SciFi and comedy are two things that don’t seem to naturally go hand in hand. SciFi films tend to be large in scope, both visually and thematically, often leaving little room for lightheartedness. Comedy tends to work best (at least in my opinion) when it is small and grounded in character. The blending of the two genres can produce good results (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY being a recent example) but more often than not the polar opposite aspects of each become mismatched and the final product suffers. Knowing how difficult this balancing act makes me all the more amazed just how perfect of a film GHOSTBUSTERS is.
I’m sure there are people out there who don’t enjoy GHOSTBUSTERS. That’s fine. I have no interest in being their friend, but to each their own. There’s a very good reason the SciFi/horror/buddy comedy is still revered today. It’s not just the nostalgia for the great Ray Parker Jr. theme song, the toys, or the Saturday morning cartoon series. It’s because GHOSTBUSTERS is a truly great film. Sure, it didn’t win any Oscars, but if you gave me a choice between re-watching it or say, AMADEUS, that year’s Oscar champion, there would be no contest.
GHOSTBUSTERS probably shouldn’t have worked. It had a legendarily rushed production schedule of just under a year from green light to opening in theaters. It had an untested special effects company handling its many expensive visuals. Ivan Reitman hadn’t directed anything close to the scale of it before, and they had a final script that was more of an outline than anything else; legend goes that Bill Murray never actually read the whole thing before showing up for filming. But because they had such a strong story to work from, an ensemble of comedic performers that were also terrific actors, and a director at the height of his powers, it somehow worked.
For a film that is so heavily improvised by its leads, it’s fascinating to watch just how well the story moves, without ever sacrificing its characters and their relationships for action beats or special effects. The human element of the film, where three college professors suddenly find themselves unemployed and decide to start up a paranormal investigation and elimination business (despite having just one brief encounter with a ghost) works because you immediately become invested in their goal. Because they have nothing left to lose, you root for them to dive head first into this absurd plan. All four Busters are well drawn: Murray’s Peter Venkman is a BS artist just along for the ride, charming but not even able to be serious when faced with the end of the world. Ray Stanz, as played by Dan Aykroyd, is full of childlike wonder regarding the ghosts threatening New York. The late, great Harold Ramis was always an under appreciated actor, and his Egon Spengler is simultaneously detached and quietly terrified of what he’s gotten himself into. Last but not least is Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore, the guy who is just looking for a job and ends up having to save the world. And then there are the other brilliant performances by Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and William Atherton. All four of those actors may have had archetypes on the page, but each one makes the character their own.
When the other-worldly elements of the film begin to appear and the story builds to a showdown between our heroes and a giant marshmallow man, with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, you’re invested in it. It’s easy to imagine that if GHOSTBUSTERS were made today, it would have to cost at least $200 million, the focus would be solely on the special effects, and the story would have to work around them. With a few exceptions (all of which directly contribute to the forward movement of the story) the big special effects don’t show up until the final act. The strictly SciFi elements are expertly handled; while the Busters technology doesn’t seem particularly realistic, it’s explained well enough to make it believable. Much like its characters, the entire film has a somewhat deadpan, middle ground approach to it all. We believe all of this is happening because everyone in the film does, even though they don’t seem particularly fazed by it until the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man shows up.
GHOSTBUSTERS made a fortune ($229 million… in 1984 dollars) so naturally, a sequel had to follow. Today, it would likely be in theaters two summers later, regardless of whether it was ready or not. Two major elements prevented a sequel from happening right away: a regime change at Columbia Pictures that wanted to put the focus on smaller films, and Murray’s complete lack of interest. He has infamously always marched to his own drum, and even after the original film made him a very wealthy star, he became disenchanted and moved to France for four years. After another Columbia regime change, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman (who were more open to the idea of a sequel) managed to convince Murray to meet and discuss it. Once the basic story was agreed upon, and huge back end salaries for the leads were locked into place (Murray reputedly took home 20% of the sequels gross profits) the film went into production for the historic 1989 summer season. After months of hype and an at the time record breaking opening weekend, GHOSTBUSTERS II was overtaken by BATMAN (which opened just one week later) and quickly fell out of favor, grossing less than half of the original.
GHOSTBUSTERS II has a mostly undeserved negative reputation. It’s not a bad film, although it is a lazy sequel, following the original film's story beat by beat, apparently at the request of studio executives who didn’t want it to stray far from the original template. Nostalgia for the original film really carries this one; despite the ho-hum story, it is a great deal of fun to see these characters again. The basic concept, where even after saving the world the Busters faced multiple lawsuits and lost everything, is a nice bit of cynical comedy and even more relevant in today's heavily litigious society. Despite new and expensive special effects, the SciFi elements are curiously downplayed in favor of a more horror-centric story. While the sequel plays more like a studio mandated project, it’s still fun and contains some great moments. If anything, the worst offense of the sequel is that its mixed reception soured Bill Murray on ever making another Ghostbusters film again.
Which brings us to today. GHOSTBUSTERS III has been a subject of debate for movie fans for the past twenty-five years. Multiple scripts have been written in that time, by Aykroyd, Ramis, and countless others. Since his busting days, Murray has had an astonishing career reinvention, choosing to work with younger directors on smaller films and in the process revealing himself to be an incredible dramatic actor. Between becoming a highly sought after star and a millennial cult of personality due to his eccentric off camera life, he’s made it quite clear he wants no part of a third Ghostbusters. When we unfortunately lost Harold Ramis earlier this year, Reitman and Aykroyd also quietly stepped away from the film, realizing that it was just not to be. Last month Sony announced, with great fanfare, that GHOSTBUSTERS III would happen. Nobody from the original films would be involved. Paul Feig, on a hot streak following BRIDESMAIDES and THE HEAT, would write and direct, and the film would star “hilarious women.”
The reaction to this news was mixed, to say the least. Disturbingly, much of the criticism came due to the casting of the yet to be named female stars. The online message boards of film websites, long a bastion of civility and refined discussion of the arts, were largely disgusted with this alleged stunt-casting. The consensus seemed to be that “women aren’t funny,” and “women can’t be Ghostbusters!” Putting aside the inanity of their reasoning, I do agree that there shouldn’t be a GHOSTBUSTERS III. Not because of Paul Feig, or a female cast. Ghostbusters was simply lightning in a bottle, a series of elements perfectly coming together not just to make a great SciFi comedy, but a truly great film. And though I enjoy GHOSTBUSTERS II, it showed that even with the exact same creative team at the helm, there really was no way to capture that magic twice. Bill Murray seemed to recognize this even before making the sequel, and his reluctance has always been out of appreciation for the first film. Any Ghostbusters film made now, no matter who would be in front of or behind the camera, would be a studio product, just an intellectual property designed to make as much money as possible.
Paul Feig is a talented filmmaker, and there is no shortage of extraordinarily gifted comedic actresses and writers working today. Personally, I would like to see them try to make the next GHOSTBUSTERS, a new SciFi comedy classic for this generation. Take the inspiration from Busters and put their considerable talent and intelligence towards creating a completely original movie. The first film is so greatly appreciated and heavily influential amongst today's creative minds, let’s see them try to make as good as, or even a better film. The absolute worst thing that could come from that is someone making a brand new film, something borne of an idea not based on a comic book or any pre-existing property. It could be fresh, exciting, funny, and something we’ve never seen before.
You know, kind of like GHOSTBUSTERS was to audiences back in 1984.