This isn’t a review of Ghostbusters, but give credit where credit is due: Paul Feig’s reboot gets a lot of things right. All four of the female leads give strong performances. Kate McKinnon is especially good, bringing just the right amount of crazy to her character, Jillian Holtzmann, and as far as I’m concerned Melissa McCarthy makes every role better. For the most part, Feig and writing partner Katie Dippold give the group good lines to deliver, and the whole ensemble pulls off some seasoned chemistry. There are several solid set pieces, highlighted by a scene in which the women interview a dimwitted Kevin for their secretarial position (think the absurdity of Monty Python crossed with a Far Side cartoon). And for all the hue and cry over what this film might do to the “image” of the original, the balance between offering an homage and forging a new identity seems just right. For example Feig, to his credit, opted to use Ray Parker Jr.’s original theme song, note for note, for the film’s opening. Yet he only included a few bars: a reference that doesn’t become cloying. I’ll admit I was disappointed not to see Rick Moranis pop up somewhere, but otherwise there are tasteful cameos from everyone associated with the original (Bill Murray’s floppy hat aside). And at the same time, this film makes a point to correct some problems with the original franchise– poking fun at the outlandishness of renting a fire station in New York City, giving the black character a decent backstory, and addressing criticisms about “female” ghostbusters well before anyone even knew they existed. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that, had this Ghostbusters been released in 1984, it certainly would have been as beloved as the version that was, and perhaps more so.
The trouble is, this version of the story wasn’t released in 1984. That creates instant trouble because it means Ghostbusters has such enormous shoes to fill: it’s trying to recreate film history as opposed to making it, and that almost never turns out well. As J.R. Kinnard points out in his PopMatters review, cinematic success involves forging a new identity, and remakes generally struggle in that regard. But Ghostbusters 2016 faces another immense hurdle that’s worth pointing out: it not only tries to remake a successful film, but it tries to remake a successful 80s film. If remaking a film is problematic, I might argue successfully remaking an 80s film simply can’t be done.
A strong case can be made that the 1980s were a more iconic decade than even the 1950s or 1960s (granted, I come to the subject with some biases). It’s true, we didn’t have Elvis or the Beatles, but something changed wholesale in western culture in the 80s, something even larger and more pervasive than the grief that followed Kennedy’s assassination or the deep need to emerge from mourning that opened the door to the Beatles phenomenon. That fifteen year period, circa 1957 to circa 1972 brought a number of earthshattering cultural shifts, but what took place in the 1980s brought about a change that even now, thirty-six years later, remains with us. Who would have thought, for instance, that a has-been Hollywood actor could basically decimate classical liberalism and set a standard for conservatism that has even Democrats these days in its grip? And yet…
I could point you to a couple of books, Graham Stewart’s excellent Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, or (shameless plug) my own New Wave: Image is Everything, for a detailed list of what changed and why, but honestly the explanation is pretty simple. I could cleverly parody The Graduate here and say the answer is “plastics,” and that’s close, but plastics implies at least some solid object, however “artificial” that object might be. No, the answer to what happened in the 80s is something more akin to “cartoons.” In the space of a very few short years, reality simply faded away to be replaced by an image. You can’t re-make a cartoon (see the sad attempts to reboot Loony Tunes on the Cartoon Network): its quality is already too ridiculous. It would be something like remaking a parody – it’s one step too far, one step beyond the point where the audience cares anymore.
It all goes back to postmodern theory, which had been simmering since Derrida had begun making waves in 1967, but which by 1980 had become more than theory. For years the likes of Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard had been prophesying that reality was being replaced by an image. And lo, in 1980 it had come to pass: MTV, Ronald Regan, big hair, New Coke – need I go on?
But the subject here is film. What are the films of the 80s, the ones that mattered most? The collected works of John Hughes. The second and third films of the original Star Wars trilogy. Raiders of the Lost Ark; Back to the Future; Beverly Hills Cop; Batman; Fast Times at Ridgemont High; The Princess Bride; Dirty Dancing; Top Gun; Gremlins; Beetlejuice; Die Hard. With apologies to some very fine Oscar nominees and winners – Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Out of Africa – the films that mattered in the 80s were outsized, outlandish: cartoonish. Bill Murray’s Spackler, Sean Penn’s Spicoli, Matthew Broderick’s Ferris – these are characters so over the top they only need one name, so over the top they’re burned in our brains and we begin doing bits and routines at their mere mention.
Even in a relatively serious film, like The Breakfast Club, the characters are less human beings than pastel images with corresponding personalities. The final statement of the group’s letter at the end, their insistence that they can’t be reduced to stereotypes – “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” is simultaneously a message that resonates for teens everywhere, and an apt description of how we the viewers remember them all. We even collected the actors into a convenient group and labeled it: “The Brat Pack.”
But maybe more than anything else, all these images we created of and for ourselves in the 80s were self-aware. The success of The Brady Bunch films was that the over-the-top earnestness of the 70s that managed to be encoded into that series was ripe for parody. You can’t parody Ghostbusters, or Vacation, and you can’t remake them in a straightforward fashion – as the last year has shown us.
The characters in the new Ghostbusters who troubled me most weren’t the leads; no, it was Matt Walsh and Michael Kenneth Williams as FBI agent Stevenson and Hawkins. Their most obvious source is the two bumbling FBI agents who muck up John McClane’s operation in Die Hard (though there are many other incarnations including Beverly Hills Cop’s Rosewood and Taggert). The message seemed clear: we’re not just trying to remake a movie – we’re trying to reboot the 80s altogether.
Remakes come and go. True Grit? I can live with that. The Parent Trap? Ok. Psycho? Vince Vaughn has his moments. And I know, the 80s have sort of rolled around again: it’s just about that time in the cultural cycle to start remaking the films. I’m telling you now, though, it’s just a waste of time. Duckie has left the building.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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