So here’s the thing: along with Green Room and Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters was one of my most anticipated movies of 2016. That’s right – an uberfan who had faith in the comedic track record of the actors and the quality of Feig’s previous efforts (Bridesmaids, Spy, and the short-lived TV series “Freaks and Geeks”) had me itching with palpable anticipation. As with any big-budget reboot of a long-dormant, much-loved franchise, the potential for greatness or awfulness is equally present, resting on the simple fact that you can’t please everyone.
Is the new Ghostbusters completely successful? No. At times, the actors are allowed to venture too far into improvisational territory (a flaw in all of Feig’s films), which stalls the pace. Some of the punchlines don’t land, and at times, the characters’ deliveries are so feverish that one feels the writers were going for broke in the sheer volume of attempted gags. In the last act, some of the action choreography is hard to follow (but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling). And the cameos from the original cast members often stick out like a sore, shoehorned thumb (I will say, though, that they saved the best for last). All that being said, one of its biggest successes is replicating the sense of camaraderie that informed the all-male teaming of the original: this has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with smart characterization. I loved this scrappy new paranormal collective, from Kristen Wiig’s meek, puritanically-dressed college professor; Melissa McCarthy’s outspoken scientist; Leslie Jones’s street-smart, take-no-shit transit officer; and especially Kate McKinnon’s discombobulated, non-sequitur-uttering physicist (Feig gets some of the biggest laughs from cutaways to her incredible reaction shots). While Chris Hemsworth’s himbo secretary is a hit-or-miss one-note joke, it’s nice to see the Avengers star poking fun at Hollywood’s fickle attitudes toward the expectations that come with physical beauty.
Perhaps there’s some buried logic to the phenomenon of sight-unseen hatred toward Ghostbusters, something that could be attributed to J.J. Abrams’ ascent to the Spielberg throne as the newly-minted master of the any-season blockbuster. Spielberg has long been considered a strong storyteller and adept visual stylist, but has also earned heckles for his overt sentimentality and saccharine dramatic cues. With a latter-day Spielberg flick, regardless of the subject matter, it’s a fairly sure bet the type of film you’re going to get.
With Abrams, whose successful updating of the ultimate fanboy franchises – the one-two power punch of Star Trek and Star Wars – has rendered him one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. But this has come not from a wild embrace of risk, but rather an aversion to challenge. Granted, his interpretations of these much-loved, generation-spanning series make for rousing, big-budget entertainment, but the level of risk doesn’t really extend beyond the wild-card actors he uses to fill out the cast (unknowns – or lesser-knowns – buffered by thespian lifers). And even then, the Star Treks lean on Leonard Nimoy cameos and characters who, despite the new faces inhabiting the roles, have already had decades of development. The same goes for The Force Awakens, where all the virtual ink spilled over Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her influence over the future of female-led blockbusters was marginalized by Abrams’ over-reliance on giving fans their due with the requisite appearances by Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hammill, and the usual gang of costumes and CGI. Ridley is fine, but plays second banana to the wistful nostalgia most fans paid for, making one wonder at the reaction had none of the established characters and actors logged an appearance. Personal friends (more well-versed in the Star Wars mythos than I) tend to be of two schools of thought on the film: that it’s great in spite of – or because of – its heavy leaning on the plot of A New Hope.
Like Spielberg, Abrams is a fine storyteller who also happens to have his finger on the pulse of what the public wants. It’s interesting to gauge my reaction toward Super 8 – his foray into original storytelling – and how the stunning visuals attempted to wrestle the disjointed plot into submission. With nods toward E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Abrams once again looked to well-established nostalgia to win over audiences and critics. I responded to the characters’ relationships while struggling with the arbitrary plot developments and ILM-styled overkill. The film has an 82% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, but its existence in 2016 seems relegated solely to jabs from critics comparing it to the NetFlix series, Stranger Things.
Which begs the question: Is there simply greater appeal for mainstream films that give audiences what they want, every time, with a minimum of surprise? While Marvel’s comic-book juggernauts continue to kick dirt in the faces of their seasonal competitors, the films themselves hit familiar beats and draw appeal largely from the impressive ensemble casts that tie the action together. Is there an emotional pulse? Sure. But when will this mass-marketed bubble burst?
To be concluded…
Part III available Wednesday, August 31!
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace, and believes that demons are best expelled through writing (sorry, ladies). You can find his movie reviews here, and at loudgreenbird.com. He is also on social media @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd) and @jnumb1 (Instagram).
(Photo by Geek.com.)