Technically, Ghostbusters: Answer The Call (2016) is not a remake. It is technically a reboot that was supposed to lead to an all new female-led Ghostbusters series. These plans for a sequel are unlikely after Ghostbusters: ATC had a disappointing domestic box office and was never released in China, resulting in a $75m loss.
The female-led Ghostbusters: ATC was not intended to replace the male-oriented Ghostbusters series. Once upon a time, there were going to be two parallel Ghostbusters series in theaters, one for men (a sequel to the original series directed by the Russo Brothers) and one for women (a sequel to the 2016 series). The Russo Brothers’ film was later nixed to be replaced by Ivan Reitman’s animated feature based on the original series (although the latest rumors say he wants to release in 2019 or 2020, Reitman’s big Ghostbuster plans have a tendency to never see completion). For now, we’re left with Ghostbusters:ATC (2016), the third, and possibly final, feature film in the Ghostbusters series.
Over the years, writers have reassessed the original Ghostbusters through a variety of lenses. Many assessments try to peer into the moral and political compasses of Dan Ackroyd (writer), Harold Ramis (writer) and Ivan Reitman (director), though most writers are unable to abandon their own personal lenses. In recent times, it’s been assessed as sexist, libertarian, cynical, an old fashioned boys movie, a work of Republican economic pressures, and a movie only liked out of a sense of nostalgia. As a 33-year-old comedy classic (god, I’m getting old), it only makes sense to reassess the movie through modern lenses even though we may strive to apply historical context.
Although Ghostbusters: ATC is technically not a remake, the plot initially sticks so close to the original 1984 feature that we may as well consider it one. Much like Rough Night was to Very Bad Things, Ghostbusters: ATC serves as a modern reassessment on an older boys-identified movie by gender-flipping the characters. This type of “Not A Remake” approach comments on the gender politics of the original film’s plot and characters, while still sprinkling in commentary on modern political views.
The Librarian and The Tour Guide
Ghostbusters cold opens at the New York Library. An older female librarian is quietly putting books away when a supernatural force begins moving books between shelves behind her. Though she doesn’t notice these first steps of a haunting, the force quickly steps up its tactics. The catalog cards slowly start spewing into the aisle, speeding up as the librarian freaks out at the behavior. She whimpers as she runs away from a force until she encounters an actual monstrous spook and screams in fear, transitioning to the logo introduction. The librarian has one more short scene: lying down in the middle of the library to relay her experience to Peter Venkman (Bill Murray). He inquires at her her family’s mental history (“My Uncle thought he was Saint Jerome”), drug use (“Noooo!”, and ends by asking if she is menstruating (supernatural experiences have sometimes been associated with menstruation).
Apparently, Paul Feig believed this second scene to be sexist. The first scene of Ghostbusters: ATC takes place in a faux-haunted library/museum where a male tour guide leads guests through a tour rigged with small contraptions to make the tour seem haunted. One machine shakes a basement door, and another toy makes items flip off the table. Unfortunately for the tour guide, the museum may actually be haunted, and by the end of the scene, he is “trapped” in the basement hanging onto a crumbling staircase. He screams out when he falls into a swamp made of green slime, but not to his death. Like the original’s librarian, the tour guide has a second scene to tell Abigail Yates (Melissa McCarthy) about the haunting he experienced. Instead of being asked about his family’s mental history, drug use or menstruation, the audience is subjected to an extended “comedy” sketch where they debate just how scared the tour guide was by whether or not he pooped and/or pissed his pants. The commentary on the original is in plain sight: Feig believed that Venkman asking the woman about menstruation was an act of humiliation, so he exacted parallel cultural vengeance through the humiliation of the man by asking about peeing and pooping his pants.
Back in the 1980s, a large section of American comedy was defined by the bro culture seemingly launched by John Landis’ National Lampoon’s Animal House. The relationship between Animal House and Ghostbusters is closer than just being part of a trend; two principal behind-the-camera roles worked on both films. Ghostbusters‘ director Ivan Reitman had produced Animal House which was co-written by Harold Ramis who was hired to co-write additional drafts of Ghostbusters and star as Egon Spengler. The Slobs vs Snobs mentality of Animal House was transformed into the Entrepreneur vs Everybody Else mentality of Ghostbusters, while keeping the male dominance of the characters.
Dan Ackroyd’s original screenplay for Ghostbusters was a different animal than what ended up on screen. The story necessarily changed for brevity and pacing, transforming into more of a realist workplace comedy than a all-out weird supernatural movie where Dana was an alien. The characters also changed as they were largely defined by the actors hired to play the parts. A prime example of this is the gutting of Winston Zeddimore’s role after Eddie Murphy turned it down, replaced by then-relatively-unknown Ernie Hudson. When played by Murphy, Winston was going to be a wise-ass main character who was with the gang through the whole movie. When played by Hudson, Winston turned into an outsider hired after the company already had success. Another big change occurred when John Candy turned down the role of Louis to be picked up by Rick Moranis who added in the idea that Louis was a nervous accountant. Similarly, the rest of the characters changed based on the qualities of their actors.
Arguably, Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is the cynically beating heart of Ghostbusters; he drives the plot, provides color commentary, and bounces off the other characters in a way that seems so natural to be ad-libbed. As Dana Barrett describes him, he doesn’t seem much like a scientist…he’s more like a game show host. He’s pushy toward everybody, especially toward Dana and other women, he’s entitled, he has a huge ego, and he tends to control the atmosphere around him even as people around him do the work. Harold Ramis’ Egon is his opposite: a geeky wallflower who nevertheless develops a ton of gadgets to help do the actual ghostbusting. Between the two lies Dan Ackroyd’s functional geek Ray Stantz, the passive worrywart pushed around by Peter even if he’s largely the idea man. Winston, the afore mentioned latecomer, is the straight men intended to provide an audience surrogate into the group as a everyday worker for hire. Truth be told, I always wanted to be Venkman even if I identified with Ray as a kid and Winston as an adult.
In Ghostbusters: ATC, the dynamics of the characters are a little jumbled, even though there are large parallels between the two movies. Kristin Wiig’s Dr. Erin Gilbert and Melissa McCarthy’s Abigail Yates have largely muddled the traits of Venkman and Ray. Dr. Gilbert gives off Stantz’s nervous energy and desire to be successful, but also contains Venkman’s cynicism and sexual drive (she constantly objectifies their himbo secretary, Kevin). Dr. Yates has Venkman’s energy and game show host qualities, but possesses Stantz’s sense of wonder. Kate McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann is a far kookier and more energetic (but still just as romantically asexual) version of Egon while Leslie Jones’ Patty retains Winston’s identity as an outsider hired into the group who provides an audience surrogate even as she plays her reactions to the cheap seats.
In a trend that belies modern comic sensibilities more than anything, the Ghostbusters in ATC are unnecessarily verbose in their humor compared to their male counterparts. In a post-Judd Apatow world, comedies constantly search for any combination of words that will make you giggle or laugh. If the directors can’t figure out which line will make audiences laugh, they’ll throw in all of the possibilities with the hope that more jokes stick than not. In the early 1980s, almost every line of dialogue did triple duty by developing the character, advancing the plot and making you laugh. In the modern era, every joke has 4 or 5 extraneous lines.
Consider these two pieces of dialogue where the ghosts slimed somebody.
Peter Venkman: He slimed me. (in the background of other dialogue) I feel so funky.
Erin Gilbert: That stuff went everywhere, by the way. In every crack.
Venkman’s sliming happens quickly – Slimer runs straight through him – and he doesn’t even finish his comments before Ray and Egon are moving on to the next setpiece (The Hotel Ballroom). When Erin Gilbert is slimed, there are fountains of slime vomit, and then she brings it up in more than one scene, trying to pull as much comedy from what had been a quick gag. The line of dialogue acknowledging the sliming in Answer The Call is 43% longer, and is given even more weight because it comes after the action setpiece. The joke is run into the ground, as most jokes here are.
Which brings us to two of the only non-gender flipped characters of the movie: The Deans. Both versions of Ghostbusters have male Deans firing the Ghostbusters so they can move on to build their private practices. In Ghostbusters, Dean Yeager of Columbia University exists in one brief scene to fire the Ghostbusters with a level of curt professionalism.
Dean Yeager: This university will no longer continue any funding of any kind of your group’s activities.
Peter Venkman: But the kids love us.
Dean Yeager: Doctor… Venkman. We believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge… or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!
Peter Venkman: I see.
Dean Yeager: And you have no place in this department, or this university.
It’s a snappy scene that barely lasts a minute with rapid fire delivery courtesy of Jordan Charney.
In Answer The Call, because Abby and Erin work for two different educational institutions, there has to be two separate firings. Erin’s firing turns into an extended fight for her job following the discovery of a YouTube video of her saying she found a ghost. If Erin’s fight feels long, Abby’s firing is even longer. First she argues with her Dean, played by Steve Higgins of Saturday Night Live:
Dean: I will not let the 12-year reputation of this fine institution be besmirched by you!
Abby Yates: Oh, come on! Suddenly this place has a classy reputation to uphold? You’re only dean now because the least dean went to jail.
Dean: Are you saying that I’m not qualified?
Abby Yates: You spell science with a “Y”. And what’s upsetting about that is I don’t think you know that that’s wrong.
This dialogue precedes an extended montage of the Dean giving her the middle finger in a variety of comedic ways while Abby impotently watches while saying, “Oh. Yeah. This is so unprofessional. That’s just. Come on.” The Deans were not an important part of either movie, but in Ghostbusters: Answer The Call, they exist to further emphasize the maleness of authority figures and that men don’t respect women in same way they respect other men. If Abby’s Dean is unprofessional, there is nothing unprofessional about Dean Yeager.
Janine vs Kevin
If we agree that Ghostbusters is a workplace comedy, then Janine, the Ghostbusters’ perpetually put upon secretary, is the glue that holds that company together. Fiercely played by Annie Potts, Janine is a frustrated, underpaid and overworked receptionist who nevertheless still has a devotion to the company. Consider this conversation:
Janine: There’s a man from the EPA here to see you. He’s waiting in your office.
Peter: EPA? What’s he want?
Janine: I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been working two weeks without a break and you promised me you’d hire more help.
Peter: Janine, someone with your qualifications would have no problems finding a top flight job in either the food service or housekeeping industries. *walks away*
Janine: I’ve quit better jobs than this
Janine: [answers phone with contempt] Ghostbusters, Whadda ya want?
Janine was my idol. She was whip smart and sassy (“Yeah, it’s a sign all right. Going out of business.”) even if she had to take a bunch of shit from Peter. She also acted on her own libido, trying to hit on the smartest of the Ghostbusters, Egon. Even though she was constantly rejected due to Egon’s geeky cluenessness and/or his asexuality, she does wind up with Louis, the formerly-possessed accountant.
In Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Janine has been replaced by the gorgeous but dumb-as-bricks himbo secretary Kevin, played by the preternaturally handsome Chris Hemsworth. Where Janine was competent but underqualified, Kevin is cartoonishly stupid (“An aquarium is a submarine for fish.”) and hired only because the women have a crush on him (and, if we’re being completely honest, he was hired because he was the only one who applied for the position). Even though Kevin is the only applicant, he has an extended interview process where he goes through a variety of absurd logo designs that seems longer than the Dean’s middle finger scene. You can thank Judd Apatow for ruining comedic timing.
Over the course of 33 years, the change in sexual dynamics is really curious to me. Where Janine was hitting on Egon in semi-subtle ways (“I bet you like to read a lot too.” “Print is dead.” “Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I like to read a lot, myself.”), Kevin is the physical object of the women’s attractions. Instead of Kevin trying to woo one of the female Ghostbusters, it’s Erin who is falling all over herself drooling on his body to the point that Abby even has to call her our on it.
Erin: Kevin? That’s a manly name! My name’s Erin. With an E… for Every… thing you want.
It’s almost like Paul Feig forgot about Janine and is commenting on the Swedish secretary from The Producers, hired only because she looked good in a bikini and would dance to a song so that Zero Mostel could ogle her. That comedy worked because we’re already supposed to think Zero Mostel is a sleazy pig of a man who starts off the movie whoring himself out for money. In ATC, we’re supposed to like Abby and have empathy for her inability to control herself and act in a professional manner. It’s sleazy and gross, but the target of the humor is a different movie. None of the male Ghostbusters sexually objectifyied Janine in the same slimy way Erin objectifies Kevin, even if they devalued her actual contribution.
According to Paul Feig, it’s totally OK to objectify Kevin because he’s a man and he’s dumb as bricks, and they do love him despite his many many quirks. He’s not a bad guy. The prime reason that Kevin exists in the form that is does is so he can provide a physical counterpoint to the villain of the piece and because he’s also a counterpoint to Dana Barrett.
The true villain of Ghostbusters is absent. The mad doctor Ivo Shandor is the rich architect responsible for all of the bad things happening in Ghostbusters, and he died shortly sometime after World War I. He was the type of mad doctor who conducted “unnecessary experiments,” and worshiped the occult. Long ago, after he deemed the world too sick to live, Shandor built Dana’s skyscraper apartment building as a gateway to summon the demon Gozer the Gozerian to destroy the world. With Dana possessed by Zuul (the gatekeeper) and Louis possessed by Vince Clortho (the keymaster), they come together to bring Gozer’s arrival (Gozer takes the form of a lithe female). While Ivo Shandor was responsible for the conjuring, the villain the busters have to defeat is a female model in a skin tight leotard with sharp electric nails; she’s sexualized to the point of being every male fantasy about wicked women. Goozer’s sexualization is only exacerbated by Dana turning into an hypersexual being after being possessed by Zuul.
The villain of Ghostbusters: Answer The Call is far less grand and far more apocalyptic than a dead mad doctor with money. Rowan North is an ugly geek with pimples and a chip on his shoulder. He is insulted by everybody who works with him, can’t get a date, and sees his use of the supernatural as a way for him to control the world. He’s the exact opposite of Kevin the himbo secretary. Rowan is smart, but ugly, sour, and unpopular; Kevin is dumb as bricks, but pretty, popular and blissfully clueless. In a weird double whammy, this gives credence to the idea that pretty people are given free passes through the world while ugly people are relegated to the bottom of the barrel (see: The Neon Demon).
The villains of each film speak to the (sub?)conscious hates of their respective filmmakers. Reitman, Ackroyd and Ramis all had a distaste for the powers that be. National Lampoon’s Animal House takes a shit all over the fraternity system histortically used to separate the elite from the chaff, while not sparing the military, the police, the Dean, and anybody else who had power but didn’t deserve it. Animal House ends by giving the dumbest man of the movie a senatorial position for his future. In both Animal House and Ghostbusters, the villains are the elitist architects who designed and uphold classic structures that created the economic and political swamp which had risen in the 70s and 80s. Ghostbusters takes a far more libertarian tack by also villainizing the EPA and making the NYC mayor out to be a moron who has regular meetings with a Catholic Cardinal that he knows on a first name basis.
The villain in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call speaks to Paul Feig’s distaste for sexist Gamergaters. He seems to consider them as ugly and distasteful dweebs set on making the world as miserable as they are. Feig believes they need to be shot in the dick. He creates an Us vs Them story but his villain Rowan is still just a lowly hotel worker while his heroes are intellectual Doctors. Feig bends over backwards to illustrate the women as just as hard working and put upon as Rowan – to the point that they work out of a Chinese restaurant for economic reasons – but he is clueless on how to separate the economic differences between the women and Rowan. It also weirds his message to be something amorphous as “don’t be miserable ugly shits like this guy; be like this other pretty guy and get yourself to a gym.”
Dana vs Kevin?!
One major glaring difference between Ghostbusters: Answer the Call and Ghostbusters is that ATC doesn’t actually have a steady client or a love interest. The original’s Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) is an upper class cellist whose possessed fridge leads to Peter Venkman obsessing over her. She hires him to investigate her apartment and he hits on her as unprofessionally as Erin hit on Kevin at his interview. The glaring difference between the two characters is that Dana isn’t a moron like Kevin. She’s independent, moneyed (her penthouse apartment in New York is fucking bank), smart, and able to stand on her own (until the dogs attack her).
It’s unfortunate that Dana ends the movie as a Maiden in Distress, and a Trophy for Peter. Despite being an independent character unto herself with her own friends (or possibly boyfriend) and a life of her own, she still falls in love with Peter just because he does his job and saves her life. In ATC, Kevin takes on the Maiden in Distress role after Dead Rowan inhabits his body, but Kevin never becomes the trophy; that is, he never reciprocates the love interests/drools of the female Ghostbusters. Kevin is an object to be visually enjoyed and desired, but he cannot be owned. Additionally, by making Kevin a dumb as bricks Maiden who refuses to become a trophy, Feig is commenting that Reitman underestimated Dana’s worth in original Ghostbusters. By making Dana a trophy to be won, her worth as a brilliant cellist is reduced to being less than stupid secretary with shirtless glamour shots. It’s only in this reflection that Kevin makes the most sense. He isn’t a comment on Janine at all; instead, he exists as a mirror of Rowan, and a reaction to Dana. His presence as a moron suggests that Dana could have been anybody so long as she was possessed and had to be saved by the Ghostbusters.
Economics and Politics
1984 was just following a crushing American economic recession that had the highest unemployment rates since the 1930s. In December of 1982, the average unemployment rate was over 10%, with Flint, Michigan reaching 23%. In New York City, however, the unemployment was below the national average hovering just under 10%. Inflation was skyrocketing so much all of the numbers cited in the screenplay got jacked up (ex. the interest rate on Ray’s 2 car loans jumped by $20k).
Ghostbusters was released in the summer of Reagan’s re-election campaign following a recession and minor recovery that bore his name. Tellingly, the economy is all over this weird science fiction movie. Ray and Peter get fired from their cushy jobs at Columbia University, causing them to start the company out of worry for their economic status.
Venkman: “Einstein did his best work as a patent clerk.”
Stantz: “Do you know how much a patent clerk earns!?”
They get a triple mortgage on Ray’s family farm with an exceedingly high interest rate (due to a high federal interest rate) and are able to find an overpriced fire station to house their startup business. They can use the capital to buy ads on local television stations. In a statement on the devaluation of work and the importance of doing your own thing, The Waldorf Astoria almost refuses to pay their very high bill of $5,000 (especially after they destroyed a gorgeous ballroom).
The unemployment rates also get some attention. There was the earlier dig at Janine’s qualifications that doubles as a statement on the high unemployment rate and her need to keep the job. And there’s also Winston Zeddimore’s getting hired in after Ghostbusters became a raving success.
Janine: Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?
Winston: Ah, if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.
Desperate times calls for desperate measures, right? Not that the Ghostbusters were model employers (see, again, the quick bit of dialogue with Janine where they refuse to hire more help and she’s exhausted). They’re capitalist jerks just like the rest of America. They’re just as guilty of the pro-business anti-worker sentimentality that defined 1980s culture as anybody.
The politics of the 1984 Ghostbusters were, actually, decidedly libertarian. They do run around with unlicensed nuclear accelerators on their backs. They do have an unlicensed nuclear containment system in the basement. And, they seem to believe that the EPA is just a bunch of regulatory red tape nuts running around trying to stifle growing small businesses. When the Ghostbusters and the EPA have a showdown in front of the Mayor, the Mayor only sides with the Ghostbusters because Venkman dangles the lives of millions of registered voters in front of him. Ghostbusters has a low opinion of government and all of its little regulatory policies.
In Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, the politics are far more subdued and decidedly more friendly to the government in power (Obama). There is no employment shortage, and there is so much money flowing they can’t afford the fire station anymore. Instead, they have to settle for free rent at the Chinese restaurant in exchange for working there on occasion. Ghostbusters is, oddly, arguing for the morality of a trade economy.
There’s also a meeting with the Mayor and the Department of Homeland Security (a bigger evil to Paul Feig than the EPA), where the DHS tries to shut the Ghostbusters down. Sadly, this meeting is massively sidetracked by bizarre go nowhere jokes.
DHS Lady: We’re just worried you’re drawing a lot of attention to yourselves.
Erin: Patty does wear big earrings.
Patty: If it’s a crime to look good, guilty as charged.
DHS Guy: You drive a hearse with a distinctly American sounding siren.
Patty: We do.
DHS Guy: Do you have any idea how many regulations you’re breaking on a daily basis?
DHS Guy #2: No.
DHS Guy #2: No.
Holtz: Is it one?
DHS Guy #2: Just…sit quietly.
That’s not entirely fair. Paul Feig has a distinct opinion that the DHS and the Federal government uses their influence to lie to the American people and hush up big alien conspiracies, and that they believe its all for the good of the people. It’s a strangely not-anti-DHS take that Feig doesn’t really criticize the DHS or have the women fight the government as hard as the men did.
It’s not that ATC is a decidedly more pro-government movie than Ghostbusters was, it’s just that Ghostbusters was such a cynical movie set in a cynical era just after a pair of epic recessions following the US Government’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Answer the Call doesn’t have the guts to really take a stand for or against anything political. These scenes with the mayor seem to be purely a fan service-y attempt to recall plot points from the original even as Feig curbs the rampant political cynicism that defined those politics.
The women do have one more scene with the Mayor where Erin confronts him at a fancy restaurant to make him shut off the power grid. Even there, he acts in accordance with the wrong-headed DHS take. There’s even a desperate comparison to the mayor in Jaws that feels like a pop-culture version of Venkman’s “save the lives of millions of registered voters.”
Much like Rough Night, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is a movie created almost entirely out of a political reaction to Ghostbusters. On its own, some of the choices make little sense (hiring Kevin) and some of the plotting seems unnecessary, but when thought of with the original, Answer the Call wants to be a feminist post-modern reaction to the 32-year-old film. Certainly, Answer the Call does a lot of updating, especially in terms of the comedy style (ATC employs a very slack pacing and plotting compared with the original’s hard driving momentum) and effects (the digital effects do allow for more amazing stunts than the original’s practical effects). While giving the lead of a major blockbuster special effects extravaganza exclusively to women is a laudable achievement, ultimately, Answer the Call suffers from being a series of reactions to the original’s politics without standing enough on its own.
That’s not to say that Ghostbusters is unimpeachable. Certainly, it does have a bunch of boy’s club politics, and it does have that whole “Save the Day, Get the Woman” mentality. It does have an unfortunately low view of the EPA and government regulation in general. It does have promote the whole devaluation of employees who aren’t the boss. Ghostbusters has some weird politics that seem distasteful in the modern era. It sexualizes women from a male gaze (especially the female ghost blowjob dream). It’s not a perfect movie, and it certainly can be deconstructed from a million different viewpoints. The question remains: does Answer the Call deconstruct Ghostbusters effectively, and is Answer the Call able to stand on its own?