Watching the original Ghostbusters and the remake back to back was an interesting experience. I was really mostly struck by how off my expectations were upon viewing the films themselves. The original sure as hell wasn’t the film I thought it was going to be, and Sony’s reboot defied both my expectations that were developed from the fan backlash and from the critics. Here are my observations of these movies.
The original isn’t really an ensemble comedy
So… this wasn’t what I was expecting. The 1984 film… at the end of the day… is mainly a Bill Murray comedy. Sure there are other supporting players, but Murray’s Peter Venkman dominates this film with his witty one-liners, screen presence, and relevance to the story. While the other Ghosbusters are mainly absent in the film’s second act, Venkman acts as the bridge between the Ghostbusting plotline and the story of Sigourney Weaver’s character’s possession. Even when everyone is together, all of the film’s greatest lines and moments are ceded to him. Hell, Ernie Hudson’s Winston doesn’t even show up until halfway through the film’s runtime, and even when he’s unceremoniously added to the team, he is given virtually nothing to do. The other character’s aren’t all that fleshed out either. Ray Stanz is a man that’s passionate about paranormal activity, Egon is also passionate but far more reserved and nebbish, and Winston basically has no character. Venkman feels like the only compelling ghostbuster, since he starts the film as an irreverent lecher out to make a quick buck, and becomes a hero by the end of it through his genuine care and love for Dana Barrett (his love interest). Maybe that’s a generic story, and perhaps it wasn’t exactly written as I described, but Murray’s performance more than sells that journey. In short, this film can basically be described “Bill Murray says and does cool things while ghostbusting – The Movie”. That certainly isn’t a bad thing however.
The reboot’s most controversial aspect is what saved it
The reboot, while being ostensibly similar to the original, has a central issue that is in direct opposition to the original. While the original spent some time building up to the forces that would conspire to eventually plunge New York into chaos, the reboot doesn’t seem nearly as interested or invested in that area. Neil Casey’s villain was perfunctory, and was ironically at his most entertaining while possessing Chris Hemsworth’s character. Meanwhile, the original film put a lot of effort into creating the illusion that it was taking its story seriously. You have frightening omens, interdimensional beings, occasional jump scares, and so much more, but it’s all in service towards what is perhaps the most elaborately simplistic sex joke of all time. There’s a “Keymaster” and a “Gatekeeper” that must unite in order to bring about Gozer (an androgynous demonic God in high heels), and all this really means is that the “Keymaster” (a simple-minded being possessing a man with a penis), and the Gatekeeper (an over-the-top temptress possessing a woman) must have sex. It’s the right blend of intelligent, creative, and juvenile writing, to work so hard to build up a sex joke that really just amounts to “male genitalia must insert into female genitalia”. Meanwhile in the reboot, everything just sort of happens, because it places all of its chips on the strength of its actors.
I’ll say it straight out: The new Ghostbusters are better than the old ones. No, I’m not talking about the movie, but the central characters themselves. The new team is composed of 4 characters who all have a reasonable amount of things to say and do. The old film was basically the Bill Murray show featuring three vaguely defined characters. Hell, Akroyd’s character was basically just like Melissa McCarthy’s except she got to say and do more. Leslie Jones joins way earlier than Winston does, and she actually helps the group out as a nonscientist with her historical knowledge of New York City. On the subject of Jones who has gotten the brunt of the online hate for this movie, she turned out to be a pleasant surprise because when that trailer originally depicted her as the street wise black friend who’s only role was to help clueless white geniuses, I was a bit worried. The thing is though, when she said the other members know science stuff, but she knows New York, I didn’t realize she meant she literally meant she knew the city’s history. Again, pleasant surprise. Kristen Wiig’s Erin who has been criticized by critics as being the most flat member was actually a simple and effective main character. She was the shy, reluctant nerd with hidden reserves of passion that gets drawn out by her friends, and Wiig played it wonderfully. Finally, there’s Kate McKinnon’s wunderkind scientist Jillian Holtzmann that has already stolen the heart of America. Every great thing you’ve heard about this eccentric inventor is right, although I would like to add that I love that they gave her some small humanizing moments in the film to help fill out her character. Of course there’s that toast she gives at the end, but also her genuine panic (that contrasts heavily with her usual care-free attitude) at the prospect of her inventions being trashed by the film’s villain. Little things like that create the impression that this character is a lonely person who developed a deep emotional attachment to her devices when she was alone, which presents a lot of potential for future development. Meanwhile, Egon is the quintessential example of a character you can tell is great, but is rarely allowed to do anything substantial in the story. The four reboot characters are allowed to have nearly the entire 2 hour running time to interact and have fun with each other, with the group shining with chemistry throughout. The original film doesn’t really lack for chemistry among the film’s central three stars, but it doesn’t really give them the same time to develop either. The first third belongs to them, the 2nd act belongs to Murray, Moranis, and Weaver, and then we come back to the Ghostbusters once again at the end to save the day, except the only one we really care about here is Murray and Weaver’s characters, which brings us to another interesting point about the original film.
The romance in the original is surprisingly well done
I would go as far as to say it’s the narrative backbone of the film, and it’s something I went in thinking I’d hate. Venkman starts this movie as a total creep, let’s not beat around the bush here, but Murray played his relentless pursuit of women around him with such charm that you can almost forgive him for it. When he ends up hitting on Dana, I felt myself roll my eyes at the thought of this persistent schlub winning the girl because he “won her over” with only his main character status and adorable mediocrity. What happened instead was him getting shot down firmly, then going out to make a name for himself, and then returning to get her with the same confidence he displayed in his first encounter, only this time it feels more assured and justified. It’s this relationship that carries the narrative momentum, with Venkman’s smug ambivalence to everything being replaced with a subtle drive that sees the audience invested in whether or not they’ll finally have that date. It isn’t the love story for the ages, and it doesn’t have to be, because it’s just sweet enough to carry you through the movie. In the reboot, Erin and Abby’s friendship is supposed to be the emotional core of the film, but unfortunately, it kind of disappears from focus after the start of the film only to reappear suddenly at the end in a beautiful looking, but ultimately unearned climax.
The side characters are great in the reboot
I really, really loved the side characters in the reboot. I loved Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, a character who was given okay-ish dialogue but delivered it with such fine-tuned hipster snobbery that he drew a laugh from me almost every time he spoke. The best part about this secretary is that besides being an idiot, he’s a dilettante who seems to fancy himself as a cultured free-spirit. The truth is that he’s simply a moron that skates by on his looks, but we love him anyways for it. Janine from the original wasn’t exactly a funny character, but was winningly endearing as a put upon secretary. Cecily Strong plays the mayor’s assistant in the reboot, and she’s also a surprise scene stealer with her supremely arrogant tone, and funny line deliveries. Her simply explaining how a certain magic trick works to her boss was a delight. Most of the supporting players in the reboot in general, even as people who aren’t trying to make you laugh, were great. Charles Dance and Ed Begley Jr. are only in it for a bit, but they help fill out the world Feig and his team have created here with good performances. As for the cameos, I didn’t mind them as much as most people did, probably because I don’t share the same level of attachment to the original cast as most critic’s did. However, I agree Bill Murray’s character really only should have shown up on TV though, him getting killed the way he did didn’t really lead anywhere and basically paused the plot (although I admit I did laugh at the idea of Erin’s pettiness leading to his death).
The original film didn’t try hard to make you laugh
The humour has an interesting divide here. The original Ghostbusters was definitely a comedy, but it didn’t feel like one that tried very hard to make you laugh (with two glaring exceptions). The jokes just flowed, and were left on a the table if you wanted them or not. They were essentially saying “laugh or don’t laugh, fine by me, it won’t detract from your experience either way”. I laughed a lot more at the reboot, but there were times where I didn’t laugh and I really felt it. They were trying a lot harder with the jokes in the new film, and while a lot of them worked, the ones that didn’t, really didn’t. The worst ones ran too long (like the cat in the middle finger and the Patrick Swayze joke), or ran too long and weren’t all that funny to begin with (like the cat in the bag sequence). The receptionists of the 2 films symbolize this dynamic perfectly. Janine didn’t make me laugh near as much as Kevin did, but she never once had a flat line. With Kevin it felt like he was given average material, but the sheer comedic talent of Hemsworth is actually what made it work in the end. The first film is an absolute one-liner factory, most of the best ones being given to Murray, and while I didn’t laugh at the vast majority of them, they created a sustained pleasant buzz of an enjoyment throughout the whole experience. That is with the exception of Rick Moranis’ character, who I swear to God was the most confusing thing in the whole damn movie. He played his character as if he was a mentally handicapped individual trying to express his affection for Weaver’s character, and was just so jarring to see so often in the film since he clashed with the film’s rhythm of dry humour and just wasn’t very funny. Also, the ghost blowjob joke was more crass and out of place than anything in the reboot, which makes the outrage over the film all the more confusing.
Overall I enjoyed both films a great deal. The best way to characterize my experience of watching them is by depicting them as 2 very different meals from different restaurants. The original Ghostbusters felt like a strange meal that tasted weird, but in a vaguely good way, that gets better the more you think about it and try it out. It’s a well made meal, but one that almost feels that way by accident. The new one feels like this immediately great meal that I don’t have to think too hard about, but also one I tasted before in other places. I enjoyed the second meal itself overall just in the experience of eating it, but I know that I would never find something like the first meal anywhere else because of how unique it was. The reboot will always be indebted to the original because it was a unique and groundbreaking comedy, but as simply a film viewing experience, thanks to the winning performances and chemistry from the central cast, it was still a blast for me to watch. If there’s one great thing about this dumb controversy surrounding this film, it’s that it got me into watching Ghostbusters.
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