Stepping back into paranormal elimination territory proves relevant, irreverent, anarchic and delightful.

 Image: The cast of Ghostbusters photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures.

With nostalgia dominating screen content, there's a balance every sequel, remake and reboot seeks to master. Recognising the past, revelling in the present, and paving a path for the future is tricky task – though given the number of films that fail to achieve this feat, it's hardly surprising. Above all else: stepping back into a familiar world should be enjoyable; recapturing just why a particular property engaged audiences to begin with and never letting winking and nodding obfuscate the fresh spin placed upon the material. 

That's Ghostbusters circa 2016 from start to finish, whether its commencing with things going bump in a significant location, toying with gender dynamics in both overt and subtle ways, throwing its own memorable scenes – including mayhem at a heavy metal concert – into the mix, showering the screen in torrents of 3D slime when it can, or ending in a manner that's both anticipated and earned.

Writer/director Paul Feig (Spy), co-scribe Katie Dippold (TV's Parks and Recreation) and the cast of talented comedians know that viewers are acquainted with the 1984 version and its 1989 sequel, acknowledge their forebears gleefully and approach their addition to the fold as a smiling celebration for the twenty-first century. 

Indeed, former childhood pals Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig, Zoolander 2) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy, The Boss) can't shake their enormous grins when they spy their first otherworldly entity – not only repairing their damaged friendship in the process but also validating their supernatural field of study. With nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live) in tow, the scientists swiftly scope out properties to set up their new ghost-busting business and enlist handsome but far from bright receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, The Huntsman: Winter's War) to field calls. A second spirit-infested incident brings subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, Top Five) to the team, complete with an in-depth knowledge of New York's murky history.

A raft of expected elements litter their escapades: a well-known name, logo, vehicle, tools and outfits; a recognisable quest to rid the city from a growing number of spectral presences; similar narrative structure and character dynamics; a common preference for somewhat low key-looking special effects; and the customary cameos from previous Ghostbusters veterans among them. Though every shout-out remains obvious, they're also endearing in keeping with the film's air of clumsy goofiness. Feig and company's take isn't burdened with an overwrought sense of calculation – it's infectiously affectionate and happy to adoringly reinterpret more than ape, while also cognisant of the idolised world it's stepping into. Hence the frequently beaming faces in the majority of frames, expressing the joy of figures happy to be doing what they love (or to be taking a moment to throw some appreciation Patrick Swayze's way). And the fact that it's not difficult to perceive the same look gracing the feature's behind-the-scenes talent. 

Placed front-and-centre as Ghostbusters' professional paranormal eliminators, it's the cast's key quartet, of course, that convey the bulk of the film's gusto. Whereas Feig's enthusiasm occasionally manifests in shaggy touches – as the flimsiness of the underlying story and its main adversary makes plain, as well as the movie's loose editing and generally rambling nature the same can't be said for his lead performers. After sharing the screen in the director's 2011 comedy hit Bridesmaids, Wiig and McCarthy play to their strengths but without encroaching upon exaggeration, and present a warm portrait of female friendship as a result. Jones gets many of the script's best and sassiest lines but similarly avoids veering into broad caricature; however it is McKinnon's rubber-faced commitment of the eccentricities of her character that proves the highlight of the feature, alongside a comparably gloriously humorous supporting turn by Hemsworth as a manifestation of male privilege. 

Busting ghosts visibly, engagingly and amusingly makes these professional paranormal eliminators feel good, though regardless of what a certain catchy theme has led audiences to believe over the last three decades – that's not their only agenda. Now, just as it did then, the film provides an examination of forming, exploring, and accepting an outsider persona, with its protagonists not only fighting their floating, glowing, oozing foes, but for acceptance. While it's a sad state of affairs when a feature that focuses on a section of the population proving themselves to naysayers is forced to do the same, Ghostbusters takes its challenge and runs with it into fun, funny, and ever-fitting territory.

When Wiig's Erin and McCarthy's Abby read the online comments responding to the first video of the group's otherworldly encounters, mockingly spitting out 'ain't no bitches gonna bust no ghosts' in defiance of detractors on-screen and off, the movie might be at its most blatant – but it's also winningly relevant, irreverent, anarchic, and delightful.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5


Director: Paul Feig
USA 2016 116 mins
Release date: July 14
Distributor: Sony
Rated: PG


Sarah Ward

Thursday 14 July, 2016

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay