Relaunching a beloved franchise with a new cast when it has become no longer feasible for the original participants to return can be a tricky thing. JJ Abrams managed it quite well with Star Trek, finding a storyline that would preserve what came before while establishing a new playing field for the series to grow anew. Director Paul Feig had a similar task with the comedy classic Ghostbusters. But instead of recasting fan-favorite characters, he and co-screenwriter Katie Dippold took the concept of fringe scientists-turned-paranormal elimination specialists who have to save New York City and applied it to a new group of characters. The result is a film that entertains, but doesn’t quite let go of the past enough for its own good.
Erin Gilbert’s (Kristen Wiig) track to becoming a tenured physics professor at Columbia University becomes derailed when a book she co-authored years previously that theorized ghosts actually exist resurfaces. Tracking down her partner on the book book project and former friend Abby (Melissa McCarthy), the two discover that their theories about the afterlife are correct. Together with Abby’s new lab partner Jillian (Kate McKinnon) and Patty (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker with an encyclopedic knowledge of the weirder corners of New York City history, they discover that someone is using technology to bring ghosts back to the physical world. But their race to investigate and stop the person is hampered by government officials who would rather not have the general public know that such things as ghosts exist.
To be sure, there are some similarities in story to the original film. Some plot points and story structure are echoed here and there throughout the film. That’s to be expected. Feig and Dippold manage to put their own twist on many of these elements though. The film’s introduction to a world with ghosts, featuring Silicon Valley‘s Zach Woods, is more terrifying than the original’s opening library ghost sequence. The original’s meddling EPA official is now two agents from Homeland Security.
The big problem, though, is Feig seems committed to giving as many nods to the original. So much so that they tend to get in the way of the progress of the story the new film is telling. Sure, there is the momentary feeling of fun seeing Bill Murray briefly show up as a professional paranormal skeptic. But Dan Aykroyd popping up as a cab driver in the middle of the film’s climactic rising action just stops things cold. Granted, if Feig had dialed back a bit on some of these cameos, there most likely would have been complaints from some corners as to why some folks were included in the film over others. However, Feig’s erring on the side of caution does hamper the film’s pacing occasionally.
And for all the film’s homages to the original, the one that really felt missing was a true nod to the city in which the story unfolds – New York City. Much like he did for Chicago in The Blues Brothers, original Ghostbusters co-creator Dan Aykroyd’s screenplay along with Ivan Reitman’s direction made Manhattan a lead character in the film. It added a vibrancy and verisimilitude that helped to give a sense of reality to the fantastic supernatural elements of the story. The new film could have been set in Anytown USA and been told just as effectively. I would suggest that the decision to partially film in Boston rather than the Big Apple is the culprit here.
The two strongest comedic performances come from Hemsworth and McKinnon. Hemsworth seems to be having a load of fun taking his leading hero image and turning it on its head as the dimwitted beefcake hired by the Ghostbusters to be their receptionist. It’s especially evident in what appears to be a cut scene that gets repurposed for the film’s end credits. Meanwhile, McKinnon is the film’s secret weapon, upstaging her costars with a sense of quirkiness that has been honed over her last couple of years as a regular on Saturday Night Live. It is impressive that Hemsworth and McKinnon are strong enough to steal the comedic spotlight away from McCarthy and Wiig, two performers known for bringing the funny the on the big screen. But Feig does devote more time to these two characters’ relationship, allowing it to form the emotional center of the film. Unfortunately, some of that does get lost along the way, not quite earning the payoff the film gives it at the end.
Disappointingly, the film’s most underbaked element is its villain. The idea that someone is also using ghost-related technology, but for a nefarious purpose, is a fun one. And since it is Erin and Abby’s work that he is expounding on, it adds a personal element to their need to stop him. However, Neil Casey’s part is so underwritten that it is virtually non-existent. All we really know is that he is kind of creepy. He barely gets one line of dialogue to explain his motivation and that severely undercuts any level of menace he is supposed to bring to the story.
Overall, Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot is not the disaster that some predicted/hoped for sight unseen. It is at its best when it gets out of its own way and be its own film. Feig manages to finely balance both the horror/action side of the film with the comedy. And for that reason, now that introductions are out of the way, I look forward to a sequel where this revitalized franchise can really stretch its wings and fly.