As early reviews warned, Paul Feig's new Ghostbusters isn't the transcendent antidote for years of Hollywood gender imbalance some might have hoped for. It's broad and dubiously sentimental, and relies on gross-out slime gags and mega-pratfalls. Its special effects are big and colorful, but not very interesting. It moves too frantically to find the gentle, even lyrical moments that help give Ivan Reitman's original 1984 Ghostbusters its distinctive directorial texture. For all that it changes up, it's weirdly faithful to the original film's racial dynamic, where all the scientist characters are white, and the one black team member is a blue-collar addition who joins the party late, and doesn't entirely fit into the group. And it sticks in an annoyingly obvious piece of product placement, where one of the characters not only prominently chows down on Pringles, but praises the irresistibility of their "salty parabolas."
But Ghostbusters is a lively, hilarious crowd-pleaser, which is all that's really required of a big summer action comedy. Ever since it was announced, though, the primary question surrounding it hasn't been "Is it better than the original version?" or "Is it funny?" It's been "Why do we need this movie? What's the point of remaking a beloved comedy classic with women?"
Feig and the stars involved have a proven track record, and it's worth seeing what they do
A lot of the early answers from the film's supporters were abstract, and more about The Movies in general than this movie in specific: "Because woman-led summer blockbusters are so rare." "Because the Ghostbusters world is fun, and it's been fallow for too long." "Because there's no reason 'Ghostbuster' should be an exclusively male job, not when little girls want to play just as much as boys do." "Because Feig and the stars involved have a proven track record, and it's worth seeing what they do."
The new Ghostbusters has its issues, but it also has some major strengths that separate it from the 1984 version. Here's how Feig's version justifies its existence.
A new plot and a new antagonist
The new Ghostbusters certainly isn't a sequel, except to people bending over backward to justify reading it that way. It's something between a reboot and a remake, with plenty of borrowed plot specifics from the original film. But Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold (Parks And Recreation, The Heat) come up with their own central plot, which actually involves a human antagonist with his own motives and abilities. Given Feig's ongoing interest in exploring the relationships between women (in Bridesmaids and The Heat especially), it's no surprise that they also build more developed connections between the primary characters than the original Ghostbusters had. The filmmakers include enough signifiers to make this recognizably Ghostbusters, much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens trades on familiar plot beats and deliberately courts nostalgia. But Feig and Dippold also consciously choose their own direction, and there's enough new material to keep the story surprising, and to give this Ghostbusters its own identity, and its own scares.
The original Ghostbusters had a particular brand of quotable, memorable humor, based around the cast's specific strengths. Feig's film doesn't try to copy any of this, but it does follow the same philosophy, by playing up what each of its ridiculously controversial comedian stars do best. Melissa McCarthy gets yet another character who hides her wounded frustration under a brash confidence; Leslie Jones is brash and smart; Kristen Wiig is uptight, brittle, and a little wistful. These are all familiar roles — Feig isn't trying to reinvent any of these stars, or take them outside their comfort zones. But he also knows how to integrate their familiar characters into the story. Just like the original Ghostbusters, this version is a showcase for established actors playing iconic roles.
McKinnon is this film's secret weapon, and it's worth seeing the 2016 Ghostbusters just for her. She's goofy, nerdy, and aggressively weird. She's an instant idol for smart, dorky women who feel a little out of place, but don't feel particularly bad about that. She steals scenes from the main cast just with her facial expressions when she's lurking in the background, and when she takes the foreground to dance to DeBarge's "Rhythm Of The Night" or enthuse about her latest crackpot invention, she comes across like the world's most upbeat Batman villain. Jared Leto's posturing as the Joker in Suicide Squad trailers already seems stale; give McKinnon some green hair dye and lipstick and let her grin like she does here, and she already seems crazier — not to mention more entertaining and appealing.
Some of the people most determined to hate the 2016 Ghostbusters are already griping that it makes women look smart and men look dumb and useless. (Welcome to how women felt about virtually every action film made in the 1980s, guys.) And they're particularly pointing to the Thor star as the proof of Feig's bottomless determination to be PC (or feminist, or an SJW, or reverse-sexist, or misandrist, or whatever the coded defensive-dude swear word of the day is). They're missing the part where Hemsworth a) is hilarious, b) gets to play a much wider range than the blindingly incompetent but decorative secretary he starts off as, and c) gets about half the movie's biggest laugh moments. Hemsworth is having a lot of fun playing with his image in this role. The film's willingness to objectify him feels a little subversive, but letting him play a really silly part half the time, and swagger the rest, doesn't make him the butt of the jokes, it lets him control and focus them. He's endlessly watchable, and the fact that he isn't playing a superhero this time doesn't change that.
Not making a big deal out of the fact that the stars are women
Ghostbusters gets in its digs here and there: at one point McCarthy and Wiig's characters pore over online comments and dismiss them as worthless and sad. But mostly, it doesn't play up any girl-power messages, or get particularly preachy about its feminism. It's enough to just put these women in these roles, and let them go to town. Unlike so many of the people attacking this film sight unseen, the film itself doesn't fuss over its stars' gender. It just focuses on humor, surprises, and having a good time. That feels like a justification for existence all on its own.