REVIEW: Ghostbusters (1984)
Produced by: Ivan Reitman
Written by: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Edited by: David E. Blewitt, Sheldno Kahn
Cinematography by: László Kovács
Music by: Elmer Bernstein, Ray Parker, Jr. (theme)
Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, David Margulies, Slavita Jovan, Paddi Edwards (voice)
Ghostbusters is yet another one of those cultural milestone films that I managed to somehow deprive myself from seeing for an unreasonable amount of time, particularly as someone who is really into movies. In my defense, this was largely due to the fact that I grew up in an unreasonably fundamentalist Christian environment for the early part of my life, and so films like Ghostbusters, which dealt with the supernatural without clearly making it so that everything that was happening was demonic and didn’t remind you how much you needed Jesus to save you from hell were more often than not declared to be welcoming mats for demons to enter your life. No, I’m not kidding. Luckily, we got out of that environment and are (a bit) more sane now, but I continued to avoid the film because… well, mostly it was because I just never got around to it. Eventually this became a bit more like resentment, though. At some point, it seemed like everyone was obsessed with Ghostbusters again, even from those who weren’t kids or even born yet at the time this movie came out, and you couldn’t talk about movies or reference ghosts without someone throwing out some kind of Ghostbusters reference and then talking about how brilliant the movie was. It was very annoying. This became another one of those movies that I was sick of before I even saw it.
As with the whole demonic thing, though, things changed. I eventually got over my snobbery and made an event out of seeing it – by which I mean my buddy and I watched it on his computer one night while eating dinner. I wasn’t that impressed, which at least lowered my expectations further when it came time to watch Ghostbusters II (hence my current confusion over why it’s so often cited as the worst sequel ever made). It was a while before I gave the original another go. And then a bit more time before I gave it another. And another. And… somehow, the film started to grow on me. Separated from the hype and constant quotations of the same lines over with botched delivery, Ghostbusters’ charm and hilarity is much more readily apparent.
If you’re somehow not familiar with the plot (which… how could you be, since even I was aware of it when I wasn’t allowed to see it, even?), Ghostbusters follows three scientists – Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler – who study paranormal activity setting up a business as exterminators, only instead of vermin, they’re going after ghosts! At least, that’s the case initially. Finding themselves in unusually high demand, the Ghostbusters expand operations, hire a fourth guy – Winston Zeddemore, an everyman – and find themselves uncovering the terrifying mystery behind the recent spectral outbreak: they’re heralding the arrival of an ancient interdimensional god named Gozer, who will destroy the world.
One of the great things about this movie is how it cleverly combines all of its elements into a cohesive, believable, and yet very humorous whole. Though they are highly educated scientists, the three founders still register more like wisecracking blue collar workers (and even hire one on with Winston), even when they’re spouting sci-fi/horror technobabble. Also, in spite of the horror elements and high stakes plot, the film never once lets up in the comedy department, thanks in large part to smart characterization and the gifted actors assembled here.
As Dana, who calls on the Ghostbusters to investigate the paranormal activity taking place in her kitchen, Sigourney Weaver could have been easily relegated into a generic love interest and damsel in distress role who takes a backseat, but thanks to some smart plotting and memorable scenes she participates in, the film really lets her stand alongside her costars, even if her role isn’t really meant to be comedic itself. Rick Moranis also features as Louis Tully, Dana’s nervous buffoon of a neighbor, who similarly gets to play a larger part in the film thanks to the filmmakers not making him a mere clown but also a participant in the bigger story. Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts are kind of relegated to the side character status, with Hudson in particular mostly being there to put the scientists’ technobabble into plain English, but, even so, they may not get the credit they deserve as the in-it-for-the-paycheck Winston and the busters’ sarcastic receptionist, Janine, respectively, with Potts’ Janine holding her own against Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman in the deadpan delivery department.
Murray really is the star attraction here, though, to the point where it almost seems like this is his movie alone, with everyone else playing costar. He even almost negates Hudson, thanks to his character being the skeptical slacker of the group. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote the film’s script and seem to be content with that being their primary contribution, and they seem more than willing to let Bill Murray and his improv skills take over, calling into question the insanity of the film and, in the process, making it all the more acceptable in our minds because of it. There’s a reason why this man is such a legend, you know.
It’s ironic, then, that I feel as though the film’s biggest strength is also the cause of the film’s biggest downfall, which is letting Murray get away with hogging too much screentime. This isn’t Murray’s fault, but rather the choice of the filmmakers in not giving the other guys much more to do. I actually like all the characters here, and I feel as though there was plenty more opportunity to capitalize on Hudson, Ramis, and Aykroyd’s skills than what’s shown here, something that I actually think was better handled in the film’s sequel, where even Annie Potts got a bit more screentime. Sure, it may not have been quite as funny as the first film, but that’s not a fault of the actors or characters and has everything to do with scripts and directing. These flaws might be minor to some who actually don’t mind that Murray stole every scene because everything he does in this film is, indeed, pretty great, and, you know, if this were actually intended to be a Bill Murray film rather than the ensemble, big budget flick that it actually tries to be, I would also agree.
But it’s not, and the film actually kind of illustrates how even the great, classic films can make some miscalculations in the name of cashing in on the most bankable star in its cast. This was a massive undertaking at the time, and so it’s certainly understandable as a business decision, too. As a result, though, while my appreciation for the film has increased tenfold over the years since my first viewing, I still don’t consider Ghostbusters to be nearly the untouchable, sacred work of perfection that many fans purport it to be. In fact, I might actually still prefer this series’ only really successful copycat: Men In Black, which does a much better job embracing its concept’s absurdity as well as all of the cast members, all while still giving its most bankable star the spotlight. (While I’m pissing people off, I might as well also admit that I think the sequel is a perfectly serviceable, enjoyable follow-up and not the series-ruining worst sequel ever I kept hearing about. Also – I don’t mind that they’re rebooting with an all-female cast, either! Yup. Gnash away, people!)
I’m not the only one who came late to the Ghostbusters franchise and found myself underwhelmed by its popularity. But I still totally get why this is considered a classic, having come around to considering it one myself, too. Ghostbusters is possibly just a victim of being probably the biggest cult classic ever, with the biggest fans letting nostalgia get in the way of their objectivity. It’s probably also why I like Men In Black a bit more, too, though: I saw it as a kid, and I saw that one first. The fact that multiple generations, even people born after the film’s massively successful initial release, still revere this movie is a testament to its quality, its originality, and the scale of its story. Ghostbusters was an unprecedented film at the time, successfully mixing strange and original concepts with star power, sharp comedy, an epic scale, and big budget spectacle, and apart from Men In Black, few films have even come close to replicating that kind of success to this day. I do, indeed, get it now.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5