“Ghostbusters,” “Jason Bourne,” & “Star Trek Beyond” (2016): Out with the Old, In with the Nu (Review)
I have a new rule. From now on, whenever a franchise is remade or rebooted with either an identical title or same basic premise, I will stick a “nu” in front of their title, so to not confuse them with the originals. This is what an “artistic” business model with no creativity forces upon me. Apparently since there are no new ideas, there can only be nu ideas.
With that in mind, let me also note that I fell asleep during nu-Ghostbusters.
No, I’m not kidding. It’s rare enough for a movie to make me cry, but to actually roll my eyes into a state of slumber is something no movie (discounting what I’ve watched on plane rides) has done to me in years. Although I got greater utility from the extra half-hour of sleep, I did finish the movie.
Few will appreciate the extent to which I genuinely did not wish to dislike this film. I’m no “GhostBro.” Yes, remaking or rebooting classics ought to be presumed as a bad idea (Rich gets the credit for acknowledging this before I did), and the original Ghostbusters is the rare kind of lightning in a timeless bottle that no remake of any kind could ever hope to rival. But if we had to get one, there was no reason why they couldn’t all be women. Forget the “jihad for representation” stuff for a moment; these are new characters more than three decades later. Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddmore are now immortal, and even Google Docs – upon which I wrote this review – didn’t squiggle red under their names. And if that wasn’t enough, the great joy of the original was that there wasn’t anything special about those specific guys that made them “chosen” to be the guardians of the human world against Old Testament revenge. They were three misfit scientists and one blue collar every-man in goofy outfits who took the fight to the monsters in your closet with nothing but comedic teamwork and radioactive gadgets. And all the effects of that film were put to the benefit of the comedic actors at center-screen.
In other words, with the right actors (Melissa McCarthy can’t convince as even a quirky scientist but she’s reliably funny in most other things she’s in, and Kate McKinnon does no wrong in her past impressions of Justin Bieber, Ellen DeGeneres, and Hillary Clinton) and solid central premise, there is no reason why nu-GhostBusters couldn’t have been a solid summer comedy. Then its marketing team seemingly dropped the ball (actually, what you saw in the trailer are the film’s best jokes), and the chicken-egg controversy began – namely the pointless and irascible squealing by the children of the Internet about the cast, followed (and in some ways preceded) inevitably by the white-hot faux-chivalrous rage of a film press desperate to be relevant. If I was an alien visiting Earth and this was the first thing I saw, I’d probably think that a woman has never starred in a film before. Like they did upon the release of Mad Max: Fury Road, the mainstream critics shirked all pretense of impartiality and patience and took up arms against the scourge of the Web. And then that scourge turned its wrath upon Leslie Jones for the apparent crime of being black and loud. There are no depths of the jejune that zealots (Left or Right) will not descend to in pursuit of their vaunted causes.
So I chose to give this movie a couple weeks. By then I’d have forgotten all the noise I couldn’t previously avoid and could then simply watch a movie and tell you about it.
And here’s the verdict: nu-Ghostbusters is a bad movie, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the stars are all women, or that none of them are swimsuit models.
Firstly it isn’t funny. I smirked all but once in the time I stayed awake, and I’m about as tough a crowd as a schoolgirl talking to her crush. It’s as if every other page of the script was blank because half the dialogue is improv and said improv doesn’t once surpass “we’re, like, really weird, right?” It’s fine for characters to spend most of the movie screwing around (you don’t see me complain about the apparent wheel-spinning in Shane Black’s filmography because in his tightly-wound zany narratives, every fragment of belabored comedy has a purpose), but in nu-Ghostbusters it serves as time killing for its own sake. Every scene could be resolved in less than half the time. Some are just baffling in their unfunniness the more I think about them, like when a guy asks the Ghostbusters to come to his tourist-attraction haunted house, they get there only to find that the owner has been dead for years… and then the guy shows up and says “sorry, I forgot to mention that I’m the son with the same name.” Where exactly was the joke supposed to be?
Also, is this a remake or reboot, because I’m not sure this film has made a decision. The old actors make their cameos but are decidedly not playing their old characters, but at another point it is revealed that ghosts have terrorized the cities before and the public “has a short memory,” and the person saying this is explaining that she has to discredit the nu-busters in public but in secret knows that they’re legit.
The self awareness doesn’t help it either. This is almost starting to become a problem in films, and I wish I was a better critic so I could write about this. The mere fact that your film hat tips its own issues or makes ironic remarks does not magically make them go away or guide your narrative around them. The nu-busters getting annoyed at YouTube comments that mimic the real-life reactions to their movie isn’t funny, and the final boss taunting them by telling them that they shoot like girls doesn’t make their fight against him more compelling. It’s just sad that the film and the actors appear to be trying so hard to no avail.
And this is all to say nothing of the villain – an indignant nerd plumber who’d be a likely mass shooter if unleashing ghosts upon the city wasn’t an option – or the final action sequence. It’s meant to recall the Battle of New York in The Avengers, but really plays out like an Expendables movie with the four using one incomprehensible gadget after another and inventing action catch phrases like they’re Drax the Destroyer. It’s messy, tiresome, and – again – not funny.
All in all, nu-Ghostbusters has some moments that I can see others enjoying, but it trivializes everything from the original property to the central comedic presence of weirdos taking on ghosts, something even Danny Phantom couldn’t do. The ghosts of the original had personalities and unique habits; you could sense that the Ghostbusters weren’t necessarily there to just exterminate them all but just keep them check. Call it the Men in Black before Men in Black (dang, I really am a child of the ‘90s). Now the ghosts are just goofy, and it’s a whole ‘lotta bally-hoopla over nothing.
So let’s leave the ghosts in our closets and move onto espionage “realism” with Jason Bourne.
Nope, this one doesn’t work either. Whether it’s The Bourne Legacy or this cynical celluloid cyanide, post-The Bourne Ultimatum nu-Bourne mirrors the behavior of a necrophiliac on sloppy seconds (the abysmal Green Zone got there first). It’s trying to resurrect and indulge upon a series that everyone liked at the time but now probably shouldn’t revisit for fear that the original trilogy will reveal itself to be little more than pretty good.
For the record, that’s where I’m at; I liked the movies at the time and I still think they’re okay but I can’t get enthralled with them, especially when I don’t remember any villain names or each film’s specific plot details other than Treadstone, Blackbriar, and a royal murder. And time since then reveals director Paul Greengrass a one-trick pony given the overlong, mediocre mess that was Captain Phillips.
Nu-Bourne somehow feels more deleterious than even nu-Ghostbusters. Whereas nu-Ghostbusters both upholds and trivializes the legacy of the original by accident, nu-Bourne has no regard for anything in the original trilogy that might be in its way. Perhaps the best thing you could say about the original trilogy is that they ended right where they should have, on the twist that instead of being some brainwashed victim of the U.S. government committing covert atrocities that his asinine conscience feels remorseful for, he volunteered for it. But nu-Bourne goes even further on the leftist action blockbuster mess-making with one reveal after another attempting to “contextualize” and show the dubious “circumstances” that led him to make the “choice” to volunteer, because David Webb is apparently incapable of making a choice he later regrets. It even tries to sell the idea of character blowback from something Bourne did in The Bourne Ultimatum. Nearly a decade after that conclusion and the best they could come up (and not even a proper title) with was to keep working backwards like a reverse equation.
I think the film’s explanation makes sense, and I won’t give it away, but plot, though serviceable, still isn’t much of an asset. It ends on another franchise attempt, which I can’t imagine Matt Damon could possibly be interested in for reasons other than a steady mid-life paycheck and an excuse to get himself in as good shape as Ben Affleck did for Batman. Otherwise, the series has always attempted to mine the age of surveillance-state cynicism for traces of the heroic ideal, who kicks butt and saves the world, but then incessantly apologizes for the rubble left in his wake. Now, however, poor Jason Bourne/David Webb feels more like a victim of an insufferable movie franchise rather than the government, a fate even Jack Bauer doesn’t suffer from anymore.
I’ve seen it argued that Jason Bourne is just Jack Bauer for guilty leftists. It’s not wrong, but Bauer’s comeback two years ago repeated the formula but – unlike this one – felt fresh again. I think I now understand why. For one, everyone refers to Bourne as though he’s a needle you don’t want to find in the haystack, yet keep going out of their way to prod him. 24’s one PC introspection season (7) came after a long hiatus following the show’s worst and most mangled season and got its effective mileage from the ambiguities that result in lost time between character interactions. But in Bourne, and admittedly less so in nu-Bourne there pretty much are no characters apart from Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) and maybe now Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander).
All in all, nu-Bourne wants to recreate its own cynical take on the very age of cynicism it birthed from, and it can find no meaningful approach to do it. It’s a worthless retread of a series that no longer has any reason to exist, and its politics are as thin and hollow as the DNC’s firewalls. I say, abandon it like the nu-Bourne baby that it is.
What’s this? Another entry in the nu-Star Trek series?
I had thought that after Star Trek Into Darkness had been about as enjoyable as a dry ice cube in the esophagus the producers et. al. would have had the good sense to just scrap the effort and let it all continue in animation.
Oh wait, it’s good.
I’ve never been a Trekkie, and I can’t hate the 2009 reboot. As frustrating as it is to see it miss the point of Jim Kirk’s attitude towards the Kobayashi Maru (although even if you had not seen The Wrath of Khan I can’t imagine any line of reasoning that could get you to plausibly conclude that Kirk wasn’t outright CHEATING in the reboot), and to see so much of its runtime wasted on assuring Trekkies and fanboys that the old canon is still intact, there’s still enough about it that works. But then Into Darkness set about hitting Roberto Orci’s laughable 9/11 trutherism notes with all the grace of playing piano with baseball mitts, and ended exactly where the reboot did.
Star Trek Beyond solves pretty much all of those problems by sheer willpower. Essentially the only reference to the prior two films is its incorporation of Leonard Nimoy’s passing into a character dilemma for nu-Spock. Otherwise, you could go into this one without having seen either of the two and find plenty to enjoy.
Well into their five-year mission, Kirk and the crew have gotten maybe just a bit too comfortable. They dock on the utopian space station Yorktown for some temporary shore leave, only to be interrupted by a distressed arrival of an alien who begs the Starfleet admirals to help rescue her crew on a nearby planet. The Enterprise is dispatched, at which point the action begins and never stops.
There are issues that range from genuine flaws to niggling nitpicks, like the fact that the bad guys are looking for a weapon component that Kirk finds in the beginning and stored onboard the Enterprise, but had no way of knowing that they would be the ones dispatched against them. Other parts feel like die rolling, like the middle acts where dastardly events separate the characters in teams of two but only one of those groups has any kind of worthwhile personality interaction. Considering that Yorktown is where the final action setpiece takes place, Beyond should have spent more breathing time there before the adventure began. We learn how half the gravity mechanics work mid-climax, which amounts to dialogue interrupting the action, and it often seems like characters are just getting ideas for the next solution because the script says so. And with that said, these movies still can’t find enough for poor Nyota Uhura to do.
It’s a good setup with some good payoffs but much was lost in editing, including the flow. Whereas Beyond surpasses its two predecessors in style, it still lacks for substance and nowhere is that more apparent than when you look at the villain’s motivation. I won’t give it away, but the dangling threads don’t quite connect and as a result the allegory feels considerably neutered in ways that work against it. The filmmakers couldn’t seem to figure out how to make Krall the kind of tragedy they had hoped to portray him as without sacrificing the raw satisfaction of Kirk’s triumph over him.
Still, Star Trek Beyond lives up to the promise of the 2009 reboot’s raw potential. The cast is game, the score rocks, the effects are grand, and the pacing just a bit too breakneck but Justin Lin at this point is the new go-to for revitalizing ensemble action franchises on proper footing. There’s a new character – Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) – who’s a fun and welcome addition, and if this series were to continue I’d look forward to seeing more of her. As an action movie it’s a summer highlight; as a Star Trek movie it’s the best of nu-Trek and overall ranks with First Contact.
Star Trek Beyond: 7.5/10