Ghostbusters: Slimed before launch

I inadvertently saw Ghostbusters on opening night, that most maligned of maybe, not quite remake reboots … that got me thinking about the 1980s, where everything from publicity, film production to politics and projection has changed. This isn’t really a review, but really features spoilers.

Monday 11 July 2016. A day, like everyone so far this July, not worth writing about for fear of being accused of hyperbole, embroidery and  ridiculousness. Sure enough, by midday the UK’s Conservative Party’s leadership contest was over as another exiter managed to exit. All barriers were kept down by the party’s 1922 committee (sadly, as usual, issuing a statement before 20 past seven at night), the Queen’s diary was consulted, Cameron duly announced his departure and Theresa May was pencilled in to move into Number 10 Downing street this Wednesday evening.

The Camerons began packing, Larry the Downing Street Cat and chief mouser (who are his deputies exactly?) remained uninterested. Theresa May began planning, confronted with a dramatically shortened period to build her new cabinet, Conservative Ministers remained frantically interested. Across the divide, Angela Eagle launched her campaign to unseat irascible Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a campaign that’s full of adjectives, lacking in policy, and feels at best half-hearted, at worst already failed.

So, it was all rather a shame that Andrea and Angela, Theresa and David, Larry, and even the 1922 Committee managed to dislodge the #GhostbustersWaterloo hashtag on Twitter.


Weakness, curiosity and faith. Contrary to the saying, all three of those things can kill a cat.

It is terrible time to hunt press in the UK, even worse for a life-size Stay Puft marshmellow man to emerge from the floor of Waterloo Station at peak commute. 11 July was the release date for the much hyped new Ghostbusters film. Not the sequel, remake, reboot long-mooted, many of which still appear to be in development, but the rather unfortunately branded ‘all female’ reimagining.

Ghostbusters 2016
Ghostbusters 2016. Green. Pic: Sony.

And almost by accident, I ended up seeing it on opening day.

A devout fan of the Hollywood, and indeed, international blockbusters the disappointment of this year’s season has hurt. In the midst of a weekly rolling program of 100m+ budgeted films it’s a difficult time to take stock. I last caught the excellent Jungle Book, before that it was the maligned Batman v Superman. In hindsight that’s set a tone.

Since then I’ve missed everything, even Marvel’s Civil War and Fox’s latest X-Men film. And I’m a great fan of those films’ prequels, Captain America 2, X-Men Days of Future Past, and in particular relation to the latter, the 1980s. Otherwise, Tarzan seems misconceived, and as for Independence Day Resurgence – I still remember being distinctly unmoved by the clinically jingoistic destruction of the first film as a teen.

So I was slightly caught by surprise when I agreed to see Ghostbusters. I’d like to say it was that it coincided with the loss of Wimbledon, the successful launch of a website, and accidentally catching the Graham Norton interview with the cast over the weekend…But in truth, it was probably an irresistible combination of weakness, curiosity and faith. Contrary to the saying, all three of those things can kill a cat…

‘Bustin makes me feel good

“That’s opening night, a promotional Monday…”

The first Ghostbusters film, again much to my surprise, and completely impossible to prove, may be my most watched film. That’s mainly down to discovering it looping on a cable channel in a hotel in Athens when I was eight. It’s stuck in the mind for a variety of reasons, all compelling. One of the best off-shoots from the sprawling Saturday Night Live universe, a clash of iconic culture defining visual and music elements, improvisation, scripting , amiability, in-camera special effects and Bill Murray created something special. But that was then, and of course – no sequel or reboot, no matter how much some of them try (Terminator Genisys?) can obliterate an original. Least of all in this franchise, right?

So it was, removed from expectation, 3d specs in hand, I walked into the theatre last night. I should add, I’m also a huge advocate of 3d. Sometimes there’s an argument to debate watching 2d instead, something that certainly undid the excellent Dredd‘s box-office, but particularly when considering the unity of franchises like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In this case, considering the studio’s attitude, there was no need to consider a 2d screening. What was worth considering, however, was that the cinema I walked into wasn’t even a quarter full. That’s opening night, a promotional Monday. Not even a quarter full.

Earlier in the day the Reddit denouncement of the film’s positive reviews went viral. A sure sign, the meme went, that Sony had paid for any positive words. Because the film, as yet unreleased, was undeniably awful, there was no doubt about it. Because it just was.

Undeniably awful, there was no doubt about it…

That all started at the announcement of course. There had been talk of a sequel ever since Ghostbusters 2 in 1989. Some years ago, Dan Akroyd’s script for a third installment, that might possibly have seen the gates of hell overflow and the original team handover to a new generation, was kiboshed by a budget approaching $300m. Since then, there was talk of other reboots, different tones, and then to great surprise, raised eye-brows and much consternation, an all-female reimagining from the phenomenally successful team behind Bridesmaids. This was the apex of Hollywood sifting through its past, and jiggering around with the untouchable. Many remakes, from Total Recall to Point Break, even Robocop. None of those properties had the rolling, simmering fan base of Ghostbusters. So, what a surprise that the first trailer notched up a dubious record of the most dislikes on Youtube. By early May, 30 million views had amassed 689,000 thumbs down no less.

That’s particularly galling coming six month after Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A fairly slavish, but tremendously well made continuation of the space saga that received a rapturous reception.

689,000 thumbs down

That feedback, that evidently caught cast and crew off-guard, has warranted several references in the film itself. Never trust online feedback is the message. And it’s a fair one. Just like that first, infamous trailer, the film itself is no disaster. The first third in particular, is bloody funny.

What’s strange, unavoidably strange, is it’s place in the canon. It plays heavily on the earlier films that don’t sit in its universe. Ghostbusters isn’t purely represented by the 30+ year olds who caught it in the 1980s, but has constantly amassed fans, as Bill Murray films in particular are prone to do. Nodding to them and rehashing the original’s light plot with an even lighter plot of its own hasn’t proved a good move. these guys can’t make out tongues lodged in cheeks, firmly or otherwise.

Ghostbusters 1984
Ghostbusters 1984. Grey.

Under review

Timing and tension is reduced to jokes

The need to raise the stakes is strong, replacing the pitched phenomenal FX of the original with mass CGI while the 2016 version fails to recapture the creeping gothic horror of the original. The strange self-brand of its own steampunk that was so pure in the original is massively expanded to cope with the threat. Interestingly, among the films mid to mildly positive reviews, Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann, the tech head behind that rapidly developed weaponry in the film, is alternately highlighted as the film’s saving grace or lost in the ensemble. I’d opt for the latter.

All that tech is brought to bear and by spectacle. The timing and tension of the containment, the danger of the devices that was so key to the original’s balance is reduced to jokes. The idea of crossing the proton pack streams was key to the first film’s resolution but never factors in this melange. In fact, the chance to foreshadow seems completely lost. The ensemble is constantly reduced to the individual. By the third act, almost every scene seems to have been chopped at both ends, losing plot points with it. In all, it’s a shame it can’t live up to the first act. Even that features many laugh-out loud jokes that are truly ridiculous, bouyed greatly by the joy of seeing them aired in a huge-budget production.

The ensemble is constantly reduced to the individual.

When I told a female friend I was off to see it, she suggested it would address the sexism of the original, with the all male heroes saving the damsel in distress. that’s not quite the way I remember it… But even if that was the case, sexism’s hardly corrected by this film. Although, Chris Hemsworth’s expanded receptionist role is one of the stand-outs.

In all, it’s enjoyable, if slightly limp and hard not to think of as a bit of a missed opportunity. Every iconic element is picked up from past glories. The villain won’t live in the memory, the myth behind the team isn’t addressed and too many elements look to a sequel, or perhaps just, most horribly, cynical nostalgia.

Home expansion

Sony’s plans remain resolutely ambitious if vague.

The plot issues are made worse by the studio’s announcement that the home media release will feature an additional 15 minutes. As with Batman v Superman before it, this seems less a studio balking at excess run-time affecting box office, than a need to hedge bets. With the chance that a $100m+ budget might not meet gross expectations in a world where everyone’s a critic, it’s perhaps advantageous to hold back material and boost online and home media sales.

That seems an unfortunate trend at rattled studios. In stark contrast is Disney Marvel’s intransigent position that the theatrical cut of a Marvel film is absolute. An attitude didn’t help Joss Whedon’s experience making the second Avengers film any. In contrast to that highly-anticipated film, Paul Fieg’s experience of co-writing and helming Ghostbusters was racked by the fan-base in a wholly different way. But the end result is most affected by the uncertainty of Sony’s plans for the under-exploited brand. They remain resolutely ambitious if vague. Could there be a further sequel to the original series, a  parallel all-male reboot… As the press had fun pointing out, the toy range accompanying this female dominated reboot still seems resolutely aimed at boys.

I left the film thinking of Sam Raimi, a director who could have put together an interesting take on Ghostbusters. The Evil Dead franchise he steers is in a similar position. While Evil Dead 2 may have been a more deliberate remake of the first film than Ghostbusters 2 turned out to be of its original, the years after Army of Darkness were filled with rumours of a sequel before a straight horror remake (also from Sony) emerged that served to generate $97 million and buy some time. The prospect of a fourth Bruce Campbell starring film remains, alongside the well-received television continuation Ash versus the Evil Dead.

The idea of a straight-talking horror version of Ghostbusters might have been one choice of direction, a broader comedy on the back of Bridesmaids was another.

Walk on, walk out

It undoubtedly features the worst cameos of all time

Alas, there’s one one thing an extended cut is unlikely to help.

Ghostbusters undoubtedly features the worst cameos of all time, mostly from the original cast.  It makes it all the worse that Bill Murray’s refusal to sign-up to Dan Akroyd’s script some year ago led to his stilted, expanded cameo in this film and absolutely zero jokes. Most of the time it doesn’t even look like he’s on set.

That wastage may well warrant some dropped stars, along with the distracting references that abound on its flatter pallet, but even at its most stupid and overly-reverential there’s no doubt this Ghostbusters is amusing. Even lacking the searing improvisation, wryness and general Murrayness of the original. And surely, above everything, being amusing is the point in times greatly different to the 1980s.

In the maelstrom of the final act’s huge New York attack, the one-on-one stand-offs between the ‘busters and a directed army of ghosts as expected in films these days, the surrounding intrigue of mayoral politics and comedy disenfranchised geeks seems a long time ago. Mass destruction of a major city is a wholly different prospect these days despite the welcome presence of Andy Garcia as New York’s mayor in some under-cooked scenes. The villain, rather inexplicably, is an exploration of the outsider. Barely explored is killed as part of a master plan. Even in a film about ghosts, that’s a rather horrid hook.

Its legacy promises to be something else entirely…

I’ll be surprised if this film fails despite the furious publicity drive and the miserable attendance I witnessed in South London last night. How well it will do, with a dedicated body of people determined to ignore the favourable and building word of mouth, remains to be seen. Its legacy though, promises to be something else entirely.

For all the talk of vortex in the film (ghosts seem to descend at one point, emerge from a different plane in another, during the course of a film that resolutely dodges a hell for the entirely malevolent host of ghosts and barely fits in a containment unit) the real vortex at the heart of this film will continue to be social media.

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