Ghostbusters first, a franchise second, sprinkle a social message on third, and if we have any room left for plot I guess you can do that… oh we don’t? Well, don’t worry about it… just have them fight a giant hole in the sky. Kids love that, right?

Seriously… here’s picture of a climatic giant hole in the sky. Is it from Ghostbusters? You don’t know, right? No one does!

When I look at a movie that’s a rebooted franchise, I feel like I have to ask myself “would I care about this movie if this were the first one I saw?” This came up during Rogue One (though not technically a reboot). In that case, I did; other than the last 15 minutes which everyone but me loved, I was invested enough in that story. In this case with Ghostbusters, the answer is not really. I cared about them enough to get through the entire movie, but they won’t stick with me afterwards… at least not for anything in the movie. I have to ask myself, if this film had been a completely unrelated product called “Molepeople Killers” with the exact same plot, would I recommend it to people? And … not really. I’d probably say something like “you know, if you’re flipping through channels and it happens to be on, it’s worth a watch… but if you really want to see McCarthy and Wiig shine in a movie about strong female characters you should really go buy Bridesmaids!”

The movie didn’t HAVE to be about feminism, but I wanted it to be. I think Feig even wanted it to be. And it kind of is, but it’s kind of lost in all the franchise nonsense substituting for compelling story and plot. A lot of things are kind of lost in this movie. It didn’t HAVE to feminism, but it SHOULD have been something. See, one of the things that makes a story into a classic is how well it examines it’s cultural moment, even if it does it through allegory. As a scholar I can look at the classic films of an era and see what was going on. The 1940s were all about anxiety over the war. The 50s were about anxiety over the bomb. The 60s were about civil rights. The 70s were about sexual rights. The 80s were about anxiety over the fall out from the previous three decades… you get the idea. Forty years from now, when scholars like me look back at the biggest films of the 2010s, they’re going to say “Holy shit, people in the 21st century were seriously afraid of holes in the sky. It seems like that was a serious issue!!!” And this was not the best movie about fighting a hole in the sky. It wasn’t even the best movie about fighting a hole in the sky in 2016. It wasn’t the worst hole in the sky movie either… it was fine.

★★½☆☆ (2.5 out of 5 stars).

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