Ghostbusters and the Rules of Reboots

Many people have already made up their minds about whether or not to see Ghostbusters, so I’ll spare you the traditional review. Rotten Tomatoes is awash with reviews, while IMDB is full of people who were panning this film back in May. What I offer are some thoughts about how this reboot fits into pop culture, why it was rebooted, and why movies should be rebooted at all.

True story. This past Friday I mentioned to my co-worker that I was going to see Ghostbusters, partly to counteract the internet backlash that erupted over the film ever since the release of the trailer. She didn’t know anything about any backlash, proving it’s possible to live in this interconnected world of ours and still be oblivious to certain parts of pop culture that segments of the population howl about incessantly.

Pop culture is a thing of the moment and always has been. In five years, the “controversy” of an all-female Ghostbusters will have dissipated; in ten years the fact that the Ghostbusters trailer is the most disliked on YouTube will be a footnote on a Wikipedia page, and in thirty years people who saw the 2016 comedy will have trouble explaining to their children what Reddit was, or why Dan Aykroyd’s cameo was funny.

Jokes for a new audience

I have never been a big fan of reboots, particularly reboots of well-done movies or franchises. I’m the grump who wishes Hollywood would release more original properties than milking every last old idea for cash. I blame Tim Burton for this, who clear-cut through my childhood with such limp adaptations as Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland. Simply putting Johnny Depp into your film is not a good enough reason to reboot a movie.

What, then, is a good reason to reboot a property? I can think of three good answers:

  1. When the original movie is bad
  2. When the reboot updates the material for the times
  3. When the reboot has something to say

Ghostbusters hits two of the three criteria on this list. And it does so better than any reboot I’ve seen in recent memory.

Rule 1: Reboot when the original movie is bad

Key Example: Judge Dredd (1995)

While I’m not a fan of reboots, I highly support movies that attempt to correct the wrongs of earlier films. Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 campfest that was Judge Dredd is a classic example of a good idea poorly executed. Dredd, released in 2012, is a perfect example of how to reboot a property when the original was a bad movie. Dredd is darker, grittier, more in line with the tone of the original property. These kinds of reboots are the easiest to support; I’d happily watch another take on a property that stuttered the first time out than watch any of the reboots of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Rule 2: Reboot when you can update the material for the times

Key Example: Scarface (1983)

When we watch it now, we see the zeitgeist of the 1980s: long lapels, smoking in public, casual misogyny. Yet Oliver Stone’s Scarface took a movie about Al Capone and made it relevant. Movies have their eras stamped all over them, with jokes, plot lines and costuming all dependent on the products, clothes and technology of the time. In one stroke, 9/11 rewrote the book on how to use airports and airplanes as plot devices. It rendered many 80s movies unbelievable to modern audiences. The hero is running through the airport to win the girl of his dreams? And he isn’t getting tacked by Homeland Security? Inconceivable!

Speaking of Homeland Security, Ghostbusters makes this governmental department the butt of their jokes, whereas in the original the inept, corrupt official was from the EPA. This little change perfectly illustrates Ghostbusters following Rule 2. When was the last time anyone outside of a coal mining consortium headquarters saw the EPA as a villain? The idea doesn’t translate now that we no longer live in Reagan’s America. Ghostbusters updates so many little things to be better relatable to its audience, mentioning YouTune, Reddit and the chase of tenure. Will YouTube and Reddit stand the test of time? Probably not. Then again, the original Ghostbusters featured cameos by Larry King and Casey Kasem, and how relevant are either of them today?

Rule 3: Reboot when you have something to say

Key Example: Carrie (2013)

This last rule might be the most ephemeral, and the hardest to quantify. What qualifies as “something to say”? More importantly, who decides? Is it really the point of movies to inject/project/push a message or agenda?

I’ve written before about Carrie, the modern reboot of the classic Brian de Palma movie. While my feelings about Carrie are mixed, it succeeded in having something to say. The theme of bullying is universal, and Carrie definitely had something to say about the nature of modern bullying. It was necessary to also follow Rule 2 in order to make the film both relevant and understandable to modern audiences.

Whether or not movies are the place to push a particular agenda, Ghostbusters does, and brilliantly. The last few years has brought to the forefront the issue of women in Hollywood: their salary differences than those of men, the limited opportunities they’re given after a certain age. By rebooting the series with four women, Ghostbusters definitely sends out a message of empowerment. While subtle, this is a feminist movie, just as much as the recent Mad Max: Fury Road was.

As to the larger point: should movies push or favor one agenda over another, I’d argue that it’s moot. Whether overtly or no, movies push agendas all the time. Over the past year, movies like Fury Road, Star Wars: the Force Awakens, and now Ghostbusters have placed women front and center, and all are made better for it. The all-female team in Ghostbusters allows the script a lot of room to breathe into its comedy, taking the jokes places that would seem crass or crude if the genders are reversed. Bill Murray leering at Sigourney Weaver in the original movie is kind of gross now, but Kristen Wiig fawning over Chris Hemsworth is hilarious.

One the one hand, Ghostbusters got caught up in a firestorm thanks to its audacity to exist in the first place. On the other hand, the controversy will mean nothing to 99% of audience-goers…including my co-worker. She’ll only see a big-budget movie where women are front and center. For her, that’s worth it.

Ghostbusters tl;drs

Quick summary: In another life, Erin wrote a book on the existence of ghosts. Now, she’s trying to put all that behind her and get tenure at Columbia. But when ghosts do prove real, she teams up with her former co-author Abby and a few others to save the world from a man hell-bent on its destruction.

Too many writers? Just two, although since the script has been in development you can be sure many more were involved.

Recommended if you like: Bridesmaids, Parks and Recreation, pissing off MRAs, gender parity, updating outdated comedy with jokes relevant for the time.

Better than I expected? Kate McKinnon; she is worth the price of admission alone.

Worse than I hoped? While I loved all the cameos, Bill Murray’s felt a little flat. Also he was dressed like he’d just left one of those New York hipster parties he’s always attending in secret.

Stay for the credits? Hells yes. Not only are these some of the funniest credits I’ve ever seen, with tons of unused footage from the film, but the post-credits scene built up a sense of anticipation like nothing I’ve seen since the post-credits scene to Iron Man.

Verdict: The trailer doesn’t do it justice; Ghostbusters is a witty, smart update of the beloved classic.

Author’s Note: I am not a Cultural Gatekeeper. The views expressed here are my own and are half-formed at best. I am in no way implying that these rules are the only times movies should ever rebooted or that Hollywood would ever take my advice regarding their intellectual properties. If anyone at Hollywood ever wanted to know why I buy tickets to film screenings, this is a good indicator. However, I never see films in 3d and I try to see flicks at my local indie theater, so at most the studios would be missing out on $8.50.