Why do movies get remade? Because the original artifact has fallen out of cultural memory? That could hardly be said of 1984’s “Ghostbusters,” since most of us, from multiple generations, can cough up and re-create entire scenes at will. Because the franchise needs a jump-start if it’s to continue to print money? Or because someone in Hollywood has actually figured out a fresh creative approach?
“Ghostbusters” v. 2.0 falls somewhere between the last two barstools. Hardly the disaster that its witless coming attractions promised earlier this year — to the self-righteous chagrin of an army of online lost boys — the movie is genial, sloppy, slightly above average summer movie fun. The gender switch of its casting is the most potentially subversive touch, and occasionally that potential is realized. More often, the new “Ghostbusters” is content to trade on our nostalgia by cross-referencing the original six ways from Sunday. It’s a pleasurable echo that you sense aches to be something more.
While the plot of the first movie has been jettisoned, certain details remain preserved in amber: proton packs, the iconic logo, that rubbery green gremlin guy. Our heroes are now the tightly wound Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a former teenage paranormal-nerd currently trying to pass herself off as a respected Columbia professor (her department head is Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister of “Game of Thrones,” so good luck with that); her once and future pal in ghostly obsession, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), now heading up a highly unorthodox research initiative at an uncredited science university; Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a physics gearhead with an insane gleam in her eye; and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a New York subway worker who signs up with the new Ghostbusters just because.
Jones gets much more screentime than Ernie Hudson in the first film — she runs with it — and McKinnon takes the Harold Ramis mad-scientist character in lightly maniacal new directions; half of her dialogue is impenetrable techno-babble and all of it is given a rapturously devilish spin.
Wiig and McCarthy aren’t so much doing a variation on Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd as transforming bro camaraderie into a riff on science grrls, one apologetic and one unashamed. There’s something deeply liberating about a movie that lets female characters be as geeky as they want to be without straining to establish why.
Meanwhile, a strange, resentful creep named Rowan (Neil Casey) — feel free to interpret him as one of the trolls who have been inveighing against a female “Ghostbusters” for months now — is opening a vortex to the undead in central Manhattan. Cue a disbelieving mayor (Andy Garcia) and his control-freak aide (Cecily Strong), and then cue the slime, the specter-wrangling, and endless permutations of Ray Parker Jr.’s classic theme song.
If there’s a problem, it’s that Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”) is better at directing traffic than a movie. “Ghostbusters” gets where it’s going and there are some solid laughs along the way — as well as a fair amount of clunkers — but the film is the visual equivalent of fast food. There’s no larger vision, whereas the first movie had a scrappy sense of New York City as a place where even the undead had better watch their step. In this version, the heroines set up shop in Chinatown, and if it looks like Boston’s Chinatown rather than Manhattan’s, that’s because it is.
But there are grace notes of absurdist humor and all the leads are fine; Jones gets to create an actual character for once and McKinnon in particular makes you want to see what sweet anarchy she could wreak in a lead role. As in the original, just about everyone here comes from “Saturday Night Live” or similar sketch comedy roots. Wiig, McKinnon, Jones, and Strong are current or former cast members, and Casey has been a writer for “SNL” and “The Amy Schumer Show.” Co-scripter Katie Dippold (“Heat”) wrote for “MADtv.” For these people, it’s all about the scene and any splattery improv comedy within it. Connective tissue isn’t really the point.
So “Ghostbusters” hops from bit to bit, pausing regularly to bring on an old familiar face (most of the original castmembers get cameos, and the shout-out to the late Ramis is charming) or deliver a twist on the catechism of the 1984 hit. Only one sequence, involving a possessed department store mannequin, feels genuinely spooky. The finale tries to one-up the Sta-Puft Marshamallow Man and falls flat.
It’s only when McCarthy, Wiig, Jones, and McKinnon share scenes by themselves, whether dialogue or straight-up slapstick, that this movie’s molecules begin bouncing and bonding in ways we haven’t really seen before. And any time Chris Hemsworth wanders through as Kevin, the himbo equivalent of a sexy but pea-brained secretary, “Ghostbusters” hits notes of such exquisite comic lunacy that you might miss the point for laughing.
The gender switch was a solid idea, then, and these characters might even be more fun to watch in a movie that wasn’t as beholden to its source. I’m saying I want a sequel, and maybe you should too. This one’s pretty good. But it had a chance to be great.
Directed by Paul Feig. Written by Feig and Katie Dippold. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 116 minutes. PG-13 (supernatural action, some crude humor).