GHOSTBUSTERS: Looking Back … and Forward

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Ghostbusters
Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Copyright 1984
Buy it on Amazon.com

In preparation for the release of the new Ghostbusters movie in July, the 1984 classic has been released to theatres in special simulcast events across the country.  I went to one of these, and it is interesting to revisit this movie 32 years later, and to examine it with a critical eye as to where it still holds strong and where, yes, it does not.

The good news is that, for the most part, it holds together extremely well. The story of four men saving the world through a combination of friendship, smarts, audacity and mad science resonates extremely well even in this cynical age. The formula of far-from-perfect heroes coming together to achieve the impossible is not one we see too often, but when it works it works extremely well (e.g., The Goonies, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.). It is this, I’ve always felt, that is the key to Ghostbusters’ lasting success, even beyond the comedy, even beyond the relentlessly quotable dialogue. It is about what happens when people come together to do what they could not do alone.

We came, we saw .... Photo courtesy  Fathom Events
We came, we saw …. Photo courtesy Fathom Events/Sony Pictures Entertainment

It is at this point, traditionally, in a review of this sort, that we go through the the plot, discussing in detail the characters and situations from beginning to end. I will not be doing this on this particular occasion because you, dear reader, either A) have already seen it, probably on multiple occasions, or B) need to go see it for yourself right now. No. Right now. You can rent it off YouTube for like 3 bucks. Go on. We’ll wait.

There’s a lot that still holds up, 32 years down the road. The special effects, even after all this time, are still actually pretty good. The proton stream effects, the pyrotechnics (both when trapping ghosts and during the climactic Gozer scene), even Mr. Stay Puft are still perfectly good and do not take us out of the movie. The props, with their “we’re inventing this as we go along” aesthetic, are still visually impressive, and have not taken on that “retro-future” look that is so often the fate of sci-fi designs.

The only real failing in this department is the terror dog animations. These stop-motion creatures do not quite flow as they should; it is a sad truth that this form of animation has not progressed much in veracity beyond the golden days of Harryhausen. As much as we complain about computer graphics, their more action-oriented scenes (such as crashing on the table in Tully’s apartment) would frankly be better served using modern FX techniques.

Hello there, 1980's special effects! Photo courtesy Fathom Events/Sony Pictures Entertainment
Hello there, 1980’s special effects! Photo courtesy Fathom Events/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Incidentally, one advantage to the long time between the original movies and the upcoming one is that the franchise has managed to skip over the entire “let’s use CG for everything” era of movie production so that the pendulum has swung back into a more balanced position (Slimer, for example, is known to be a practical puppet in the upcoming film).

The surprising thing about watching the movie again as a rather older person is how perceptions change. Take Walter Peck. He is nominally the main (human) villain of the film. And yet, when we first meet him, he’s just a typical bureaucrat, out doing his job. The concerns he brings up at the first meeting are, in hindsight, perfectly reasonable (unlicensed nuclear accelerators, anyone?). He was doing exactly what a representative of a responsible environmental agency should do. But he just had to meet with Venkman, and what was probably a routine check turned into a personal vendetta. And yes, he did jump the gun and precipitate an explosion that led directly to the return of Gozer, but one can’t help but wonder what might have happened if, say, Egon or Ray had been the one to talk to him first? He could have been out of there in five minutes. But then, that hardly would have made the story.

Then, there’s the scene where Peter meets The Gatekeeper, presently residing in the body of Dana. He quickly realizes what’s happening, subdues her, and reports back to headquarters. Which is all very well, except when you consider he only came over that night for a bit of “Eat and read” (they didn’t have Netflix in those days. Or chill). He wasn’t expecting to run into the manifestation of an ancient Sumerian demigod. So why in the heck did he have 300 milligrams of Thorazine on his person? Thorazine is a anti-psychotic, just the ticket if you need to treat someone’s schizophrenia, but is it really something you would generally bring to a date? Maybe dopamine antagonists were just a thing in the 80’s, like skinny ties and shoulder pads, and I just missed it? Or perhaps making sure you have anti-psychotic medication within arm’s reach at all times is just part of life in the Big Apple.

Okay. I can see that.

Crossing the streams is bad.... Photo courtesy Fathom Events/Sony Pictures Entertainment
Crossing the streams is bad…. Photo courtesy Fathom Events/Sony Pictures Entertainment

I’ve picked on Peter a little bit here, but the fact of the matter is, he is as essential a member of the team as any. Though Stantz and Spengler may be the minds behind all of the technical aspects, they never would have got off the ground without Venkman there as a catalyst. He’s a hustler, a go-getter. A rascal. P.T. Barnum used to brag that, despite his reputation to the contrary, he always delivered exactly what he said he would. Venkman may be a showman, but he was not a con artist. Spengler was a technological genius, but without the others he would have spent his life in academia. Stantz was the true believer, the heart and soul of the group. And Zeddemore was the one with his feet on the ground, the everyman we all could relate to (it is interesting to note that, despite complaints about his character, Winston is one of the few cases in American genre cinema where this role was filled by a black person). Each of them contributes a necessary piece of a whole that only then is able to save the world.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the new film. Much net-rage has been vented over it, and particularly the fact that the main characters are, this time around, female. Mindful of how this looks, there has been just lately a protest that the gender of the new characters has nothing to do with the constant howls of childhoods ruined. However, the more, shall we say, unfiltered parts of the internet suggest otherwise (a friend tells me of a poll that was set up to measure gender and response to the first trailer: apparently when she viewed it, 10% of the females disliked it … and 98% of the males). As other trailers and snippets have come out, there has been a gradual but noticeable mellowing toward it. It seems more likely, the more we see, that the spirit of the original has been brought forward.

And this, I would submit, is the truly important thing: not the effects, not the jokes, not whether the main black character is the only non-scientist again (a point that actress Leslie Jones has personally mooted). Not even if this marks the official One Reboot Too Many. The fact is that a much-beloved story is being retold in a way that brings a new dynamic, hopefully while preserving the original spirit and fun. We have about a month before we know for sure. Right now, it seems that the story is in the hands of people who are entirely cognizant of what made it so good in the first place, and there is every reason to be cautiously optimistic. The long wished-for Ghostbusters III? We know it isn’t going to happen. With Harold Ramis gone, how could it? The best we can hope for now is a new movie that causes our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews — in fact a whole new generation — to fall in love with the story just as we did so long ago.

And if worst comes to worst … well, it can’t be much worse than Ghostbusters II.

This big screen version was done in partnership with Fathom Events, and there is another screening tonight at 7 pm local time. For more information, and tickets, visit Fathom Events.  You can read our other retro reviews here.

 

(Kelly Luck has been working in tech for two decades now, and still hasn’t got the chance to use the “Back off, man; I’m a scientist” line. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)

 

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