There will inevitably be many things running through the collective audience’s heads when they finally sit down to watch director Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot. Besides realizing that that it’s gut-bustingly funny thanks to its new cast, they’ll note that it does the 1984 original justice, and a breath of fresh air in a time of summer blockbuster panic. But, they’ll also note that something seems … off. It’s been so easy to get bogged down in the unwarranted hate lobbed at this movie that the true criticisms seem petty. But Feig’s Ghostbusters movie strangely ignores something that the original made one of its fundamental characteristics. Namely, director Ivan Reitman’s original is and always will be a New York City movie.
Despite its generally absurd premise — that a group of disgraced academics decide to fight the rapid proliferation of ghosts using lasers — it’s seen as inextricable from its New York City setting. When you watch the original, it’s easy to see why.
The movie adopts the hardscrabble identity of New York City and its inhabitants by simply doing what its characters do best: poking fun at it. When Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), (Ray Stantz) Dan Aykroyd, and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are forced out of their uptown academic comfort zone, moving into the iconic downtown firehouse, Spengler explains, “I think this building should be condemned,” and then elaborates, “There’s serious metal fatigue in all the load-bearing members, the wiring is substandard, it’s completely inadequate for our power needs, and the neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone.”
Part of the character’s assertion is the movie simply conveying the grimy reality of early 1980s lower Manhattan, but it’s also a prime example of the movie adopting a roast-like approach to its setting. It jokingly accepts the city’s shortcomings and the reverse adoration of the way New Yorkers deal with living in relative collective squalor — it’s appreciation through condemnation. It’s what makes Venkman’s comedic but pride-inducing “Nobody steps on a church in my town!” Mr. Stay-Puft line late in the movie resonate. But, more importantly, unlike the 2016 update, the 1984 Ghostbusters actually valued its real life New York City locations.
Despite Reitman’s movie doing some cinematic sleight of hand by featuring clever interior sets built at the Columbia Pictures lot in California, it made sure to plant itself in its east coast location by actually having its actors experience main events of the movie at iconic sites. The Tribeca firehouse, 55 Central Park West, the 5th Avenue and 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, Columbia University’s Low Plaza, near the fountain at Lincoln Center, and outside of swanky Central Park eatery Tavern on the Green — all were real.
It wasn’t all real New York City exteriors, however. The Sedgewick Hotel scene, where the team bags their first ghost, was shot at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The point is that it didn’t even matter that the interiors and some exteriors weren’t actually in New York City. It cut through the movie magic to be that much closer to reality in its artifice. Location-wise, Feig’s reboot is like if the entire movie took the Sedgewick Hotel LA-as-NYC route, except this time the majority of the new movie was shot in Boston.
It is painfully obvious that the reboot substitutes another city for New York City, and there’s nothing that Manhattan skyline insert shots, a fleet of rented yellow NYC taxis, and a green-screened Time Square climax can do about it. While minuscule parts of the reboot feature scenes of main actresses Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Melissa McCarthy in New York City — like scenes outside the firehouse — each other exterior screams Beantown.
The production designers did their best to outfit everything from a Boston University building known as “The Castle” to stand in for a fictional New York City mansion, or a Boston Chinatown restaurant, or Boston’s Wang Theatre concert venue as NYC locales, but it never lands with the same real New York City heft as the original. They couldn’t even set an early ghostly encounter at the nonexistent Seward Street subway station at an actual NYC subway stop.
The thought is that the Ghostbusters reboot should live or die by its own merits. To an extent that’s true, and it mostly succeeds. But the movie is beholden to so much of the original that disregarding basic comparison and fundamental characteristics is nearly impossible. For a movie that shares so much DNA with the original, almost to the point of being egregious with its cavalcade of fan service, it’s baffling that the one thing it forgot is that nothing beats the real thing. The original Ghostbusters is the quintessential New York City film, while the reboot probably couldn’t even find the Big Apple on a map.