After 27 years and countless stabs at mounting a comeback, a new Ghostbusters film finally made its way to theaters this weekend despite the caustic cries of a small contingent of fans who objected to the sex of the film’s main characters. Ghostbusters is being counted as a success thanks to a solid (but not jaw-dropping) $46 million opening, but the critical response has ranged from positive to mixed. While the gripes vary, many are centered on the belief that the remake found a way to both fail in its effort to match the chemistry of the original and that it tried too hard to get that result. But while some of those failures may have been inevitable, they may not have been in vain.
Looking to the original, producer/director Paul Feig clearly recognized the need to bring together a group that had a history in an effort to replicate the chemistry. Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig are all current or recent Saturday Night Live cast members (though, Wiig left just after McKinnon arrived and before Jones) and Melissa McCarthy, no stranger to SNL herself, has worked with Feig four times. Two of those — Ghostbusters and Bridesmaids — teamed her with Wiig. This mirrors the bond shared by Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd as SNL compatriots for four seasons and Murray’s close working relationships with both Harold Ramis and producer/director Ivan Reitman, who directed him in Meatballs and Stripes. There’s a big difference, though: The original Ghostbusters group, for the most part, crafted the film’s story together, whereas Feig and his co-writer, Kate Dippold, more or less handed down their script to the cast.
Here’s Reitman, shedding a little light on the process of constructing the original in an interview with The Daily Beast:
“We had no time! From conception to delivery in a theater it was only 13 months. I think there was something about being forced to do it so quickly that we were totally relying on our instincts, complemented by a group of actors who were really my co-writers as well. So we were all sort of creating together.”
“At the same time we had all worked together before so there was a wonderful comfort in knowing you were working with family who had your back. I mean, I could turn to Harold [Ramis] at some point and say, ‘You’ve got to give me something better than this, we’re in real trouble here.’ People were improvising and doing funny things and I was working like hell to try to contain it into something that was tonally consistent for the whole movie.”
There was, of course, improv and last minute tweaking on the set of the new film. Chris Hemsworth’s best lines reportedly emerged as a part of that process and Feig is known for encouraging improvisation. But there was no hierarchy between writers and actors on the set of the original since they were one and the same in the case of Aykroyd and Ramis, with Murray pulling many of his lines out of thin air while filming. It’s that uncommon flexibility between Ivan Reitman and his frequent collaborators that had a hand in producing a tightly paced film whose story was enhanced by the unforced dynamic between actors who were in control of the story and reading lines that they authored. That level of collaboration might have benefited the remake considering the talent of the cast, even if would be highly irregular for a tentpole film with a $145 million budget and the weight of being a franchise reboot.
Reitman and Feig are, of course, different filmmakers with different styles. But even if they were the same (or even if Reitman had directed the latest Ghostbusters as he did the first two), their circumstances were not. And that had a hand in shaping the film as well. Unlike Reitman, Feig wasn’t starting from scratch. There are almost three decades of Ghostbusters 3 false starts and wince-worthy stories about Bill Murray rejecting another film; the resulting anticipation is a part of the burden that Feig took on. It’s why there is so much fan service and, as I said before, it’s why he cast the women he cast — though I’d be hard-pressed to suggest a better group of actors.
Feig was mindful that casting male ghostbusters would result in audiences comparing them to the original group. He wanted to make a film that was distinctive, which is commendable, but the comparisons were inescapable. When the cast was announced, everyone naturally tried to forecast which actress would play “The Venkman” and “The Egon” characters. And after seeing the film, it’s clear that there are elements from the original characters sprinkled throughout. Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) is a gearhead who is just a little too excited about the supernatural and the act of being a Ghostbuster, much like Ray. Patty (Leslie Jones) is the outsider who thinks this is all a bit weird at first, emulating that part of Winston’s (Ernie Hudson) character. Erin (Kristen Wiig) is the seemingly clear-headed scientist, like Egon, but Abby (Melissa McCarthy) has elements of him as well. There is no Venkman type (which is probably as wise as it is unfortunate). Beyond those thin descriptions, though, the script doesn’t really allow the characters to establish themselves as much more or come together as a unit in ways that don’t feel the superficial.
Maybe it’s because Erin and Abby begin the film estranged with Holtzman jammed into the mix thanks to her tie to McCarthy’s character instead of as a pre-formed trio whose bond is strengthened by their dismissal from Columbia University, as it was in the original. That event gets repeated and then repeated again in the new film when the nascent Ghostbusters are fired from two separate colleges — a needless double down that helped add to an already overlong first-act. The trouble is, the estrangement is so thin and absent a strong hook that it resolves quickly and without any real epiphany. They’re not friends and then they are again because of circumstance and because bustin’ makes them feel good — their relationship (and relationship issues) get pushed off to the side until a third-act callback.
While conducting a post-mortem on the reboot, it’s easy to hang these issues on the script and declare that Feig and Dippold fell short, but once again, the presence of the original looms large. Had Feig and Dippold not felt, for whatever reason, the need to follow the original’s story structure and work in so many nods to the original, they would have been more free to develop their characters and their story. They gave the audience what they thought they wanted, not what they needed. That’s probably what most screenwriters would have done (and do in similar projects) when presented with the opportunity to reboot a long-idle franchise. But in doing so, they tried to recall and emulate the iconic end result without being able to use the same materials or benefit from the same freedoms that Reitman and his bunch had. So, in essence, any failings are on them, but also on the original (for being so good), the studio, and fans who cry for something new but who, historically, take comfort in the familiar. Because of this, Paul Feig’s remake deserves to be remembered as an enjoyable, impressively cast, and flawed sacrificial lamb that was as good as it could have been, all things considered.
Perhaps future Ghostbusters films will have an easier time and filmmakers (Feig, or someone else) won’t feel the need to fill the screen with fan service and nods that are subtle and not. Perhaps they’ll get to develop these new characters in a way that allows us to see their easy charm and how these four pieces fit together. That, or they’ll go the Star Trek Into Darkness route and we’ll soon start wondering which actor or actress can bring the fire like Peter MacNicol did as Janosz in Ghostbusters 2. For the sake of the franchise and Ghostbusters fans all over, hopefully, the best is yet to come.