Ghostbusters

I know, in Internet time a review of a film that came out at the beginning of last week might as well be talking about the Epic of Gilgamesh as far as timeliness goes, but I was unwell last week and am less unwell this week, so you get the review now…

Unlike most men of my approximate age and interests, I have no great love for 80s American SFF cinema. While I have a certain amount of affection for the original Ghostbusters, it’s on the level of “would willingly watch it on a long plane journey if I was too tired to concentrate on anything more stimulating” rather than “one of the great masterpieces of cinema”, which seems to be the rating given to it by most men in their late thirties. For me, the most accurate description of it would be that it’s definitely in my top five Dan Aykroyd films (along with The Blues Brothers, The Beach Boys: It’s OK, Trading Places, and either Ghostbusters 2 or Spies Like Us). I thought it was a moderately entertaining comedy film, with a few moments that were cringeworthily sexist, and with Reaganite politics I didn’t particularly like.

So unlike the legions of howling manboys who were determined that any reboot must hew exactly to their memories of the original, and certainly mustn’t feature anyone who possesses ovaries or breasts, I thought that the idea of a reboot with women in the principal roles was a pretty good one. And indeed, it is a pretty good film — good enough that I’ve watched it twice in the cinema (though mostly because I’ve been at that precise level of illness which means you need something not too intellectually stimulating to entertain you).

It does, however, have a *major* problem to which too few people are calling attention, in the character of Patty. The character of Patty is very much a stereotyped “sassy black woman”, although she does also have specialist knowledge that the other characters don’t. She’s certainly a step forward from the complete non-characterisation of Winston in the 1980s films, but frankly she seemed half way to being Mammy from the Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Although I *also* wondered while watching it if someone who was more familiar with black US culture, AAVE, and so on, would have the same reaction I did. Where does representation stop and stereotyping start, and is it *possible* to represent minority cultures that are treated by the majority culture as contemptible, without reinforcing that contempt?

Being a white English man, whose knowledge of black American culture is almost exclusively filtered through the media (I do visit the US semi-regularly, but always small-town Minnesota, an area so white I feel quite uncomfortable there), I’m not at all sure about my ability to criticise that kind of thing sensibly. I simply do not know what is a harmful stereotype, what is a realistic portrayal of a cultural norm in black communities, and what is somewhere in between. This piece, though, by a black American woman, suggests that my instinct about the character is largely accurate.

I suspect the real problem here, though, is that the film has such a small number of actual speaking parts, and there are no black characters of any note *other* than Patty. Replacing Charles Dance’s university administrator with a black academic, or having the mayor’s PA be black, might have taken some of the problems away. As it is, the only PoC with any lines at all in the film, other than Patty, are an almost-silent Homeland Security agent, a police officer who gets two lines, the person who delivers the Ghostbusters’ takeaways, and Ernie Hudson in a cameo role as Patty’s uncle. (I checked this on the second viewing). This leaves the stereotyped character as the only one in the film who isn’t white.

This is, of course, a fairly major problem with the film, but from my own privileged position as a white male, it didn’t spoil my own enjoyment of it too much — that may differ for other viewers.
But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play?

I actually thought that, as a film, it was much better than the original. Surprisingly, even though it casts actors who are best known as comedians in the lead roles, it’s far less of a comedy than the original film. Which is not to say it’s not funny — there are some genuinely great one-liners, and a lot of moments that made me laugh — but it’s more of a light adventure film with occasional funny moments than a comedy film that happens to have a fantasy plot.

More than anything, it reminded me of Guardians of the Galaxy — except that where the main characters in that film were psychopathic, to the extent that I found it genuinely distressing that the film clearly expected us to side with them, the four main characters in Ghostbusters are all genuinely decent people. They all reminded me very much of the people I like most in my own social circle, in fact — intelligent, kind, thoughtful, honest, funny people driven by intellectual curiosity but not letting that get in the way of basic human decency. It felt very much like spending a couple of hours in the company of friends.

This is, of course, a major departure from the first film, and one of the few criticisms I could make about the major characters is that the lack of a Venkman-equivalent arsehole character did mean that the characters played by Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy seemed slightly redundant — both were essentially playing the Dan Aykroyd role. But that’s a ridiculously minor complaint when placed against the fact that this is the first big-budget blockbuster film I’ve seen in years where the protagonists are actually decent people, rather than horrible people who we’re meant to sympathise with solely because they’re the viewpoint character.

(Arguable exceptions — The Martian, whose protagonist is an example of geek triumphalism, but not portrayed as doing anything horrible, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is so unconnected from reality that asking what kind of people its principal characters are is to totally miss the point of the exercise).

Plot-wise, the broad strokes of the film are largely the same as the original — parapsychologists in New York lose their academic jobs because they’re considered to be lowering the tone of their institutions, and become ghost hunters, at the same time as a major increase in ghosts appearing in the city. They come into conflict with the city government, but triumph when they save the city from a possible apocalypse. Within that framework, though, all the details — including the nature of the threat that is causing the increase in spectral activity — are different enough that it’s not just a beat-for-beat remake of the original, but a very fresh take on the idea.

One thing it does share with the original, though, is that it’s a film that’s clearly in love with New York as a city. This is particularly noticeable in the climactic sequence, which takes place in a sort of ghost of New York past, where adverts for Beyond The Fringe nestle up to posters for Taxi Driver (and this is one reason why I don’t think the Patty character is *wholly* a bad thing — she, of all of the characters, is the one that shares this knowledge of and love of the city).

There are a lot of references to the original film, both in the cameos for the original stars (and one largeish part for one of them) and in other knowing nods, but it’s ultimately a film that stands on its own very successfully. If you like bright, fun, funny, action films like the first few Marvel Cinematic Universe films (before they became too weighted down with their own continuity), and if you can get over the fairly major flaw that is Patty, you’ll enjoy this one a lot.

One piece of advice, though — watch it in 2D. I’ve seen it in both 2D and 3D versions, and the effects were noticeably shoddier in 3D (and in particular the decision to have some ghost effects extend slightly past the frame boundary in the 3D version just draws attention to the frame and makes immersion more difficult).

I’m glad to hear that they’re planning more films — I hope that they tone down the stereotypical aspects of Patty and bring in some more characters of colour. If they do, the next film could be genuinely great, rather than, as this one was, pretty good but flawed.

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4 Responses to Ghostbusters

  1. Pingback: Interesting Links for 23-07-2016 | Made from Truth and Lies

  2. Fred says:

    The Beach Boys: It’s OK beats out Grosse Point Blank? Ouch.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’ve only seen Grosse Point Blank once, when it first came out for rental on VHS. I didn’t even remember that Aykroyd was in it, though I quite liked it as I recall.
      (For the record, the only other films I can remember seeing with Aykroyd in, other than those I listed, are The Rutles (where his part was even smaller than the Beach Boys documentary, so I didn’t count it), Neighbors, 1941, Coneheads, Blues Brothers 2000 (only because it came free with my DVD of The Blues Brothers), and I may have seen Caddyshack 2 though if I did I remember nothing about it).

      • Kit says:

        I was also coming here to express concern for poor Grosse Point Blank.

        (The hero is also a psychopath there, but it’s a major element of the film that he is aware that this is a problem and is investigating whether he can address it,)

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