The remake has many issues, but one of them tops the rest.
Warning: this column features SPOILERS for Ghostbusters (2016).
The new Ghostbusters is dividing critics and fans, and it has nothing to do with the heroes being women this time. Well, actually the female leads are a part of some of the praise going around, including this site’s official review of the movie. But it’s never a problem, unless you’re sexist. The actual problems with the movie vary from issues we can nitpick about, like the distracting cameos, and subjective criticisms, like the jokes not being funny, to quality complaints, such as those regarding the CG effects. None of these, even added up, make it a bad movie, though. Just one major problem takes care of that, and it’s the matter of the Ghostbusters’ lack of shortcomings.
Do they have moments of slapstick bumbling? Sure, but when it comes to the whole story they are mostly infallible superheroes without any real hurdles or fallback moments. For a Paul Feig movie, this is surprising. His last three features, each of them also involving Melissa McCarthy, include plot points where either the characters seem like they could lose or it seems like they think they could lose. In Bridesmaids, the core friendship is on the rocks. In The Heat, the main duo is ordered to stand down. In Spy, the protagonist has her cover blown and is imprisoned. These aren’t spoilers, by the way. They’re expected turns in this sort of Hollywood storytelling.
And there’s no argument for Ghostbusters being an attempt to go up against such expectations. Even if it challenges gender role conventions, it’s still structurally by the books. It has to be, for what it’s doing as deconstruction and spoof. Sometimes the new movie feels like it took a mashup of the original Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II and then made an Airplane! to their Zero Hour!, playing for incidental jokes and gags atop a familiar narrative. But it forgot some of that narrative, namely the parts where the heroes are suppressed or in danger. Outside of a couple scenes showing them having difficulty with ghost-hunting gadgetry, they’re indomitable.
There is one moment in the new movie where it seems the Ghostbusters are out of commission, but no, they’re just fine. Following a run-in with the mayor and agents from Homeland Security, the four women are told they can continue their heroic and scientifically important work but will be officially denounced by the government as frauds. That’s a lot different from them being viewed as an actual threat to the city and locked up until the mayor deems them an asset. Weirdly, Kristen Wiig’s character is shown at her apartment following the City Hall meeting looking like she’s upset and confined there. But no, she and the rest are all free and good.
Their winning streak continues throughout. They have teensy bumps along the way, including a lengthy yet very briefly seen and dealt with situation where McCarthy’s character is possessed by the villain. There’s another moment where the mayor doesn’t believe Wig’s character, but it’s not a big deal. And when the women are climactically battling ghosts, balloons shaped like ghosts, and ultimately the big bad, in the form of their logo, there’s not one beat where they appear at risk of not saving the world or coming out alive. Then there’s the bit where two of them travel through an inter-dimensional portal without fear, because there’s not a trace of peril.
Another part of the problem is the characters have no real personal stakes in this version of the story. In the 1984 Ghostbusters, the heroes aren’t just out to do their job and save their city, while attempting to earn respect for their strange profession. They also want to specifically rescue their two new friends who’ve been turned into Hellhounds. Bill Murray’s character wants to save Sigourney Weaver’s damsel in distress, while the other three guys have a responsibility towards Rick Moranis’s dweeb in distress. In the 2016 Ghostbusters, the heroes’ receptionist is in need of rescue after he becomes possessed by the villain, but he’s not represented as that kind of goal, even if Wiig’s character fancies him, albeit without romantic reciprocation.
The irony in the new Ghostbusters having such a worry-free plot and tone is that, unlike the original and its sequel, the reboot does see some of its characters die. There’s Murray’s skeptic, who we assume is killed when the flying ghost drags him out of the headquarters window. There’s also Neil Casey’s villain, who commits suicide. Still, for the main characters, death is never a possibility. There are some darker elements to the new version, for sure, but the movie is still way too easy on its leads and most of the supporting characters who come in contact with the ghosts and especially the main villain. The would-be apocalypse never comes off as truly apocalyptic, and that makes for a would-be thrill ride without any thrills.