Like it or not, the newly rebooted Ghostbusters has been transformed into a political film.
The decision to see it — or not — is a politicized act, a taking of sides in the latest round of the culture wars, which pit (mostly male) fans nostalgic for the 1984 original against contemporary critics of Hollywood who are eager to see more leading roles for women. And part of the debate has been about whether or not the Ghostbusters franchise (or anything like it) should be a vehicle for social and political commentary, raising the question of both whether and how mass Hollywood productions should engage with political ideas.
One way to answer that question is by going back to the original, 1984 Ghostbusters, which, in addition to being a massively successful crowd-pleaser, was also a thoroughly and transparently political film.
The movie’s political outlook could hardly be more clear. Set in New York in the early 1980s, the film follows a group of failed academics as they take out dubious high-interest loans in order to start a small business, worrying as they do that, unlike the university, the private sector will "expect results."
They design their own equipment, advertise and build up a customer base, fight with a snooty regulator from the Environmental Protection Agency, and are ultimately hired by the New York government to resolve a major urban fiasco that the government is powerless to stop.
Ghostbusters is a celebration, in other words, of Reagan-era market conservatism, of entrepreneurship and privatization, of profit motives and individual initiative, all of which prove more capable and effective than public sector power.
It’s arguably one of the better examples not only of conservative filmmaking — in 2009, flagship conservative journal National Review named it among the best conservative movies ever made — but of popular political filmmaking, period. What makes it work so well is that its political ideas are embedded in its story, characters, and world, growing organically out of the cultural context in which they are presented.
The original Ghostbusters skillfully showcases Reagan-era politics without picking a side
When Dan Aykroyd’s paranormal scientist Dr. Ray Stantz worries about making the shift to the private sector, his concern stems from the character’s genuine fear of moving out of a university research setting. But it’s also a not-so-subtle dig at academia, one that inherently accepts conservative criticisms of wasteful research spending.
Ghostbusters’ human villain, an EPA official played by character actor William Atherton, is portrayed as both arrogant and incompetent, a sniveling bureaucrat who wants to shutter a business that won’t submit to his authority. It’s telling that when Atherton’s character finally barges into the Ghostbusters’ headquarters to shut down their ghost containment operation, the response from Harold Ramis’s Dr. Egon Spengler is to invoke his personal property rights. "Excuse me," he says, "this is private property."
Even the pitch the Ghostbusters make to the mayor after the city is overrun with ghosts is inflected by right of center cynicism about retail politics: After describing the supernatural apocalypse that might come down on New York if the Ghostbusters aren’t allowed to step in and stop the malignant, extra-dimension deity Gozer, Bill Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman concludes, with a characteristic smirk, by reminding the mayor that if he allows them to work, and they succeed, the mayor will have "saved the lives of millions of registered voters."
It’s a scene that could have been an anecdote in a public choice text, featuring, as it does, as a politician who is only nominally concerned about doing what’s best for the polity, and much more concerned about doing whatever will help him win reelection.
A story like this could easily have come across as a kind of hectoring lecture about the virtues of free-market conservatism — especially given the likely political leanings of some of the movie’s creators — but it works.
In part that’s because Ghostbusters is honest about its characters’ failings: Spengler is a weirdo, Stantz is childish, Venkman is a sarcastic, womanizing jerk who probably wouldn’t mind all that much if the whole operation turned out to be a scam, as long as it made money.
But its success as a politically engaged film is rooted in the way its ideology is built into its specific characters and setting.
The 1984 Ghostbusters is a movie that consistently sees politics, bureaucracy, and regulation through the eyes of its inventor/small-business-owner heroes; the movie is embedded in their assumptions and understandings. It’s not making an argument to the audience so much as it is offering a demonstration — a model — of how its characters see the world. They’re not trying to argue you into something; they’re just being who they are, inside the world presented by the story. It’s as much about perspective as politics.
The reboot’s failure to incorporate contemporary political or social commentary is what ultimately made it disappointing
That’s what made the new Ghostbusters so promising — and also what made both the fracas around it and the film itself so frustrating.
The idea of rebooting the Ghostbusters franchise in today’s world with a quartet of female leads is an inherently strong one that, at least in theory, should have provided plenty of opportunities to engage with the political and social implications of a paranormal exterminator business founded and run entirely by women. The idea, at heart, is about flipping the story’s perspective, and showing us what’s interesting and entertaining about that switch in perspective.
But the fans of the original film who objected most loudly to the idea in the two years prior to its release weren’t responding to the story or the characters — none of which they knew much about, since the movie wasn’t out yet. They were responding to the cast and the concept. They had decided to interpret the movie’s politics through its signifiers rather than through its content.
That’s a terrible way to approach politics and pop culture, because it renders the work itself irrelevant in favor of production factoids that can be determined long before the film is released, or even finished. It reduces a movie to its IMDB page.
It’s also what makes the movie itself something of a disappointment. Despite some very strong performances, especially from Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, the film never quite embraces a strong, character-driven perspective, in part because the two leads, played by Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, are never clearly defined, and neither is their relationship, which should be the heart of the film. The pair spend a lot of the movie in jokey comic riffing — it’s obviously heavy on loose, ad-libbed dialogue — but the scenes that result play like two comics trying to be funny, rather than two characters who are inherently funny because of who they are.
Meanwhile, the movie’s frequent attempts to grapple with the cultural consequences of a team of women setting up shop as ghostbusters never quite land the way you wish they would. There are brief bits about the awfulness of YouTube commenters and the spreading of bad news on Reddit, as well as a subplot in which the mayor’s office falsely declares them to be liars and imposters. The bad guy is a pudgy geek seeking a vague form of revenge for having been bullied. But these gags never seem to connect to the internal struggles of the characters.
It’s a movie that seems more intent on participating in the cultural debate about the film in our world than in developing a coherent internal politics of its own. Its a movie that lets its politics be defined in opposition to its external critics.
That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity: Just as the original Ghostbusters was made better, funnier, and more relatable by the way it embraced the era-appropriate conservatism of its main characters, the reboot would have been better off creating a richer and deeper worldview for its leads and a complimentary political outlook to show us both who they are and how they understand their world.
That approach is what made Netflix’s Jessica Jones so powerful, and, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out at the Washington Post, one reason why Ghostbusters director Paul Feig’s last film, Spy, succeeded as both a populist comedy and a send-up of spy-movie gender tropes.
The new Ghostbusters, in contrast, feels timid and underdeveloped. It was poised to show us what a big-budget action-comedy franchise looked like from a woman’s perspective — but didn’t deliver on that promise.