An all-female Ghostbusters team is the one genuinely inspired thing about this remake of the 1984 blockbuster. (If you think this film was unnecessary, imagine how pointless and cynical it would have been had it starred Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson.) Seeing this movie 32 years after I caught the original Ghostbusters, the distaff casting brought into relief all the changes between then and now. Comedy has changed. Star power has changed. Soundtracks have changed. Our reaction to special effects has changed. Hell, even the experience of going to the movies has changed.
None of this, though, answers the basic question: is the 2016 Ghostbusters any good?
Well, it's okay.
On the upside, the cast is appealing, and the film feels like a Ghostbusters movie. It's not just that the cinematography (by Paul Feig/Wes Anderson regular Robert D. Yeoman) and score (by Theodore Shapiro) pay homage to the work of Laszlo Kovacs and Elmer Bernstein. It also captures the original's groundbreaking blend of goof-off comedy and eye-popping effects. Even its depiction of New York is more or less the same, even though the city has changed so much.
But there are problems: first and foremost, the 1984 film had more clarity. Not just with the plot, which I'll get to in a minute, but with the characters themselves: in the original team, Dan Aykroyd was the heart, Harold Ramis the brain, Ernie Hudson the everyman, and Bill Murray was, well, Bill Murray. Each character was fully formed the moment you met him, as if the actors were born to play those parts. (Obviously, it helped that Aykroyd and Ramis wrote the script.) Whereas I just didn't get that with Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon, despite their estimable talents. Ditto the generic supporting players: Chris Hemsworth is nicely cast against type as a moronic receptionist, but many actors could have done it. Whereas can you imagine anyone besides Rick Moranis playing the Rick Moranis role in the original Ghostbusters?
Now, about that plot: Basically, it's about a creep (Neil Casey) who wants to bring about the end of the world by releasing all the ghosts trapped in the spectral plane. But whereas the 1984 film's story was well-structured – one thing led to another – here it meanders. It's mostly a collection of scenes that somehow lead to a big third act battle. Once we got to that third act, I was surprised at how quickly it arrived (we barely even get to know the villain), and how quickly it was wrapped up. Meanwhile, the movie's endless fan-service callbacks and cameos only distract from the storytelling.
I want to close on a sacrilegious note: I'm actually not a big fan of the original Ghostbusters. Sure, when I was 14, I thought it was great, and I must have caught it at least 2-3 times in the theater before watching it again and again on video. But revisiting it a couple of years ago, I found that the comedy didn't hold up at all. Its many famous lines seem funny only because we've been quoting them incessantly for 32 years. (The funniest moments actually belong to bit players: a hotel maid and a Central Park carriage driver.) And the adult me found Murray not so much impishly charming as simply obnoxious. So if this new Ghostbusters isn't exactly uproarious, it's because the franchise wasn't all that brilliant to start with. Still, it's an enjoyable summer trifle, and I'm definitely glad to see four women anchor a blockbuster. Whatever this film's failings are, you can't blame them.