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The big budget reboot of the 1984 blockbuster comedy classic "Ghostbusters" opened this weekend, and despite its innocuous pedigree it has become one of the most polarizing and politicized movies of the year.
Ever since director Paul Feig revealed that the new iteration of fictional paranormal investigators would be all-female, there has been an outpouring of support and derision for the project. Now that paying audiences are finally getting a glimpse at the final product, the reaction still seems to be split — with even film critics largely divided along gender lines over whether the new "Ghostbusters" will be a boon to young women in search of movie role models or a blight on older audiences' memories of the earlier films.
Even presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has weighed in, appearing incredulous about the casting choice in an Instagram video posted early last year:
Whether the producers of the 2016 film intended it or not, the new "Ghostbusters" has become a sociopolitical lightning rod — a symbol of Hollywood's ongoing struggle to achieve gender equality that has provoked vocal opposition and at times taken a sexist tone. But, perhaps the "Ghostbusters" franchise has always been bigger than the sum of its parts.
Both the 2016 and 1984 films arrived in an election year, both boast "Saturday Night Live" stars poised to reach new heights of commercial success, and each provides a unique time capsule of New York City at the time of their release.
Still, on face value, the 1984 "Ghostbusters" would appear to be decidedly apolitical. Conceived years earlier by Dan Aykroyd as a vehicle for himself and the late John Belushi, the movie was planned to revolve around blue collar-type ghost disposers who were essentially treated like supernatural garbage men. However, by the time the film reached the big screen, one of the clever — and some have argued subversively political — twists was to make the Ghostbusters money-hungry entrepreneurs who cash in on their unorthodox business and revel in their fame.
This plot development, along with the fact that their chief antagonist is a sniveling, regulation-obsessed bureaucrat from the Environmental Protection Agency, has fueled retroactive analyses to suggest that the 1984 original was actually a paean to Reaganism.
The film's co-writers and stars, the late Harold Ramis and Aykroyd, were relatively outspoken about their lefty political leanings and when the movie's iconic leading man Bill Murray has spoken out about politics, he's thrown his weight behind the likes of Ralph Nader. But that hasn't stopped critics from interpreting their output as either decisively populist and anti-establishment or pro-business. The National Review later christened "Ghostbusters" one of the "25 best conservative movies."
Meanwhile, the director of both the 1984 original and its less well-received 1989 sequel, Ivan Reitman, has added fuel to the fire, saying in 2014: "I've always been something of a conservative-slash-libertarian. The first movie deals with going into business for yourself, and it's anti-EPA — too much government regulation. It does have a very interesting point of view that really resonates."
Historically, however, it appears that both the left and the right have seized onto the "Ghostbusters" phenomenon for their own purposes. For instance, in 1984, political paraphernalia was fashioned in opposition to the incumbent President Ronald Reagan and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, utilizing the movie's anti-ghost logo imagery.
Meanwhile, the makers of the current film have tried tirelessly to diffuse the controversy through humor (“If this doesn’t work, we go back and lose our vote,” star Melissa McCarthy has joked. “I’m talking pre-suffragette") and by making the case that just because a film has female stars, doesn't mean it intends to make any kind of statement.
“The reason I do comedy and not drama is because I want people to have a great time, to laugh and be happy,” Feig told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. “It’s great that this has become such a religion for everybody, but at the same time these movies exist to make people laugh. It’s what Ivan [Reitman] was trying to do 30 years ago and it’s what we’re trying to do now.”
As is often the case with anything as culturally colossal as "Ghostbusters" was and continues to be — the brand remains one of the most valuable in Sony's catalog, spawning video games, animated shows and a plethora of other profitable merchandise — it can take on a life of its own in the imagination of its fans. In some cases, it provokes irrational behavior.
For its legion of devotees, the original "Ghostbusters" is not just one of the greatest comedies ever made (although even that movie has its detractors), but it harkens back to a time when genre films could hold universal appeal without losing their distinct comedic voice.
Of course, the record number of YouTube users who disliked the early trailers for 2016's "Ghostbusters" were not all men, and not all motivated by sexism. Some people just don't want to see an already beloved film re-imagined, while others wish that the new film was better.
"The real test will come after this opening weekend, to see how people who actually saw the movie think of it," Daniel Loria, managing editor of Pro.BoxOffice.com told NBC News on Friday. "A comedy movie needs to be embraced by audiences for them to perform well. They really travel well based on word of mouth. If it’s underwhelming, all of that criticism will be amplified."
According to Loria, a great recent example of this trend was Feig's 2011 hit "Bridesmaids," which also starred McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. Although that film was not expected to be a breakout success, the combination of terrific early buzz and the desire of a underserved audience to get behind a comedy headlined by women powered its lengthy run at the box office. However, that was an original concept, whereas "Ghostbusters" may suffer from audiences' fatigue with remakes.
Still, the bevy of young girls who appear to be inspired by the all-female casting choice may be just enough to justify some cynics' objections to the movie's existence in the first place:
Loria's site has actually revised their opening weekend box office predictions for the film upward to a whopping $56 million, banking on audience curiosity ultimately overriding the backlash of a small, but vocal minority who probably would not have attended the movie anyway.
"At the end of the day the average moviegoer regardless of gender or age wants to see something that is part of the cultural conversation," Loria said.
"Unfortunately, because there are so few female-driven ensemble comedies there is an imposed assumption that the future of movies like this impinges on the performance of the latest one," he added. "It's important not to overblow this."