We all have cinematic blind spots: notable directors, eras, or entire genres of film we’ve glossed over, either by accident or design. I admittedly probably have more than most of the cinephiles who populate the A.V. Club offices and comment boards. But whereas most people are pretty tolerant of my ignorance of Dogme 95 or the oeuvre of Luis Buñuel, the blind spot that’s always earned the most indignant “What do you mean you’ve never seen ________?” outcries is blockbusters of the early-to-mid-’80s. Indiana Jones? We’ve already covered that. The Goonies? Haven’t seen it. Terminator? Nuh-uh, sorry. (I have seen Back To The Future many times, though, so we can still be friends, right?)
To be fair, I was either a fetus or still in diapers when most of these movies came out. Well, so what? So were a lot of people. Valid point, imaginary rude person. Allow me to school you on what I like call the Only Child Corollary, because it sounds less like something I made up that way. In my experience, when people my age act appalled that I’ve never seen, say, The Goonies, this is the conversation that usually takes place: Me: “Well, how did you first come across the movie, seeing as you were 1 when it came out?” Them: “Oh, my older brother/sister loved it, so we watched it on VHS/cable all the time.” I also know two, yes two other only children who have seen neither The Goonies nor, more to the point, today’s Better Late Than Never? entry, Ghostbusters. And as all writers of lazy human-interest stories know, three is a trend. Therefore, only children born between the years 1980 and 1985 (and possibly oldest children, though I have no anecdotal evidence to back that up) are less likely to have seen blockbuster films from those years than people with older siblings. It’s science. Slightly adulterating this science is The Parent Factor, in which the role of the older sibling can be filled by a parent who is an enthusiastic proponent of say, The Terminator; but being raised alone by a mom who pretty much ignored films made after 1970, this wasn’t really an issue for me. I have, however, seen all three Gidget films thanks to her!
Needless to say, Ghostbusters was never really a contender for family movie night, and as I don’t recall it showing on cable very often as I got older, it wasn’t hard to ignore the top-grossing film of 1984 (and 31st highest-grossing in history). But Ghostbusters has been blipping on my radar more frequently in its 25th-anniversary year. News of the second sequel and reviews of the recent videogame have been popping up on this site and others, and I’ve come across blurbs for Ghostbusters screenings on pretty much a weekly basis while editing the event calendars for our local editions. But the real clincher was Ghostbusters’ appearance in one of my favorite movies of 2009, Zombieland. Ghostbusters played a supporting role in one of the best sequences from that film, and while I don’t think I missed out on anything having not seen it, it seemed like as good an indicator as any that it was time to see what the fuss was about.
Here’s the thing about Ghostbusters, though—a thing that seems to come up a lot when revisiting beloved old favorites: It isn’t as good as you remember. And if it is as good as you remember, that’s because you’re viewing it with nostalgic blinders on. And while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a movie for nostalgic reasons, keep that in mind next time you berate someone for not seeing that one movie you loved when you were 7 years old.
The biggest problem with watching Ghostbusters today is the special effects. Now before that imaginary rude person from before starts yelling about how asinine it is to evaluate the special effects of a 1984 movie through a 2009 lens, let me clarify: It isn’t the quality of the visuals that’s the problem. I went into this expecting ’80s-caliber puppetry and matting. It’s that as the movie progresses, it becomes more beholden to its big-budget-blockbuster milieu, and the second half suffers because of it. The effects themselves are sort of reflective of this split: The neat sight gags and minor spooks that dot the film’s likeable first half hold up much better today than the then-impressive, now-clunky spectacle that drives the main plot. An early scene set in Sigourney Weaver’s haunted-ass kitchen illustrates this nicely.
Those self-cracking and -cooking eggs are not only convenient, they’re still pretty nifty-looking. That hellscape in the fridge? Not so much. (Sidebar: Upon first viewing, I misheard the fridge demon as saying “Soup” instead of “Zuul,” which I thought was a lot funnier at the time. He’s just hungry, you guys! Throw him some leftovers and he’ll be on his way.) Now picture this scene as if director Ivan Reitman had exercised a little more restraint, just showing Weaver’s illuminated face and cutting away without actually showing what was causing her terror. Would anything have been lost? Not really, and I wouldn’t be sitting here making fun of the cheesy-looking soup demon 25 years down the line.
The effects aren’t the only problem with the Zuul storyline, though they certainly throw its flaws into sharper relief. Conversely, the film’s earlier instances of day-to-day ghostbusting are still visually outdated, but match the tone of the first half in a way that’s still charming. Ghostbusters starts out as basically a lighthearted workplace comedy, carried almost entirely by Bill Murray. Dr. Peter Venkman is unquestionably the most endearing and enduring thing about Ghostbusters, thanks mostly to Murray, appearing at the height of his loveable-jackass powers, and to a lesser extent, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who both seem content to blend into the background. Considering the pedigree of this trio, I expected a little more comedic give-and-take among them, but Aykroyd and Ramis seem to serve more of a narrative role than a comedic one, filling in the plot amid Murray’s deadpanning. This becomes increasingly clumsy as the film wears on—another casualty of the Zuul plotline—but in this early scene, the chemistry works nicely, buttressing Murray’s disinterested mercenary approach with Aykroyd’s nerdy enthusiasm and Ramis’ clinical empiricism.
The trio’s charm mostly holds up in Ghostbusters’ second big setpiece, the guys’ first successful containment of the slime-happy spook that’s haunting the Sedgewick Hotel, though none of them seems entirely comfortable deploying the scene’s slapstick humor. But as the main plot progresses, they become more fractured, Murray setting off to help/woo the soon-to-be-possessed Weaver, while Aykroyd and Ramis (along with latecomer and token black guy Ernie Hudson) putter around Ghostbusters headquarters looking at blueprints and tinkering with nuclear gadgets. While Murray gets to be charming as he flirts with, then tries to restrain the coy cellist-slash-gatekeeper, his co-stars provide running commentary, explaining to the audience why these things are happening in one exposition-heavy scene after another: Ramis gets the lowdown on Zuul from a scene-stealing possessed Rick Moranis; Aykroyd and Hudson contemplate judgment day during a nighttime car ride; Aykroyd and Ramis give Murray a guided tour of the blueprints of “spook central” in the jail holding cell. The latter is a particularly clunky scene, with Murray halfheartedly trying to lighten the mood as the other three drop 500 pounds of plot on the audience’s heads. It highlights a tonal confusion that will continue through Ghostbusters’ climax.
I’m really not sure what kind of movie Ghostbusters is trying to be in its final half-hour. Is it going for camp, as it seems when Keymaster Moranis and Gatekeeper Weaver passionately reunite? Is it going for spirited action-adventure, as when the Ghostbusters strut around in front of 55 Central Park West amid a cheering crowd and to the strains of Alessi’s “Saving The Day,” only to be engulfed by the street a minute later? Or is it trying to be a supernatural/science-fiction thriller, as it seems during the lead-footed fight sequence with Gozer? The fact that the four Ghostbusters are cracking wise throughout this climactic battle adds to the muddle. It’s not at all unusual for a protagonist to get smart-alecky to inject some levity into a high-stakes fight sequence—just ask Will Smith. Hell, it could be argued that Ghostbusters provided the prototype for that particular device. But in this case, it really isn’t earned; there’s no sense of danger, in spite of all the scenes telling us about the danger, so there’s nothing gained by an admittedly funny line like, “Go get him, Ray.”
The appearance of the iconic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is the closest this sequence comes to honing in on the distinctive tone it’s going for—self-aware sci-fi spoof, I guess?—but it’s marred by the arbitrary “Don’t cross the streams! Wait, now cross the streams!” easy out. Throw in one of the most out-of-nowhere final lines ever (I got that the movie was set in New York, but outside of a few exteriors, does it ever really address the setting that much?) along with yet another cheering crowd scene, and you have a pretty uninspiring conclusion that’s obscured by the inclusion of a certain iconic song.
I’m tempted to wrap this up like an I Watched This On Purpose feature, figuring how much of this experience wasn’t a waste of time, but the truth is, none of it was a waste of time, per se: I’m now a part of this shared cultural experience, and I don’t consider that a waste. But if I were to figure how much of this experience I enjoyed, the number would probably be dispiritingly low, and it would surely incur the wrath of hordes of Ghostbusters fans. The film does have a 93 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, after all, and its IMDB reviews are glowing, so clearly I’m in the minority. But I’m pretty confident that that ardor is based more on nostalgia than excellence, much more so than in the case of its ’80s-blockbuster brethren like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Back To The Future, both of which I also came to long after their freshness had worn off, yet still enjoyed very much. If you look past the memorable lines you’ve quoted your whole life and the effects that wowed you when you were a kid, you’d probably find that what’s left of Ghostbusters is a wisp of a film, enjoyable in fits and starts, but ultimately kind of clumsy and forgettable. But why would you want to do that? You go right on ahead and keep loving Ghostbusters if it makes you happy, guys, I’m not here to stop you. Just don’t be disappointed when the next person you foist it upon doesn’t share your love.