Ghostbusters 2016 - How it Could Have Worked

Jack Spengleson and Seth Venkwynn

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ is currently getting extremely positive reviews due to treating the source material with reverence and respect, but it wasn’t always like that. In 2016 a film came out that took the original movies and took a gigantic shit on them. Talentless hack director and producer, Paul Feig, decided to take a load of other people’s money and flush it down the toilet. He thought that the best way to do that was to find a near-perfect and beloved movie, and simply remake it really, really badly. He then went on to explain to everyone that this wasn’t a terrible idea, and accused his audience of being horrible people, but they saw through it as flimsy, ill-conceived nonsense.

His film was as doomed to fail as a surprise birthday party in a social anxiety ward. It was widely believed that there was no way it could have been worse, even if the principal cast was entirely made up of dogs, the script had just been a roll of used toilet paper, and the director was just a pile of greasy, congealed crap scraped off from the cleaning tray at the bottom of an oven. While that holds generally true, at least J.J. Abrams stayed uninvolved since he was probably too busy seeing if there were any beloved science-fiction properties left to ruin. 

But, when I watched this film, the idea of how it could have been worse wasn’t foremost on my mind. I started wondering how it could have been good. 

Let’s establish right off that this film was never going to be better than the original. Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t as good as the first movie but it succeeds within the context of that because it knows what it is and doesn’t try to convince anyone otherwise. 

But, for all the things that GB16 wasn’t, there was no need for it to be such a huge, and monumental disaster, universally despised by fans and casual viewers alike. A competent team could have made a movie that might just have managed to work, and the explosion in sales of ‘Paul Feig’ Voodoo dolls might not have needed to happen.

The first thing people always mention is the fact that it has an all female cast. Gender-swapping is never a good sign in Hollywood, but not always for the reasons people think. It’s used most often to drive the identity-politics of the creators, and the story almost always suffers for it. When characters are race or gender-swapped it’s a sure sign that competent writers will be swapped out too, to be replaced with ‘activists’ who only get work by blaming everyone else for stuff.

For the most part, people largely aren’t complaining about female or diverse casts, they’re annoyed at badly written stories, and unbelievable characters. Nobody bitched and moaned at Ripley in Aliens, Sarah Connor in Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop or that vampire thing with Wesley Snipes. 

If you’re going to make a Ghostbusters movie, then it makes good sense that it somehow differentiates itself from previous incarnations. If you’re not using the original cast and making a direct sequel then you need this movie to be new and to stand up on its own merits. When you consider changing the idea or changing the format, then going with a female version of the cast isn’t actually a bad idea. It should serve to give the film a new twist and help establish a unique identity when viewed against the other, better films. 

The all-female cast really could have worked, if the makers of the film were interested in telling a good story, and not just doing it for novelty value, or to promote their political views. Ironically, the very fact of one, disproves the other. Women, by nature, are different to men, and there could have been a lot of comedy in seeing the same kinds of situations in a new and different way. There would have had to have been all new jokes, taking the story off in a new direction, perhaps in directions a male cast simply couldn’t have taken it. 

One of the problems with an all female cast is in what audience the movie is being pitched at. Women don’t go to see sci-fi comedies in large numbers. Those movies attract a predominantly male audience, and if you want to make a film for them, you need to give them something that they want to see. One of many, many areas where Hollywood fails is that they’ve forgotten why people go to the cinema. They’ve got so used to thinking that they can tell their paying customers what to watch, that they have forgotten that they’re supposed to be providing a service to them.

One of the main reasons that people go to watch a movie is to fulfil a fantasy. Men like to watch James Bond movies and action films with ridiculously strong and powerful men. They want to imagine being that character, just for a moment. Female characters like Ellen Ripley from Aliens appeal in a very different way, by being relatable. She’s smart, hard-working and down to earth. Men can relate to her because she’s the sort of person they’d respect if they met her in real life, and her gender is no issue to them. 

Female characters like Harley Quin, from suicide squad are beautiful and intriguing and would likely have no interest in interacting with the average man, in any case. They’re fun to watch because they’re a woman that a man can fantasise about spending time with, although in reality, they know it would never happen. 

What women fantasise about is very different. If they’re watching a male-led film then they generally want a strong, masculine and confident man who stays in control. If they’re watching a film where the lead is female, they want to see someone enjoying the success they want for themselves. 

In both cases of men and women wanting different things from their fiction, it’s really largely the same. When you get right down to it, they all want characters that they can relate to, but are interesting. They want to imagine being that person, just for a little while, and to enjoy the experience. 

What nobody wants is to be jarred out of the narrative experience with poorly-written characters, bad dialogue, a lack of plot and constant pushing of political agendas. 

So, once we start to peel back the layers, we see that the problem with Ghostbusters isn’t that the cast was women, it was that they were women that nobody wanted to watch. They alienated the female portion of the audience by not being women that anyone wanted to be, and the males by not being women that anyone would want to be around. They were loud, annoying, they shouted over one another, they barely seemed to make sense and they acted in ways that the audience couldn’t relate to. These weren’t people anyone would enjoy having as a friend—these were types of people you would want to get away from as quickly as possible. 

So, to make this movie work, it needs a new set of characters. They will still be women, but it has to be women that are likeable, fun, relatable and interesting. They don’t need to be perfect, they need to entertain, and we need to care what happens to them. 

So let’s imagine what this could have been…

First, we need an everyman character, she’s relatable to the audience because they can easily understand her. She’s, perhaps, a professional by trade, an electrical engineer who has somehow got caught up in it all by signing a contract she couldn’t be bothered to read. She’s the one building the equipment and grumbling about working too many hours for too little money. 

Next we could have an intelligent one. She could be socially difficult in some way: she should struggle to relate well to others, but still be quite endearing. She should be an intellectual, more interested in books and theory, but has become isolated and alone.

Also we could have one who has an interesting quirk. She’s been single for way too long, maybe, and is a bit too forward with the men she meets. She’s the butt of the humour from the others, who laugh at her and make jokes about her biological clock running out. 

Our last could be the one who absolutely doesn’t fit in. She’s the attractive, but shallow one, who has coasted along on her looks and her parent’s money. But, when things get serious, she finds courage within herself that she never knew she had, and impresses them all with her new confidence and attitude. 

You see, it doesn’t matter that they’re women, it matters that they’re interesting women to watch, for all sides of the audience. 

 

One of the other major issues with this movie is that it doesn’t have its own identity. Having the all female cast made it different from the all male cast of the original, but we could just as easily have made the cast all European, all have beards, or all very much older. This film lacks an identity, because the filmmakers didn’t have the foresight to give it one. 

What it eventually became is more or less a copy of the original. It tries to take the story elements from the first Ghostbusters movie and just remake them in a slightly different way. Is it a reboot? Does it try to say that it’s a new telling of the same story? Is it a sequel? Does it try to exist in the same universe as the other films? Does it have the confidence to be its own thing? Or does it just take older, better source material and just try to copy it again? There’s not enough original about this film to make it stand out as its own thing, nor is there enough to call it a hard reboot.

The audience doesn’t know what it is because the film didn’t know what it was, so the whole thing just falls flat. All this shows a lack of planning from the outset, like the leadership behind it had no clear vision of what it was trying to do. So, obviously, we end up with a mess of different ideas, since nobody was really in charge of anything. 

The film needed its own story, not to just rehash the original ideas. It could very easily have been a sequel, a movie that continued from where everything else had been left off, just with a completely new set of characters. 

Bill Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, mentioned franchising rights at the beginning of the first film. That could have been worked in so that this new group of Ghostbusters were a team that had bought the franchise for their local area. That would have tied in directly to the first film and wouldn’t have annoyed anyone, since it could have been a whole new story that built on the foundations that had already been established. It could have been something new, with updated equipment and costumes, and still been familiar too. 

The city this group were working in, and ideally not the same city, now has a number of these franchises and ghost sightings are increasingly rare. But, something is beginning to happen in the quietest neighbourhood in town—a place where the least qualified Ghostbusters are operating.

 

The next problem—and it isn’t easy to narrow it down to the main problems, as this mess was mostly all problems to some degree—was the quality of the production. The original film was well-made by very competent professionals, the cast were seasoned comedians and actors who knew one another and had worked together before. Members of the cast wrote the script, using their knowledge and experience of comedy to develop their ideas. They had already produced funny movies before, perhaps not to this scale and on this budget level, but certainly of a high standard. The director had worked with them too, and had a history of successful comedy movies behind him. 

In all aspects of the original, you could go back through the previous movies these people had worked on and see their development. They were working towards making this film, getting better every time through their hard work and understanding of the material. The end product was a well-made, polished film that had wide appeal. It was intelligent, fun, different and interesting. It broke new ground, but also had its roots in simple, classic storytelling. 

 

The 2016 version had none of that. The director had nothing of note behind him. If you look at his history, you can see that he’s only managed a few hit and miss films that were really just light comedies that only barely connected with the audience. Mostly he’s known for a handful of television shows of lacklustre appeal. 

The difference was that the original director had a love for the work, where Paul Fieg was just crawling along, trying to make a name for himself off of the talent of better people. The writer had only turned out a handful of hit and miss things as well and the cast were known more for their failures than their successes. 

This thing seems slapped together like a fast food burger. The whole production screams of misplaced hubris, the entire cast and production team just seem totally out of their depth, and are intimidated by the gigantic shoes they’ve somehow managed to get the opportunity to walk in. 

It feels like seeing a picture of the Mona Lisa with a small hand-drawn version next to it that a child has made in crayon. You can’t create a quality product without quality ingredients. It’s like an attempt at producing beef wellington with a tesco horseburger and a pack of ramen noodles. 

So, to make this work they needed to assemble a team that’s equal to the original. We need a group of comedy geniuses who have worked together before, and have onscreen chemistry. We need a director who is still young enough to take risks, but has a clear and proven track record that shows they’re ready for this challenge. We need to get quality people together at every level. 

The next problem goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. The film simply lacks that magic ingredient that made the original so very special in the hearts and minds of the audience, and it’s something sorely missing in modern productions. 

 

Originality.

 

Ghostbusters was original. It was a brand new concept, and it worked well because it was something we’d never seen before. These were a bunch of relatable, but slightly eccentric characters who seemed just like any other working guys. They used cobbled-together equipment, to a horrifyingly incompetent degree, to eliminate ghosts. It was a great concept and it resonated successfully with the audience. The entire idea was funny, right from the start. 

It’s a lot like Robocop, from the same era. It was a parody of the kind of action films it stood shoulder to shoulder with. It made jokes about the world around it in clever and subtle ways. Then, it was remade by Hollywood by people who really hadn’t understood the original source material. The end product looked like it had escaped out the back door of a low-level video rental shop. It was a disaster because the originality was gone and what was left was just a pale imitation. 

It’s the same with Ghostbusters 2016. It simply can’t be original because its revenue relies on the established name of the brand it’s copying. In ghostbusters or robocop, there would likely have been no sales at all, if it hadn’t been for curious and nostalgic people going to see what they’d done to their favourite movies. Of course, that was the plan! 

So, how could they have made it original? The only way would have been to create something truly new. It could have still been a homage to the movie it was trying to emulate, but it needed to be so different that it could stand up as a unique product without needing for the audience to be so invested in the franchise that the movie didn’t have to try. 

First, we have to assemble our team. Well, instead of making them work together, how about we give them a different motivation for being in this situation? Let’s have them doing community-service while on parole. That gives us a unique way of putting them in the same place; it gives them an edgy, interesting back story and makes perfect sense for why they’re all female. 

Let’s put them in a ‘fish out of water’ scenario; let’s put them in the sewers, because their parole-officer likes making their lives difficult. 

At this point, the jokes are writing themselves. 

They can make a discovery down there, something scary and awful that threatens the whole city, such as a hidden tomb filled with terrifying creatures. Nobody believes them, so they have no choice but to bring their unique personalities to bear, in order to solve the problem. 

We take the story beats of the original. We take the ideas that work and then strike out with a totally new movie that doesn’t even need to share its name. We could have made a film that actually took what works about the original and used it to inspire something new, instead of just latching a talentless copy to the name of a superior production. 

 

So these are just a few ideas of how to take a disaster, and make something that might work out of it. What went wrong with this movie is a lack of direction. It was made by people who only cared about making a name for themselves, and had no interest in the art of the film they were making. The film ended up a mess because of a lack of leadership and vision. 

The cast didn’t work, they just shouted over one another, all trying to get more attention. It was just painful to watch because these people had no chemistry and no interest in what they were doing. It was just a childish and cynical shoving match for career progression, at the expense of the audience. 

It needed characters that worked, people who felt real and appealed to the entire audience. It needed a story that knew what it wanted to be and engaged with people both intellectually and emotionally. 

It needed enough originality to be able to do its own thing, and it needed to know who it was aimed at. 

And, finally, it needed a director who didn’t insult his audience. Paul Feig attacked critics of his ideas by accusing them of sexism. Tim Miller did the same with Terminator Dark Fate, as did the production team of Star Wars and the gloriously disastrous Charlie’s Angels reboot that nobody asked for. In all of these cases, the studio put out an inferior product and then insulted the audience for not liking it. It’s a childish tactic and it has ruined franchises. 

At least Tim Miller had the good grace to admit he’d misread the audience and admitted he had been wrong. 

So Ghostbusters 16 was a glorious mess. It looked like you were watching a movie after being pepper-sprayed and hit in the head with a beanbag fired from a shotgun, but it didn’t need to be. All it needed was the freedom to express itself in a unique way, and to be made by competent artists who actually understood and cared about what they were doing. 

Hollywood has become nothing more than a cynical exercise in making money, while driving its own politics. Get back to making movies people like, or it will all soon be over. They need competent directors and brave producers who are willing to take risks; we need actors with their own personalities, and we need stories with real vision. We don’t need Paul Feig, who actively insults women by using them as a novelty tactic to advance his career, and then attacks his audience for seeing through it. 

These people need to remember that these movies are made for the audience—their products belong to them, not to the studios. The buying public is reminding them of that now and they might be waking up to it. 

We’ll see. 

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