Minor spoilers ahead.
Ghostbusters was this week’s #1 film at the box office! No, not Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the upcoming canonical third film (originally scheduled to come out in just two days, pushed until next year due to the pandemic), the original! Given that weirdness, I couldn’t think of a better time to revisit the original movie, a film that’s widely considered to be one of the greatest comedy films ever made. Its presence in – as well as influence on – pop culture holds almost no precedent. But! Does it hold up under modern scrutiny? Let’s find out.
Unlike most modern cinephiles, I actually don’t have a particularly nostalgic outlook on the film. I watched it once or twice as a very young child, and I know a lot about it through pop culture osmosis, but I came into the screening with a very fresh outlook. As for what perspective I chose to come at in my analysis of the film, I chose to come at it from, essentially, my own perspective – a young (26, if you want to call that young) adult who maybe hasn’t seen the film in a very long time, or is seeing it for the first time, but is well aware of its place in pop culture and is seeing if they would be able to appreciate it in the same way as someone seeing it back in the ’80s.
For some context, Ghostbusters is a sci-fi comedy about a team of disgraced academics looking to redeem themselves by starting a small business dedicated to catching and researching ghosts. It was released alongside Gremlins on June 8th, 1984. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!
What Holds Up?
This is maybe one of the best scripts I’ve seen put to screen from a structure standpoint. Not completely perfect, but absolutely excellent. I have some issues with a lot of the execution, but from a purely bottom-up viewpoint, I found myself imagining the dialogue and actions on-screen in screenplay format and loved just about every minute of it it. It’s also very well-paced. While I found the execution of the story a little suspect (more on that later), the rags to riches story generally worked well as a framework for the more important stuff – witty characters, great dialogue, and fun set pieces.
The film has a reputation for being incredibly smart and clever in its humor, and I’m pleased to say that most of that works today. Some jokes are more dated than others, but I’d say the film’s 80% there still in that regard. The characters are written well; they all feel distinct and interesting, and the dialogue is quick, snappy, and witty. I can’t say this enough, I just loved this film’s script. It’s such a unique idea creatively, and is executed perfectly structurally, with the weirdness and zaniness being built up perfectly.
A big part of what stood out to me was the restraint. According to RedLetterMedia’s review of the film, the proton packs were only on-screen for 1:26! That’s one minute and twenty-six seconds, just 0.66% of the total runtime! For some additional context, I scrubbed through Ghostbusters (2016) and counted a full 28 minutes of on-screen proton pack usage, or about 20% of the film. This isn’t an exception; older movies certainly feel more restrained than modern ones. While this often can be attributed to limitations (which, of course, don’t exist anymore), the result ends up being cooler and more satisfying. I think the age of excess in cinema is slowly winding down, although maybe I’m just optimistic.
This is a movie where just everything worked, from the writing, to the acting, to the production design, everything. I think about that sometimes. What would our memory of this film be if it didn’t have such an iconic logo, or an amazing theme song, or a really cool device like the proton pack? Do they all need to be there? Would the writing and performances alone be enough of a leg to stand on? Possibly, but the point is that nearly all of the elements at play are handled flawlessly and truly stand the test of time.
A lot of the effects hold up well today. That said, some of the special effects do come off as glaringly dated. Fueled by the limitations of the time, they were forced to use every trick in the book to get the visuals that they wanted. Again, I found myself seeing what was happening on-screen and then imagining it in script form. It’s clear the people involved (cough Dan Aykroyd cough) had mighty aspirations, and they did their best to convey what they wanted in the images, but some of the effects end up looking pretty bad, even for the time. The stop motion effects and some of the compositing didn’t work great, but I admire their ambition. Overall, I think the movie looks good and has effects people will generally appreciate today, but some might find that they take them out of what’s happening.
The movie is generally very funny, very well written, and you can appreciate the characters for who they are (even if they’re not generally the most sympathetic people). It’s fairly well shot, it looks good, and has breakthrough special effects. The major stuff that needs to work in this movie does, and that’s what matters most. I liked the film quite a bit, but I did have a couple of issues.
What Doesn’t Hold Up?
There were a couple of things that stood out to me here: its idolized view of classical economic liberalism, and some general dated 80’s cheesiness. Let’s start with the former.
This is the most overtly libertarian film I’ve ever seen. Truly. Almost comically. It stood out to me plain as day, and, in researching this piece, I found that I was far from the first person to notice this. It’s definitely not something that stood out to me as a kid – I mean, I just liked the proton packs. But still, a notable aspect of what people like about the movie is its rags-to-riches theme, which I actually found to be extremely unrealistic in this particular film. I brushed it off in my initial viewing, but realizing that this film was an intentional proclamation that this type of experience is something that works as easily as portrayed is something that I found to be completely dated and hokey.
I’m far from an anti-capitalist, but it’s well-established at this point that Reagonomics and libertarian ideals just don’t work as intended. Not to get too political, but my view as to what the perfect economic system probably lies somewhere between government support and regulation and supporting regulated enterprise – something like social capitalism seen in western Europe. But, man, this film operates like an Ayn Rand fever dream, and that particular aspect of the film does not hold up in my eyes.
I actually found myself sympathizing with Walter Peck, the film’s EPA representative/side villain. These three schmoes were operating absurdly dangerous devices that the film sets up to be potentially universe annihilating, yet we’re expected to sympathize with them, as opposed to the regulator. They also barely put up a fight when they shut down their ghost trapping facility.
Someone with a more enlightened and progressive perspective on modern socioeconomics might have a lot of issues with the film’s portrayal of government regulation vs. the free market. I’m not saying all regulations are good, and I’m certainly not saying that businesses are an inherently bad thing, but this could easily be a point of contention for a modern young adult viewer, which is, to reiterate, the perspective I chose to analyze the film from. Walter Peck had every reason to do what he did, and the film’s portrayal of him as a villain is definitely something that dates it in my opinion.
Another clue of its not-so-subtle libertarian slant is the failing of academia as portrayed in the film. Ray Stantz, Dan Aykroyd’s character, literally says that the university let them do whatever they want with unlimited freedom without expecting them to accomplish anything.
Haha, get it? Because school is bad! Yeah, that’s not exactly the most accurate and least-biased representation of academia I’ve ever seen on-screen. Issues with modern academia aside, the film’s agenda is clear as day. Bill Murray calls the school a dump and practically sexually harasses Sigourney Weaver while being portrayed in the context of the film as charming. He also brings 300ccs of Thorazine to their date. Can I get a #metoo?! Reitman himself is a libertarian, which is fine, he can believe whatever he wants, but the film’s romanticization of Reagan-era economic policies struck me as very dated and a detriment to my overall enjoyment of the film. This won’t be the case with every viewer, but hey, I’m just being thorough. Your mileage may vary.
You get my point. Anyway.
My next issue has to do with the style of the time. Some movies from the ’80s manage to not feel their age better than others, but Ghostbusters is not one of them. It’s a quintessential ’80s movie through and through. If you grew up closer to that era, power to ya, but people around my age don’t have too much connection to that particular decade. There’s an earnest cheesiness to a lot of movies (especially in the sci-fi genre) from this time, and that might not work for everybody. Some lines come off as cheesy, some character actions come off as a little hokey, but nothing took me too far out of the film.
If you’re a cinephile who hasn’t seen the film, you’ll probably appreciate a lot of the ingenuity that went into the movie’s visuals, but the film is pushing 35 years old now. Not to repeat myself too much, but a lot of the stop motion and compositing effects come off as very obvious and don’t look the greatest on Blu-ray. I’d say that this will be passable for the majority of audiences watching the film today, and I personally could appreciate the “every trick in the book” approach, but that might not be the case for most viewers.
Despite how long my negatives section was, most aspects of the film hold up very well. The writing is great, the performances are fantastic, and there’s a lot of really cool stuff in the movie that’s presented in a restrained and genuinely refreshing way. The main issues that I think a modern younger audience might be turned off by are the overt libertarianism and the moderately cheesy production values, but those are going to be either unnoticed or otherwise not particularly worrisome for most viewers. If you somehow haven’t seen this movie yet, watch it! It’s pretty good!
Let me know in the comments what you want me to review next!