Sunday, March 6, 2016

...About That New Ghostbusters Movie

Sony Pictures Entertainment released the first official trailer for the Ghostbusters reboot this week. This film is a terrible idea. Here's an excessively long explanation of why.

Why was the original Ghostbusters good?

Ghostbusters is almost a perfect movie. Of course any discussion of art is going to entail subjectivity, but Ghostbusters is widely acknowledged to be a great movie. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars when he saw it in June of 1984, declaring, "Ghostbusters is one of those rare movies where the original, fragile comic vision has survived a multimillion-dollar production ... [i]t uses its money wisely, and when that, ahem, monster marches down a Manhattan avenue and climbs the side of a skyscraper ... we're glad they spent the money for the special effects because it gets one of the biggest laughs in a long time." It has a "certified fresh" score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critical consensus "an infectiously fun blend of special effects and comedy, with Bill Murray's hilarious deadpan performance leading a cast of great comic turns." The film quickly cemented itself in pop-culture and spawned an empire of cartoon spin-offs and toys.

But is Ghostbusters really that good, or are we just looking back on a cultural icon of the 1980's with rose-colored nostalgia goggles, perhaps exaggerating its brilliance and whitewashing its deficiencies? Well, moviebob took almost 40 minutes to explore that very question, and (spoilers!) the answer is yes, Ghostbusters really is that good.

But what makes Ghostbusters so good? We might sum it up succinctly in three words: Bill Fucking Murray. While the whole cast plays off each other brilliantly, Murray steals the show. Most of the film's memorable lines come from him ("Yes, it's true. This man has no dick."), although every single character contributes unforgettable one-liners ("Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say YES!"). The film was written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, two comedy geniuses in the prime of their writing and performing careers. Ramis by 1984 had already written several comedy classics (Caddyshack, Meatballs, Groundhog Day, Stripes, National Lampoon's Vacation and Animal House), and Aykroyd had been an award-winning writer and performer on Saturday Night Live as well as writing and starring in The Blues Brothers and Trading Places.

Besides the aforementioned Murray, the rest of the cast is great as well - Sigourney Weaver is the perfect straight character to Murray's insanity,  Rick Moranis is the quirky, awkward accountant neighbor, and even Annie Potts nails the sarcastic office secretary role. The film even has a genuinely unlikable villain in William Atherton as Walter Peck. In short, Ghostbusters is the result of an unrepeatable convergence of writing and acting talent that produced one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

Ghostbusters 2016

So that brings us back to 2016 and to the reboot. I think it's actually more appropriate to question why this film does exist rather than provide reasons why it shouldn't. Who was clamoring for a Ghostbusters reboot without Bill Murray, et al.? Why was this movie even made?  Let's not forget that this experiment was basically run in 1989 with Ghostbusters 2, a decidedly disappointing sequel that was written by and starred the same people who had made the original such a success. Harold Ramis even admitted that nobody had ever intended to make a sequel to the original film, and the writers only agreed after pressure from Columbia Pictures to release a new movie because of the huge box-office success of the original (which has raked in over $300 million.) So the answer to the questions I posed above are, respectively, "no one" and "to capitalize on brand-name recognition and make an easy few hundred million dollars."

It would be naive to think that Aykroyd (who did have a hand in writing the reboot) decided to return to the franchise over 30 years later because he desperately wanted to tell a third tale about paranormal investigations and eliminations, especially one in which he and his talented buddies won't be starring. No, this movie exists for the same reason that the dozens of other recent remakes and reboots exist: as low-risk money-making ventures that will almost certainly cash in based solely on nostalgia for a well-known and fondly-remembered name. Whereas the original Ghostbusters was a film written to make people laugh and happened to make a lot of money, Ghostbusters 2016 is a film written to make a lot of money and might happen to make people laugh. I find that to be a not-trivial distinction.

The sad reality is that a high-concept film like Ghostbusters probably wouldn't get made today. Big studios are too terrified of losing money to take risks creating new iconic films. For every original idea that makes it to the screen there are innumerable cash-grab sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots of successful movies of the past, and it's getting worse. If that seems hyperbolic, take a look at this list of 106 remakes and reboots currently in some state of production. The list includes, in alphabetical order, Bloodsport, Cliffhanger, Clue, The Crow, The Fugitive, Highlander, I Know What You Did Last Summer, It, Jumanji, Kickboxer, Logan's Run, Major League, Memento, The Mummy, Naked Gun, Nosferatu, Police Academy, Predator, Road House, Scarface, Shaft, Short Circuit, Sister Act, Spider Man (again), Stargate, Starship Troopers, Stuart Little, The Ten Commandments, Tomb Raider, Toxic Avenger, Van Helsing, and Weird Science. Remember those? Wanna see them again, with worse writers and actors? Tough shit, because that's what you're getting.

Lest you accuse me of being unnecessarily cynical about the quality of remakes and reboots, I present for your consideration a table of remade films from the past few years, along with the Rotten Tomatoes scores of both the originals and the remakes. See if you can spot a pattern:

Robocop (1987)88%Robocop (2014)49%
Point Break (1991)68%Point Break (2015)9%
Poltergeist (1982)88%Poltergeist (2015)31%
National Lampoon's Vacation93%Vacation (2015)27%
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles40%Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)21%
Annie (1982)50%Annie (2015)27%
The Gambler (1974)86%The Gambler (2014)46%
Endless Love (1981)25%Endless Love (2014)15%
Carrie (1976)95%Carrie (2013)62%
The Evil Dead (1981)88%Evil Dead (2014)49%
Total Recall (1990)85%Total Recall (2012)30%
Ghostbusters (1984)97%Ghostbusters (2016)4%*
*author's estimated Rotten Tomatoes score for Ghostbusters 2016

It's nearly impossible to remake an old film and create something that will compare favorably with the original, let alone equal or surpass it. Ghostbusters 2 had the best shot at doing that, having been made by basically the same people just a few years later, and it failed. There's no reason to think that Ghostbusters 2016 will buck this trend - in fact, there are lots of reasons to believe the exact opposite. Let's actually take a look at that trailer.

The Trailer

I've learned everything I need to know about what kind of movie Ghostbusters 2016 is going to be from the trailer. First of all, the text at the beginning reads "30 years ago, four scientists saved New York." That's not even accurate. Winston Zeddmore's character was not a scientist. I mean, I know this sounds pedantically nit-picky, but come on, just replace that word scientists with another word so it's a correct description of the original film. Christ, we're off to a great start. At the 0:42 mark, we see our first gag, which looks like a recreation of the famous scene in the original when our protagonists encounter a ghost for the first time. One of the characters in the new film is holding a video camera as Ray does in the original, and one of the others is attempting to talk to the ghost, as Peter does in the original. I won't recount what happens in that scene in the original (because you already know), so by comparison, here's what happens in the same scene in the new film: the ghost vomits an absurd amount of green ghost barf all over the Peter analog. This is not nearly as smart or clever as the same scene in the original.

The next segment from 0:45 to 1:18 is basically pointless exposition (in a trailer? why is this in the trailer?) about who the Ghostbusters are and why they're involved in this business. They literally say "we've dedicated our whole lives to studying the paranormal," "Holtsman, you're a brilliant engineer," "Erin, no one's better at quantum physics than you," and "you guys are really smart about this science stuff, but I know New York." NONE of this nonsense was needed in the original film. We find out who the main characters are and why they decide to start a ghost-catching business entirely through the visuals and situations, not through painfully obvious exposition in which the characters basically announce to the audience who they are because the screenwriter can't figure out how to get that information across in a different way. It's laughably lazy writing. In the original film, we know that Ray, Peter, and Egon are psychologists because we meet them in a university context. Peter is conducting an experiment, Ray is looking for a video camera and excited about a recent paranormal disturbance at the New York public library, and Egon has a stethoscope pressed to a table at the library. We get that Egon's the smart one because of the way he looks and talks. We assume he's smart enough to make all the complicated ghost-catching equipment because he just looks and acts like a scientist. We find out everything we need to know about our main characters by how they act. In this new film, either the screenwriter is too incompetent to be able to do this effectively or thinks that the audience is too stupid to understand what's going on unless the characters blatantly say what's happening in the film.

1:20 to 1:26 introduces us to the new Ecto-1, which is a Cadillac hearse (as opposed to a Cadillac ambulance) because reasons. Why is this so similar to the original? This was an opportunity to distinguish the new film from the original by choosing a novel and fun vehicle for the Ghostbusters to tear around town in, but instead the film just recycles almost exactly what the original had. It's even got the "Ecto-1" license plate, as if two groups of people would independently settle on that vanity plate designation. Yawn.

1:27-1:33 is the next... "joke" to show that the ghostbusters are neophytes who haven't quite gotten the hang of their job yet. Two of them try to say "let's go" in an uncoordinated way, because that's funny I guess. Do I have to mention how the original film showed the audience that our heroes had no idea what they were doing? All of the scenes in the Sedgewick Hotel are hilarious attempts at figuring out how to use the equipment to catch a ghost successfully, during which they terrify and nearly incinerate a cleaning woman ("What the hell are you doing?" "Sorry... thought you were someone else.") and make such waste of the hotel ballroom that one wonders if perhaps things weren't better before the ghostbusters' efforts. (And before you cry apples to oranges, the cleaning woman scene is in the original theatrical trailer for Ghostbusters.)

2:09 to 2:23 is where I need to bow out. According to yet more staggeringly direct exposition, ghosts have the ability to possess humans. (They do in the original too - remember the keymaster and the gatekeeper?) The trailer decides to show us a completely brainless scene in which one of the ghostbusters is slapping and yelling at one of the other ones who is possessed by a ghost. Screaming and smacking someone in the face. There's no wit or nuance to any of this. It's lowest-common-denominator physical comedy handled in the broadest way possible. I'm done.


Another point that strongly favors the original film over the remake is the use of special effects. The original Ghostbusters had a fairly large budget - $32 million - and made frequent use of special effects of various types. Some of them are laughably bad, like the poorly-animated clay terror dogs, but most of the time the effects are practical rather than computer-generated, and they look (mostly) real. The film was even nominated for an academy award in 1984 for visual effects. There are multiple shots of CGI ghosts in the Ghostbusters 2016 trailer, and they all look like bland, fake computer renderings. We're so spoiled by ubiquitous computer-rendered special effects these days that we've become completely apathetic about them. Special effects don't have the ability to dazzle the audience anymore, not like the scenes with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man did in 1984. The budget for the new Ghostbusters film is reportedly $154 million, but nobody is going to be impressed by the visual effects in the new film. Paradoxically, the practical effects of the film 30 years older are more believable and impactful than the renderings of today's most powerful computers. Not only are they real things, but the actors in the scene can interact with them in a believable way. As powerful as CGI has become, the technology limits creative possibilities in some cases rather than expands them.

Nightmare fuel for children in the mid-80's

And Finally, for you SJWs

You might have noticed that I've made it this far without mentioning that the main characters in the 2016 reboot are all women. That's for good reason, namely that the fact that the main characters are women is irrelevant to the quality of the movie. People on the Internet™ are making quite a fuss about the fact that the film has been remade with an all female cast, as if that's somehow interesting. As if there exist actual people who will not go see a movie simply because it stars [insert minority] rather than land-owning white males aged 18-34. This is absurd. Equally absurd are the people labeling every criticism of this new film as brash sexism and misogyny. This is the same sort of repugnant nonsense that George Lucas tried to peddle when nobody would distribute his pet project Red Tails, a terribly-written film about the Tuskegee airmen in World War II. Since it featured a primarily black cast, Lucas hurled accusations of racism at Hollywood in general for not wanting to distribute his film, when in fact executives who saw it more probably just noticed that it was awful and didn't want to pay to promote it. As others have already pointed out, it's rather convenient to remake a film with a cast of any minority group and then simply cry bigotry in response to any criticism. I'll state it plainly: Ghostbusters 2016 should be judged on its artistic merit, just as any film should, and nothing else. It doesn't get points simply for including women, nor does it get to duck valid criticism about what appears to be a shallow film with more style than substance. Not liking a film with women in it and not liking a film because it has women in it are different things. Stop with this.

And In Sum

Is it unfair to judge a film so harshly based solely on a 2 minute trailer? Yeah probably. It's my blog, fuck off. Regardless of how the actual movie is, though, the fact remains that the motivations behind its creation are questionable at best and shameful at worst. If feminists would like a legitimate gripe about this movie, it should be this: that this cast of presumably talented women is wasted on a cash-grab remake of a comedy Goliath it can't hope to replicate instead of creating something memorable, iconic, and new. There can never be another Ghostbusters, and that's not the fault of any man or woman.