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Dissecting the Classics – Ghostbusters

July 20, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Ghostbusters Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

So, this is a movie I actually intended to review a lot sooner, but didn’t because… well, how the hell do you get to eighty issues of a column largely dedicated to classic movies from the 1970s and 1980s and not review Ghostbusters? Surely I’d done that already. But alas, I hadn’t, and it’s time to rectify that injustice.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date:
Produced and Directed By: Ivan Reitman
Written By: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Cinematography By: László Kovács
Edited By: David E. Blewitt and Sheldon Kahn
Music By: Elmer Bernstein
Production Company: Delphi Films and Black Rhino Productions
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Bill Murray as Peter Venkman
Dan Aykroyd as Raymond Stantz
Sigourney Weaver as Dana Barrett
Harold Ramis as Egon Spengler
Rick Moranis as Louis Tully
Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore

What Do We All Know?

Ghostbusters is a 1984 sci-fi comedy movie that I’m sure pretty much everyone has at least heard of, most of us have watched, and which some of us have watched an awful lot. But it’s not difficult to see why. Among 1980’s comedies, you won’t find another with this kind of budget and this kind of grand adventure. And you won’t find another 1980’s blockbuster that is this funny or with heroes exactly as nerdy as Egon Spengler or Ray Stantz. They just don’t make ’em like Ghostbusters, even when they try to. The costumes, gadgets, music and ghosts are iconic. The cartoon series, action figures and Ecto-Coolers are lodged in the childhood memories of a generation. It’s had a bad movie sequel, a pretty good video game sequel, and a pretty awful gender-flipped reboot that most of us already forgot happened. It’s burned into the collective conscience, probably for good.

With all of that franchising, it’d be tempting to think that Ghostbusters is overrated in the grand scheme of things. After all, many of its fans first fell in love with the premise because of the kid-friendly spin-off products, and most of the things we tend to gravitate to as children does fail to hold up when we grow up, at least if we’re honest with ourselves. From an outside perspective, it’d be easy to see Ghostbusters as the object of sad devotion from a generation of man-children who refuse to grow up. (Especially after all the sound and fury surrounding the 2016 reboot which, again, I think we’ve all basically forgotten about by now.) But when you look past all of that and just focus on the original movie, I posit that not only is Ghostbusters worthy of its classic status, but that it’s actually a far more enriching experience than most would give it credit for. But before we talk about what’s good in this movie, I find it prudent to address something. So, today, it’s another switcheroo.

What Went Wrong?

If you’re new to this column, or have only read a few times, the general format of Dissecting the Classics is that I start with the good (What Went Right?), then talk about the bad (What Went Wrong?), and then swing it around back to praise for the summary. And yes, it always loops back to good, because this is a column about positivity and asserting that the movies we love are worthy of that love. I wouldn’t call this Dissecting the Classics if I talked about movies that weren’t great in spite of whatever flaws they may have. Now, while I feel that most of us are clear about what the first section is for, I think some clarification of what exactly the What Went Wrong? section is about. Because usually, it’s not about nitpicky things like minor plot contrivances or special effects that haven’t aged perfectly. This isn’t an IMDB page. Instead, it’s more an acknowledgement that some films either have major plot or character issues, or more importantly, have aspects of the film that are problematic.

But while this section exists mainly to keep myself honest about these movies, none of the criticisms should be taken as fatal or damning. Most of the time it’s usually acknowledging problems that other critics have pointed out in negative reviews of the film. But so far, I haven’t reviewed a film whose problems outweigh the positives so steeply that they cease to become classics. After all, if I did, I probably wouldn’t be reviewing them on this column.

So, where does Ghostbusters go wrong? Honestly, not many places. Talking on a pure plot level, I do think that Rick Moranis’ Louis character is really thin considering how much screen time he gets (though he does have the benefit of being Rick Moranis). Conversely, I think that Vanessa (played delightfully by Annie Potts) and especially Winston Zeddemore could have used a bit more screen time and character development than they got. But if there’s one real problem with Ghostbusters, it’s the general character of Peter Venkman. Venkman has the advantage of being played by Bill Murray, but Peter can’t help coming across as skeevy in a way that really isn’t as endearing as the film wants it to be. Especially because he’s clearly practiced his player persona for a long time, and is a teacher with an affinity for attractive students in the opening scene, and it just can’t help feeling cringy. Yes, this is par for the course for a movie from 1984 (and much later, if we’re being honest). It’s also made clear that Dana (a major audience surrogate) is able to see past this routine to the presumably redeemable man underneath. But…I think this particular aspect of the film will only age more poorly as time goes on.

And with that out of the way, let’s talk about what makes Ghostbusters one of my favorite movies of the early 1980’s.

What Went Right?

Ghostbusters is a very unusual creature, a comedy starring SNL stalwarts but also a high-concept science fiction movie. There’s a genuine story here with real weight, and even if you’ve heard all the jokes before, it remains compelling viewing. It features three scientists who are paranormal investigators and manage to create technology that is able to trap ghosts. They form a business, work together as a team, and recruit a fourth ghostbuster who doesn’t need much training to use their technology to do that job. And then things get crazy, as the ghostbusters aren’t just capturing harmless poltergeists, but an ancient Sumerian god who’s ready to destroy New York and possibly the entire world. While all of that is played mostly straight, the characters react to it in funny, unexpected ways. Rather than being terrified by ghosts or awed into submission by malevolent deities, the ghostbusters almost always remain calm, think things through, and make witty comments about the absurdity of the situation they are in. That story and the approach to telling it are the main reasons Ghostbusters stands out as a concept and has rooted itself in the collective pop culture.

Combining the roles of exorcist and pest control is a great starting point, but as we’ve learned multiple times since, it’s not enough to make a good movie on its own. It’s a good tool, but you need the right talent. And Ghostbusters has a murderer’s row of talent. Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray are the big stars and have a ton of preexisting chemistry. Ramis and Aykroyd in particular truly understand the material, since they came up with the idea and wrote the screenplay. Ernie Hudson is the fourth Ghostbuster, and while the original plan was for Eddie Murphy, I think Hudson’s status as “not another sketch comedy guy” adds a helpful layer of metatext to the character. Add in a great comedy performer like Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver a couple of years before she became Hollywood’s standard for leading ladies in Aliens, the delightful quirky Annie Potts, and the world’s greatest sleazy asshole in William Atherton, and you’ve got a cast that is all but guaranteed to entertain.

However, being entertaining isn’t the only thing this sci-fi comedy accomplishes. Ghostbusters is also a supernatural fantasy film, which is also unusual and quite important. Supernatural horror had been a major part of the movies in the preceding decade, with films like The Exorcist and The Omen becoming huge blockbusters. But the fear of the occult and supernatural wasn’t just in the movies; America was practically bathing in Satanic Panic in the late 1970s, and everything from genre fiction to rock ‘n’ roll music to Dungeons and Dragons was part of the cultural discussion. While Ghostbusters does not draw heavy-handed attention to it, but it certainly relied on that cultural familiarity. The haunting scenes and especially Gozer the Gozerian use imagery that recalls these movies, books and other media. Knowing all of that, it’s clear that Ghostbusters is symbolically a science vs. superstition movie, positing that scientific knowledge and teamwork is the way to deal with our fears of ghost, demons and malevolent gods. Some may scoff at the fear, and others at the solution, but this is the thematic core of Ghostbusters.

While that idea about science overcoming superstition does undoubtedly play for certain adults who are happy to champion the Ghostbusters as atheist superheroes or whatever, there’s a much more important audience getting that message; children. Ghostbusters is a movie where there really is something haunting the quiet halls, something lurking in the bushes, and a monster in your closet. But it’s also a movie where those same monsters are no match for cool gadgets created by awkward childlike scientists and easily used by a funny ladies man and an everyday guy looking for a paycheck. If you’ve wondered why a movie that wasn’t really designed with a young audience in mind managed to capture the imagination of a generation of kids, this is the reason why. While there are definitely reasons to pretend that you are Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Superman or whatever else, when you’re a kid pretending to be a ghostbuster, you and your friends get to look the monsters in your life and say “No, we’re in control.” Without really meaning to, Ghostbusters became an important part of childhood for a generation of kids and for generations after who got to grow up with it.

And In Summary…

It would be tempting to think that my explicit acknowledgment that Ghostbusters speaks powerfully to children is an indictment of its actual quality. After all, how many things that we fall in love with as kids actually hold up into our adulthoods? But no, Ghostbusters actually holds up. It’s got an outstanding cast of characters played by great actors, and none of them overwhelm the piece. It’s got laughs for days and even more imagination, and even a little bit of thematic depth. It fills such a specific piece of pop culture that if it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it to fill the gap. Forget the aging special effects and the awkwardly structured screenplay; Ghostbusters is a classic that deserves its likely permanent place in our imaginations.

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