First of all, a disclaimer: I have never seen the original Ghostbusters, nor its 1989 sequel. I know, crazy right? How dare I have an opinion on the reboot without the benefit of an all-encompassing knowledge of the 1984 classic? Well some news for you, Reddit Ghostbros: a hefty proportion of the new generation of 12-year-olds who see this film won’t have seen the original either. Nor (hopefully) will they have any conception of the amount of bullshit baggage that this project has gradually been laden with since director Paul Feig announced his plans for an all-female cast back in 2014. And that’s great, because that means they’ll get to do what those of us who have followed the controversy surrounding this film are now unable to do: simply enjoy Ghostbusters as the lighthearted summer blockbuster it was intended to be.
And – newsflash – that’s what it is. A lighthearted summer blockbuster, with plentiful lols and a top-notch comic cast in the form of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. That’s largely the critics’ consensus too, much to the chagrin of those Reddit users who freaked out just a little when the press embargo was lifted and the verdict was that the film that was set to retroactively ruin their childhoods was actually – fine. Given the seemingly endless buildup to its release, complete with detailed reviews of and reactions to the (admittedly underwhelming) trailer, this conclusion was arguably the best outcome when it comes to the film’s critical reception. If reviewers (especially, unfortunately, those of the female variety) had raved about it, they no doubt would have been accused of doing so in order to pander to the film’s feminist agenda. If they had universally panned it, the fanboys would have taken this as vindication, rather than measured criticism. A verdict of ‘fine’, however, is immediately disarming because there’s not really a comeback. At the same time, solid three and four star reviews aren’t going to put audiences off. In this way, it’s kind of a win-win situation.
I watched Ghostbusters a couple of days after its UK release. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch – the plot lost itself a little towards the end, and the editing wasn’t seamless. But it was everything I wanted it to be. Not because I wanted it to be a hyper-feminist f***-you to the haters, but because I wanted it to be an enjoyable and funny way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema. And lo and behold, it was.
In a recent article for HuffPost, Matthew Jacobs argued for less obviously gendered comedies in the wake of the hoo-ha around Ghostbusters. But what does that mean? What exactly is specifically gendered about this film? Wiig, McCarthy, Jones and McKinnon don’t go around making vagina jokes or talking about their periods. On the contrary, the message of this film is that women can do whatever men do, equally as competently, and equally as comically, without the need to resort to stereotypes. Arguably, it was the fan- and media-fuelled furore around this film that turned a simple casting decision into a girl vs. boy thing. By claiming in his article that the comedy genre ‘is still a war between the penis and the vagina’ it’s as if Jones is saying that as soon as a comedy comes along that isn’t predominantly male (a.k.a. the norm), it’s automatically a challenge. It’s not. It’s just another funny film.
Sure, the film utilised the dumb-blonde secretary cliche for copious laughs, but in casting Marvel franchise hero Chris Hemsworth in the role, converted it into a glorious send-up of a tired trope (something that seemed to go over the heads of a number of outraged naysayers). More subtly subversive is the inclusion of the villain Rowan, a weedy beta-male who spouts lines such as ‘I am a genius. I see things that no one else does, and for it, I am rewarded with nothing but scorn and mockery’. Simply put, he’s your classic Reddit troll, the manifestation of Lily Allen’s URL Badman, a loner convinced that rather than being the cause of his own problems, he is misunderstood, and that the rest of the world must pay for this. Interestingly, as a nerdy guy with the world against him, he could also be mistaken for a down-on-his-luck protagonist who might come good in a traditional male-driven narrative. Without going into details, this film gives him a rather less comfy ride.
In short, Ghostbusters does feel like a game-changer. Bridesmaids (a previous Feig offering, also starring Wiig and McCarthy) was given similar praise when it was released in 2011 to critical and commercial acclaim, but even then it focused on traditionally female experiences (hen nights, bridal showers, dress fittings) and contained elements of the rom-com formula. Ghostbusters, in contrast, is indisputably a fully-fledged action movie, and these women are more than wives and bridesmaids. We meet them when they are established career scientists (important in itself given the total dearth of women in STEM careers portrayed in the movies). More crucially, they get to be passionate about what they do: Holtzmann can be a genius inventor who gets wildly excited over a Faraday cage, whilst Patty can revel in her encyclopaedic, history book-fuelled knowledge of New York City. And they’re totally badass. We’ve discussed over and over for the past two years that it’s significant to have four women front a summer action blockbuster, but it was only when I was sitting there in the cinema actually witnessing four women in jumpsuits battle ghost after ghost in glorious slow motion on the big screen that it truly dawned on me just how significant. I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of anything I watched at age 12 that came close.
Something else: there’s a glaring absence from Ghostbusters that is glorious in its significance. Two thirds of the way through the film, Kristen Wiig’s Erin reads a book in a bedroom. It’s one of the only times in the film where we see a protagonist out of the workplace or off the streets of NYC. Seeing this female character in a domestic space was enough to make my brain automatically wonder where Erin’s home was and who she lived with. That’s when the realisation came like a jolt of static from one of Holtzmann’s inventions. Unlike in 95% of female-fronted films – Bridesmaids included – I didn’t need to know or care about any of the four protagonists’ personal lives outside their ghostbusting unit of friendship. And that came as such a relief.
There are hints, of course. Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann was 66% of the reason my brother and I went to see this film, and it’s no surprise that a huge number of people have fallen in love with Holtzmann – many even joking of a shift in their Kinsey scale reading after watching McKinnon’s breakout performance. She’s a magnetic, scene-stealing presence throughout, her off-beat delivery and oddball behaviour providing laughs even when she’s not the focus of a scene. Feig wanted to ensure that what he referred to as the ‘pansexual’ presence of McKinnon (who incidentally is Saturday Night Live‘s first openly lesbian cast member) translated to her character. But when asked if Holtzmann herself was gay, he was suggestive yet evasive: “I hate to be coy about it. But when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing… ”
We might have four ghostbusting women, but it’s still a little too much for Sony to allow one of them to be openly gay. That is likely the next frontier in the campaign against Hollywood’s outdated ideas about what sells (although some progress is being made on this front where the latest Star Trek is concerned). All things considered, though, Ghostbusters is a giant leap forward.