It took Ivan Reitman decades to get the Ghostbusters back on-screen. Following the relative failure of his unfairly maligned 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters II, the would-be trilogy remained untrilogized for nearly 30 years. Now that the reboot — starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — is on the way, it’s tempting to have an all’s well that ends well attitude about the franchise. But the premature abandonment of world class IP clearly haunts Reitman. That’s the only logical explanation for his 2001 film Evolution, a half-hearted, borderline belligerent answer to the question that must have been ringing in his ears: Who you gonna call?
Evolution hits almost every basic plot point from Ghostbusters, but substitutes ghosts for aliens. There’s no denying it. In the movie, a wisecracking community college biology professor played by David Duchovny (ostensibly the Bill Murray role) and his serious-minded geologist professor friend played by Orlando Jones (in the stuffed-shirt Dan Aykroyd role) discover rapidly evolving alien life forms from a meteorite that crash-lands near their campus. Soon, the aliens break free, and the ragtag group, including Julianne Moore as Sigourney Weaver as Dana Barrett and Seann William Scott as Rick Moranis as Louis Tully, find themselves caught up in the mess. They have to eradicate the threat before the U.S. Army applies enough environmental pressure to create a true monster. Aykroyd even shows up as the pompous Arizona governor.
Considering the ways it grafted an old story onto a new one, it might not be a surprise that Evolution, um, evolved from a decidedly non-comedic R-rated sci-fi script into Reitman’s PG-13 romp.
At that point in his career, Reitman had more than once redefined cinematic comedy — as both a producer and director of classics like Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes along with the original two Ghostbusters movies. Even 1990’s Kindergarten Cop is still a memorably goofy comedy. It remains a cable TV mainstay (when it isn’t humbly lampooned) for its outrageous depiction of Arnold Schwarzenegger as an undercover police officer posing as a teacher to nab drug dealers who are after his ex-wife and son.
But at some point after that, Reitman’s winning streak came to an end. The 1990s saw Reitman jump from one forgettable comedy to another like Dave and Father’s Day, culminating in the improbable Harrison Ford and Anne Heche romantic adventure comedy Six Days Seven Nights. He needed to do something to turn everything around, and molding a serious-minded sci-fi script about an alien invasion written by screenwriter Don Jakoby into something familiar seemed like the easiest thing to do.
According to a 2001 Hollywood Reporter article about the film, Jakoby met with Reitman and producers to discuss his script, with the director telling him, “We want to camp this thing 20 or 30 degrees. We just want to take it slightly off center.” To which Jakoby declared, “‘You mean, Ghostbusters 2001. Reitman the producer Joe Medjuck then hired screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman to retrofit the story into a comedy. It was an obvious move. Reitman was looking to recapture momentum. It didn’t work because the results were mediocre.
Can one simply remake one of the best comedies of the last 30 years and give it a new name? Obviously, the answer is, “Yes.” But that doesn’t make it a good idea.
Evolution plays out like a much less memorable Ghostbusters, one that is equally as outrageous but forgets to stick with its off-kilter inventiveness in a playful but grounded way. Ghostbusters had the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, Evolution has a gigantic anus-shaped alien that has to be defeated rectally. Ghostbusters had the kid-friendly Slimer ghost, Evolution had a cuddly alien that ends up attacking a group of clueless suburban housewives. The Ghostbusters bag their first ghost in a swanky hotel, Duchovny and co. wield shotguns and take down a pterodactyl-like alien in an upscale mall.
Evolution even tried to capitalize its high concept comedy on a catchy pop song. But instead of an original tune like Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters” theme, Evolution just has Duchovny, Jones, and Scott sing along to Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” for some reason.
That’s a good way to encapsulate Evolution. It does everything it does…just for some reason. While it makes for a moderately funny early-aughts comedy, it isn’t anything special. It’s too much like someone trying to do an impression of Ghostbusters, and given the film’s backstory it shows. Here’s hoping the filmmakers behind the reboot realized it’s okay not to retread the same story beats from the original just because they know it already works. Who you gonna call? Someone who won’t just redo Ghostbusters.