film theory

i ain't afraid of no ghost

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Photo: Columbia Pictures

I have to confess, I came to the whole Ghostbusters franchise quite late in life – once I met my film buff husband, for whom both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989) are the equivalent of childhood comfort food. He watches them and he is instantly a little boy again. While I grew up in the same era, I had three younger sisters and so most of the films I was exposed to as a child had to be suitable for all of us. I was also quite a sensitive kid and ghosts were considered too scary! So it was Muppet Babies, Care Bears and My Little Ponies for us, which I don’t think was a deliberate thing on my parents’ part – this was just what was assumed little girls wanted to watch. And we did enjoy them.

Nearly 30 years since the last Ghostbusters film, Paul Feig (director of Bridesmaids and Spy) has revamped the franchise. It is not a remake of the original story, nor merely a continuation of it, but takes the premise of the original, reimagines it and brings it into the modern world. It’s very funny and very clever.

Oh, and the Ghostbusters are all women this time! Something that has a few people up in arms, but I’ll go into that in a minute.

If you don’t know the story of the film, here’s a very brief recap – with many ghostly appearances and happenings in New York City, three physics/parapsychology professors (Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon), linked by the past and by circumstance, find themselves out of their cushy research jobs, joining forces and setting up a ghost removal service. After being called to the Manhattan subway to investigate and attempt to capture a “Class 4 apparition”, metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) is inspired to join them. The government are distressed and want the Ghostbusters to keep quiet. Meanwhile, Rowan (Neil Casey), a hotel worker with a grudge, is scheming to open the gateway to another dimension which will release untold evil upon the city. So, who you gonna call?

A unique update with high quality performances

Ghostbusters is a fabulous update of a much-loved story and manages to be quite unique at the same time. There are many respectful nods to the original but Feig and the new Ghostbusters manage to make this their own. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, with Manhattan rental prices being famously out of reach of most people, the women can’t afford to set up shop in a funky fire station and end up in dilapidated rooms above a Chinese restaurant that fails, to the chagrin of Melissa McCarthy’s character, to produce a decent wonton soup.

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. Photo: Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. Photo: Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures

All four of the Ghostbusters give high quality performances – being Saturday Night Live alumni, their comic timing is never off and they work really well as an ensemble. The one who stood out the most for me, who stole every scene she was in, was Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann, a character in the same mould as Harold Ramis’s iconic character Egon Spengler in the original. McKinnon brings great depth, and also an element of great joy,  to the mad scientist stereotype by portraying Jillian as a woman with bags of personality, full of quirks, strength and real feelings. 

Another enjoyable aspect of the film is that all of the original Ghostbusters, plus other actors from the 1984 and 1989 films, make cameo appearances at some point. There’s even a sweet nod to the late Harold Ramis (see if you can spot it).

A political/feminist statement?

It’s a shame that this film has been criticised for being “feminist” and “political” – but the very fact that the revamp of a franchise where the lead characters are female instead of male is labelled as a political act rather than one of storytelling says so much about why a film like this is so important.

If you want to read the new Ghostbusters as a political/feminist statement, there is plenty here for you to chew on. The film does, bravely, address the inherent sexism that is still, despite the advances made since Suffragette times, at large and hangs around both in Hollywood and in our culture like chocolate stains on a white blouse. I found it interesting that in the original Ghostbusters, the four men are discredited, shunned and accused of being frauds at every turn – exactly the same thing happens in this version, but of course it feels more loaded, purely because they’re women. I suppose women being confident in themselves and their abilities, and who are competent in a traditionally male dominated field, are still considered radical things in some quarters - I’ve found that to be true in my own life, that’s for sure!

It’s also incredibly refreshing to go and see a Hollywood blockbuster where the focus is not on the attractiveness of the female leads. The Ghostbusters are intelligent and passionate women who are conflicted, quirky and downright loopy. Apart from a few mentions of Patty’s garish jewellery, the women’s physical appearance is secondary, quite rightly so for a film where they all get covered in the ghosts’ ecto-vomit at some point!

But what about the men?

Another common criticism of the film is that the men in it are one-dimensional and typecast, with cries of double standards that one couldn’t get away with portraying women in such a manner these days. Personally, I think it’s a nod to the fact that women have been and in some cases still are portrayed that way but also the fact that men find themselves on the receiving end of sexism too. The movie’s token stud-muffin, receptionist Kevin (played by Chris Hemsworth who, to my delight, keeps his Australian accent), is not immune to being objectified for his looks. Kristen Wiig’s character makes a beeline for him and insists on the Ghostbusters hiring him even though he is the most useless receptionist in the history of the world. Later on (spoiler alert!), Kevin has been possessed by the ghost of the film’s truly creepy villain Rowan and goes back to the hotel where he was a mocked and undervalued janitor to exact his revenge. Two security guards notice him, with his blond hair and muscular physique, and make a wise-crack about how they hadn’t ordered a stripper. Kevin is also the only character to be ‘rescued’ in the film – in the original, of course, it is Dana (played by Sigourney Weaver, who also shows up in this version!), the love interest, who needs rescuing. This time, it’s the other way around. Read into that what you will.

Because, despite what I’ve described above, the film, to its great credit, doesn’t spell any of this out. There are no attacks (apart from ghostly ones). It’s all just implied, in my opinion. Like most things in life, we tend to get what we focus on and if you pick hard enough at the locks of the basement door, a ghost will come out eventually!

Speaking of the ghosts in this film, they are quite creepy – as is the ecto-vomit that comes out of them! 

If your main objective in going to the cinema is to be entertained then you won’t be disappointed by Ghostbusters.  Is it a perfect film? No. But it's fun and there is much to enjoy about it. All the uproar from critics and trolls spewing forth that this film has “ruined” their childhoods and “women aren’t funny” rings truly hollow if you actually bother to see the film. The laughable thing is that it is exactly the ridiculous, misguided criticism of the film, not to mention the despicable attacks Leslie Jones was subjected to on Twitter, that proves how much this film was needed. And we need more of them.

So, if you care about equal representation in Hollywood, if you want to see more blockbusters and action comedies with real women front and centre, if you want your sons and daughters to grow up in a more equal world, or if you just want to forget about life for two hours, pretend you’re nine years old again and have no idea how much sugar is in a Choc-Top ice-cream, go and see this film. It’s sassy, smart and fun.

Ghostbusters is currently showing in cinemas in the UK, the US and Australia, release details for other countries are here.