The original “Ghostbusters” is a movie that could only happen once, which ironically means Hollywood has been trying to make it happen again for decades. “Ghostbusters” is one of the best movies of the 1980s – certainly one of the most financially successful – and that’s only because exactly everything about it happened exactly the way it did. As crass and capitalistic Hollywood can be, the studio machines still can’t follow the same blueprints and produce a successful movie every time.
That’s not to say that the new “Ghostbusters” is a bad movie, by any means. It just isn’t the original “Ghostbusters,” which is a criticism you also can level against 99.9999999999 percent of movies. Even though the new movie doesn’t share the same alchemic spark that made the original so beloved, however, it’s nowhere near the flaming disaster that certain segments of the Internet wanted it to be.
Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) is a respected physicist with a skeleton in her closet – a book about ghosts she wrote years before with former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). In the time since they wrote the book, Erin and Abby have gone their separate ways, and Abby is working in the basement of a fly-by-night college with Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon). Erin gets dragged along to investigate a haunted mansion and rediscovers her passion for the supernatural after a ghost vomits 100 gallons of ectoplasm in her face. The video is on YouTube, the ladies are all fired, and they go into business for themselves as the Ghostbusters.
Soon the Ghostbusters run afoul of Rowan, a creepy nerd who is using Erin and Abby’s book as a how-to manual for breaking the barrier between Earth and the afterlife. Rowan has been shunned by the world, so he wants to end it and become a god, or something like that. The team is joined by subway worker and history buff Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), as well as receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), who is Peter Griffin-level dumb but looks like Thor. The Ghostbusters try to foil Rowan’s plan while defending their reputation against the mayor’s office and a professional skeptic played by Bill Murray, who is visibly relieved that he doesn’t have to wear a Ghostbuster suit anymore.
Anyone who was worried that the new “Ghostbusters” would try too hard to recreate the formula of the 1984 original can rest easy on that front – “Ghostbusters” is very much a 2016 kind of comedy. Director/writer/producer Paul Feig comes from the Judd Apatow school that’s heavy on awkward cringe comedy, improv-style plug-and-play punchlines and violent physical gags. The loose, improvisational feel of the script carries over to the plot, which glides from point to point at times leaving some details out. Are these Ghostbusters a for-profit operation, or some kind of research group? Do their proton guns capture ghosts, or destroy them?
The special effects also are distinctly 2016, with New York City laid to waste in a swath of digital carnage and ready-for-3D CGI ghosts filling almost every available space in the frame during their big moments. Unfortunately, aside from a demonic-looking beast that invades the world’s tamest heavy metal concert early in the film, the ghost designs aren’t very imaginative and lean more in the “Haunted Mansion at Disneyland” direction. Given that creepy ghosts are the horror movie flavor of the moment in movies like “The Conjuring” and “Insidious,” it’s disappointing to see the specters in this movie to go in such a safe direction. Even Rowan’s final ghostly form has more in common with one of Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” spooks than anything found in contemporary horror.
What “Ghostbusters” does have in common with its inspiration, however, is how important its performances are to its overall success. This is especially true of McKinnon, who imbues Holtzman with a weird energy that makes her the breakout character of the movie even though 90 percent of her lines are devoted to explaining what the equipment does. Given the thinnest character of all four Ghostbusters, McKinnon is able to build a more complete character through her physical acting. Even without much dialogue, you get the idea that Holtzman is the type of person who meddles with the fundamental order of the universe just because she thinks it’s funny. Similarly, Hemsworth falls into the part of the innocent doofus Kevin as easily as he fell into the part of the arrogant doofus in “Thor.”
“Ghostbusters” doesn’t lean too heavily on nostalgia for the original movie, but it does make sure to check off the prerequisite list of winking cameos. Along with Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Dan Ackroyd all get a few moments of screen time. The movie even gives the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer guest appearances, and you can bet your bottom dollar “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” and “That’s a big Twinkie” pop up.
The original “Ghostbusters” was a miracle, a movie that could never be made again even under the exact same circumstances (see: “Ghostbusters II”). And, even though the new “Ghostbusters” feels like a movie that can and will be made again, it’s a welcome addition to the franchise.