We are living in an era of reboots and/or sequel movies (often coming long after the original franchise has fallen dormant). Last year saw Terminator: Genisys and Jurassic World take to the big screen, followed by Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. (And let’s not forget that Sylvester Stallone actually played Rocky Balboa again in Creed, almost 40 years after Rocky hit theaters in 1976!) This summer I had the slightly dull pleasure of seeing Jeff Goldblum defend us from an alien invasion once again in Independence Day: Resurgence, just days after seeing Finding Dory. I am eagerly awaiting a third Star Trek movie from a newly reborn parallel-universe series of that franchise, and have yet to see The Legend of Tarzan and Ice Age: Collision Course.
And I have to say – it’s awesome.
The reality is, this is not anything new. If we look at some of history’s oldest written works (at least in the Western canon) we see that many authors and poets tend to write sequels, or rework old material to fit their contemporary themes. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey tend to be a prime target for this inspiration: as if they were the Marvel comic books of their era, they spawn inspired work after inspired work, and an entire universe of literature revolves around their source material. (The Aeneid, meanwhile, strikes me as more of a DC Comics equivalent: closer to propaganda than entertainment.) The Iliad particularly has spawned many works inspired by its events, or speculating on its aftereffects; a good many Greek plays feature characters or historical events from the epic, and has continued to reverberate through history as modern interpretations continue to appear (Troy, 2004; Ilium, 2003; Age of Bronze, 1998; Memorial, 2011; supposedly, the fourth installment of the Millennium series).
This is clearly a popular mechanic for writers/creators of many different works within the “storytelling” field. Interpretations of an established work or franchise can be original and creative, but they draw from a base of knowledge that the audience will recognize. This allows for a creator to stick relevant themes into a contemporary time (or perhaps simply display a story in a new format or in an unprecedented way). Troy, as a loose interpretation of the Iliad, told the story on film for the first time (at least in the sense of a modern movie); Memorial, meanwhile, departed from the Iliad‘s narrative entirely to focus instead on honoring the many dead by commemorating their names. (Written in 2011, this work sounds rather like a gentle cough in the direction of the U.S. military when read aloud.) Each work set out with different goals, but both owed possibility of their message — and indeed their very existence — to Homer and his original entry to the “Iliad franchise.”
Now that we’ve identified two things to look for in a reboot or a sequel, let’s examine how the new Ghostbusters bows to the work that came before it — and how it forges onward into new territory, with a new message that comes from an old story told in contemporary times.
The above picture is of Bill Murray. But, odds are, you already knew that. In addition to being in 1984’s Ghostbusters and 1989’s Ghostbusters II, he’s pretty much a staple of American comedy, with acting credits in 81 movies and shorts in a career that spans over 40 years and includes critically important roles in works like Caddyshack (1980), Groundhog Day (1993), and Garfield (2004). He’s found a second wind through Wes Anderson’s movies, and is one of the true great actors of all time.
Before I went and saw Ghostbusters (and here I’m talking about the 2016 version), I remarked to my friend, “It’s weird to be seeing Ghostbusters without Bill Murray in it.” It’s true — Murray played lead role Dr. Peter Venkman in the original movies, and without his somewhat sleazy, halfheartedly-heroic style, the movie’s plot would have been tough to pull off. But I didn’t have to worry about this for too long, because Bill Murray was in Ghostbusters — alongside fellow ’84busters Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson (Harold Ramis died in 2014) — as was his romantic interest Sigourney Weaver, and receptionist Annie Potts. The movie, unafraid to give us what we wanted with these cameos, gave us a full scene with Murray and a brief exchange with the others (Aykroyd even has the chance to shout, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost!” as he drives away in his taxi). They don’t reprise their old roles, but rather appear as familiar faces. There is no inclination in the movie that the ’84 Ghostbusters actually existed in this 2016 universe; we are thus led to believe that this reboot is a fresh start, urged onward by a tip of the hat from the old crew.
But Ghostbusters‘ bow to its predecessors is more complex than simply featuring the old crew in their movie. It begins with a similar premise, the same one as ’84 relied upon: Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) have been tossed out of their respective universities for believing in ghosts. But, despite this — and thanks to a recent run-in with a spectral apparition — they continue to believe, and take matters into their own hands by renting an “office” and, basically, science-ing the shit out of the supernatural. This is the messages that Ghostbusters (as a franchise) puts forth: stick to your guns (or, sometimes, proton packs). Even if no one else believes you, even if what you believe seems impossible, you must stand steadfast in that belief and devote your career to it if it matters enough to you.
What was most interesting — and rather controversial — about the new movie was that the three male scientist-dorks had now been replaced by three female scientist-dorks (and Leslie Jones, who plays a role similar to Ernie Hudson’s as Patty Tolan: she does not have a science background but joins the team after seeing a ghost in the subway). As anyone who has ever read about This Is What An Engineer Looks Like might be able to predict, a lot of people seemed deeply offended by this concept. I will admit: after seeing some of the trailers, I was concerned that they might have missed a bit of the point. The ’84busters were not great at communication and interaction with society. They were scraping by for a good chunk of their careers, finally acknowledged as celebrities for brief moments but without any clear idea of how to actually be celebrities. They existed on the awkward fringe of society, a vibe that was not adequately captured in the first trailer for ’16busters. This was a crucial part of convincing the audience that the ’84busters actually had it rough, and I was worried that without it, the movie would suffer in its believability and overall strength of message.
Then, like something out of a dream, came a miracle. In the place of Harold Ramis’ Egon stood Jillian Holtzmann. (I will remind you, once again, that she was played by Kate McKinnon, because I don’t think anyone else could have pulled this role off so well.)
Packing wild hair, an awkward sense of style, and absolutely zero social skills, Holtzmann is the puzzle piece that does not fit in with the normal world. Even her fellow Ghostbuster Patty remarks, “Seriously, you scare me.” What defines Holtzmann is an obsession with her craft: she build prototypes and experiments constantly throughout the movie, usually with a brazen disregard for safety and caution. Like Egon before her, she doesn’t have to be good at talking to people, because she is brilliant in another area. And here is where ’16busters breaks its most convincing ground: it says that a Ghostbusters made with four women doesn’t have to look any different (in terms of limitations on the characters) than a Ghostbusters made with four men. This subtle proposition (not the only one the movie offers) suggests firmly that if Egon can be terrible at communication and only talented in the area of ghost-busting technology, so can Holtzmann. If the ’84busters can stand up to the Mayor and protest the validity of their beliefs, so can the ’16busters.
But a movie made with four female leads in 2016 is bound to look a little different (in terms of subtle references to cultural climate) than a movie made with four male leads in 1984. The ’16busters never quite go as far as directly addressing gender (although they do, at several points in the film, read excerpts from commentary on their YouTube videos, which may be a snide jab at the exceptionally negative response to the first trailer posted to YouTube) but the movie as a whole poses one extremely interesting argument when it comes to its main villain, Rowan North (Neil Casey) about the trope of the misunderstood, bullied white male.
The point is driven home throughout the film: Rowan is not treated well by those that interact with him. We overhear several people referring to him as a freak and avoiding direct interaction with him; we hear a phone conversation with someone demanding his janitorial assistance and insulting him several times in the process. But it is not completely clear that Rowan does not self-perpetuate a negative image that he projects to society; he models his workspace into a supernatural dungeon, after all, and often can be found sketching doodles of himself destroying buildings — even in public — or staring angrily into the distance. Whereas Jillian Holtzmann does not fit into society, but is suited fine by staying in the lab and working, Rowan North seems to demand that his unusual predilections be accepted and honored appropriately by society (he comments at one point that he is “a genius,” apparently astounded by the fact that no one gave him the credit he deserved for this). In a sense, Rowan has convinced himself that the world is at fault for what he’s become — even if he himself is partially responsible for a lot of the way people have treated him. (The moment when, occupying Chris Hemsworth’s body, Rowan remarks, “I should have worked out more when I was alive,” is intended primarily as a quick laugh, but speaks directly to the idea that Rowan boxed himself in to a certain set of priorities and identities and never expanded out of that in a way that might have helped him integrate with society and be fulfilled.
Like Elliot Rodger (the Santa Barbara shooter whose video manifesto expressed how he had been unfairly denied sex and attention by women throughout his life), Rowan’s belief that he’s been treated unfairly makes him dangerous. He seeks revenge rather than integration because it seems that he will never be treated well — in reality, each instance in which he is called “freak” makes him perpetuate the image consistent with that word more and more, and makes the next instance that much more likely. As Brian Levinson wrote in a Slate piece on the Rodger shooting, young adulthood makes social outcasts “hate themselves for being solitary freaks, but they also think they’re better than everyone else around them — smarter, more sensitive, and attuned to truths they couldn’t possibly understand.” The ’16busters are continuously discredited and disrespected throughout the movie, but in some sense — possibly because they are not used to the expectation of validation that men may be more likely to carry — they are prepared for this. It hits hard, but they have been criticized before and understand that they may have to prove to the world that they are capable and talented; Rowan, meanwhile, retreats into himself with his anger at being shortchanged, and finds a way to make everyone pay. (It is noteworthy that, even while possessing Chris Hemsworth’s body — when he would presumably be treated the way he has always dreamed of, because it’s Chris Hemsworth — Rowan continues to seek revenge. The ’16busters, meanwhile, are satisfied with a little validation from the Mayor’s office and a grant to set them up with their own workspace… because that’s how grievances ought to work when they’re resolved.)
Ghostbusters is not without its flaws. Though I love the rest of the largely-SNL-drawn cast, I cannot stand Kristen Wiig, and her place in the lead role threatens to kick the legs out from under the movie (but fortunately, she’s too apathetic to actually do much damage). The rest of the leading cast are mostly terrific, with a nice balance being struck between an admirably-restrained Melissa McCarthy (this is a good thing), Leslie Jones (displaying an acting range I did not expect given the few roles I’ve seen her play), and the magnificent performance of Kate McKinnon (who I always have and always will consider brilliant in the field of comedy, and hopefully will continue to make many more movies). The story is a little weak, and much of the dry humor and “effects to advance the story” policy from the first movies have been replaced by slightly more cumbersome jokes and a visual display that seems to drag itself up for a halfhearted final sequence that is, ultimately, unearned and mostly meaningless to the story. However, this is nearly balanced by the expansion of ghost-busting technology — which is cool to see in action — and, honestly, some very realistic-looking ghosts.
Far from a flop, ’16busters is a movie that entertains while using its predecessors as an invaluable tool to shed some light on some realities of the modern world. Rating: 8/10.
As always, thanks for reading!