It’s unclear why this new Ghostbusters—of all possible remakes, of all possible movies to be remade with a female cast—would inspire such overwhelming petulance. After all, what should be obvious to anyone not trapped in his own nostalgia is that communicating with spirits has always been the provenance of women.
Well ... the history of what is sometimes called necromancy hasn't always been the provenance of women, has it? Is it possible that within the history of the United States it has been stereotypically associated with women?
The original Ghostbusters made clear from the outset it was having none of this. When they’re called to a ghost sighting at the New York Public Library, one of the first questions Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman asks the elderly librarian who’s witnessed the ghost is, “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” It’s more than a lazy joke. Original cast-member Dan Aykroyd has said that “Part of Ghostbusters’ appeal derives from the cold, rational, acceptance-of-the-fantastic-as-routine tone that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman, and I were able to sustain in the movie.” When men see ghosts, they do so as rational, thoughtful scientists. When women see the same ghosts, they’re hysterical.
Even accounting for the politics of the era, it’s difficult to understate the amount of sexism in the original film. As Andy Hoglund wrote for The Daily Beast, “It is not ghosts that haunt the film’s protagonists; it’s their inability to connect with women.” From the open disdain towards women from Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) to Murray’s predatory behavior (Our first glimpse of him is rigging a Milgram-esque psychology experiment to hook up with an undergraduate), what unites the Ghostbusters is that they’re man-children, alternately befuddled by and contemptuous of women. In the film’s, um, climactic sequence, as the Ghostbusters face the Sumerian god Gozer (who’s taken the form of a naked woman), Murray’s Venkman shouts instructions: “Grab your sticks! Heat ‘em up! Make ‘em hard! Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown…throw it!” Whatever was once subtext is now simply text, as ghostbusting becomes more or less indistinguishable from a rape fantasy. [emphasis added]
I didn't like the movie so much as to consider it a formative part of my childhood but for those that did ... Dickey just declared that the culmination of Ghostbusters is a straight up rape fantasy. Well, there you go, I guess--saying that the driving impetus of the entire film is a rape fantasy might explain why anyone who was a fan of the original film might freak out about the gender inversion ... assuming people have such simplistic definitions of gender now that a simple "inversion" within accepted binary stereotypes is sufficient for a turnabout-is-fair-play thing.
Given what writers have managed to say about how retrograde the racial and sexual politics of the film was back in the 1980s ... it's strange that writers defending the franchise should defend it on the basis of how women are the line-up of the quartet. But ... if the sexual and racial politics of the original were as bad as people say then what ... exactly ... was the aim in the reboot? This is far less a concern about the direction, the scripting or the cast than the studio.
Now Dickey's got a forthcoming book to sell so at this point it makes sense that what passes for cultural analysis and film criticism is ultimately ALSO about selling books. It's just that, well, sometimes it can feel as though the news peg of a film as the opportunity to comment about the film in a way that promotes content from the book can hijack a discussion of the film itself.
Dickey leading so earnestly (and, lacking a clear memory of a film I haven't watched in decades, somewhat persuasively) made the case that a beloved cult classic of the 1980s is basically a rape fantasy, there was plenty of time between paragraphs 3 and 10 being written to go back and redact the part about things being "unclear". One of the key points of Dickey's essay was to explain how retrograde the sexual/racial politics of the 1980s film were which could have become a commentary on the perceived backlash. I mean, if the whole point of the film was a rape fantasy then Dickey's case implicitly says everyone who loved the 1980s original loves a rape fantasy and that they're objection to the gender reversal thing would be an objection to ... would it be too crude to suggest that the subtextual rapist fans of a rape fantasy film original would feel as though they were put on the receiving rather than the giving end of the fantasy? It's all pretty gruesome if stated directly and yet it would seem Dickey's point would have been more ... potent (?) if made more directly?
But then there are the reviews at large ... and then there's also the not incidental detail about the studio's investment in this thing.
Here's the bad news: This movie cost $144 million after tax incentives and rebates. It had a P&A (promotional and advertising) spend rumored to be over $100 million. That puts the total amount Sony sunk into this movie in the $250 million range, which is ... a lot for a comedy. Like: a lot. Box Office Mojo is predicting a total domestic run in the $135–$145 million range, which would barely be enough to earn back its production budget. And unlike similar openers from last year, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Hotel Transylvania 2, Sony can't rely on overseas audiences to significantly boost that number.
In hindsight, it seems absurd: Why would Sony spend superhero money on a comedy? Feig's track record is impressive, but it's impressive because he tends to make sensibly budgeted movies that deliver a significant return on investment: Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy cost $32.5 million, $43 million, and $65 million, respectably.
The answer resides in the Sony leak. Hundreds of emails leaked in early 2015 were related to the reboot of Ghostbusters. But the most interesting of them all — more interesting than their attempts to hire Christopher Lord and Phil Miller to do Ghostbusters 3; more interesting than the efforts to balance power between Ivan Reitman and Paul Feig; more interesting than the dozens of actors, writers, and directors who tried to get themselves attached to Ghostbusters — is one Amy Pascal, then co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, sent to Michael De Luca, then Sony's president of production, that frames everything in a much more understandable, if not entirely defensible, light: They were hoping Ghostbusters would be the basis of a Marvel-like universe for Sony. [emphases added]
Richard Brody's recent commentary was that this new Ghostbusters film was more of the kind of film he'd like to see, just not in the disappointingly pedestrian way the studio has ultimately rolled it out. The problem may be at the level of conception. It "might" be easier to have a break out comedy if you're planning things on a film by film basis without necessarily planning in advance to have a franchise that takes over the Cineplex. Not every reboot needs a reboot and there may be a danger in presuming upon the solidity of the franchise brand as the basis for a new cash cow in a new context.
So even if the new Ghostbusters movie is okay, the trouble is the studio needs to be more than just okay.
Meanwhile, Colin Dickey has a book that will be coming out later about spiritualism. The recently released Ghostbusters movie provided an opportunity that The New Republic regarded as a suitable occasion for what turned out to not quite be a film review. Because, after all, in the wake of the bro-fest that was Batman vs Superman let's not treat this latest attempt at founding a franchise in advance of the success of the film as another example of cynical studio presumption because, after all, the leads are female.
If the director and cast had been tasked with merely a remake that wasn't also freighted with the studio expectation that this would be Sony's equivalent of the Marvel cinematic universe it seems we'd be talking about a very differently made film, a different film altogether. So, ironically, while the 1980s cult classic became one about slacker guys hunting ghosts as if they were neighborhood pest control, the reboot is paradoxically a cosmic-level affirmation of a double standard, the new quartet in this new film has to live up to impossible franchise expectations that were not in place for the male original. That's ... not exactly a reversal of gender anything, is it?
I have been surprised by the reviews of the film, not because there have been cautiously positive reviews for it (that's not really a surprise, given who was involved) but because it seems film critics want this film to have been funnier and more compelling than they can honestly report it being. Considering the cast it would seem that ... well, Ghostbusters in 2016 might be The Three Amigos of this decade, a comedic film in which, once you've factored in the sum of the parts and consider how hilarious you think the film SHOULD be you get to the end of it and say "Well, I had fun but .... but ... that was IT!?" Only it was relatively clear decades ago no studio was expecting The Three Amigos to turn into a potential nine movie franchise.