Any discussion of Ghostbusters 2 has to address its status as a sequel to one of the best movies ever made. Even if the original Ghostbusters weren’t as good as it is, 2 would have had the deck stacked against it. Most movie sequels just plain suck. Telling a second story with the same characters in the same world means finding another angle on material you’ve already covered, coming up with a new story and arcs without invalidating your previous details, or coming up with new details in a way that’s organic. All of that is much more difficult than building something new from scratch. And as Ghostbusters 2 shows, it’s even harder to figure out what the hell people liked about your first movie. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
The original Ghostbusters is one of the all-time great comedies for a couple of reasons. It was one of the first movies to marry a comedic sensibility to big-budget special effects work (and to do both sides of that very well), a concept that pays off in spades with the big, laugh out loud joke of Gozer’s final form. Also, the movie is perfectly cast, from the main three and Weaver down to Rick Moranis’ classic pathetic neighbor. The movie is dense and funny, with lots of great little jokes coming out rapidfire or in the margins or without having to be said out loud (for the latter, I’ve always been a big fan of Venkman’s psychic experiment).
But I think the most important element, and the one that, for all its flaws, Ghostbusters 2 does get right, is the strong point of view grounding and shaping the story. In Ghostbusters, these guys aren’t just scientists, they’re disreputable scientists who have to prove themselves. This isn’t just a ghostly invasion, it’s a ghostly invasion of New York and how dare you mess with our city. The movie takes its sinister aspects seriously: this is not a goofy situation, it’s a dangerous situation that confronts goofy people. The very first ghost they encounter is not a wacky, silly ghost, but a legitimately creepy thing with just a hint of its own story (it’s probably a librarian or something, what with the shushing), and the comedy comes from the seat-of-their-pants way that our three protagonists try to deal with her. (“Get her? That was your big plan?”)
Ghostbusters was met with critical and financial success, making over $240 million off a budget of $30 million. (Adjusting for inflation, that would be like a $70 million dollar movie today making more than half a billion dollars.) A sequel was damn near inevitable. But that left a lot of questions. What did people like about the movie? And could we find a way to do that again, but different? Ghostbusters 2 focuses on two elements:
- The main characters are disreputable; the team has to prove themselves to the public and city officials, while Peter has to prove himself to Dana.
- A big supernatural threat taken seriously, beginning with a hidden threat and culminating in an absurd giant figure roaming New York.
While these elements are executed decently in the sequel, they’re the wrong choices. Not only are they too similar to the original, but in order to make them work, the movie has to demolish much of what it accomplished in Ghostbusters. The result is a movie that’s entertaining enough, especially scene to scene, but not satisfying. Ghostbusters 2 is like a house made out of wood and then you finish building it only to realize that you’ve succeeded at “rustic charm” but forgot the door and also should have used bricks instead.
The “re-disgracening” of the team and the reconfiguring of Peter and Dana’s relationship aren’t the most obvious missteps (or at least, not the ones people tend to complain about), but I think they hurt the movie more than any other. The first Ghostbusters has one character arc that ties the movie together, and that’s the question of whether or not Venkman is a scientist (or a good scientist). That’s the source of the team’s disreputability, when they’re thrown out of college:
Dean Yeager: Doctor Venkman. The purpose of science is to serve mankind. You seem to regard science as some kind of dodge, or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!
It defines the romance, too. The obstacle between Dana and Peter isn’t that she doesn’t like him but that she doesn’t respect him; she finds him odd and silly and doesn’t believe he can do anything to help her:
Dana Barrett: You know, you don’t act like a scientist.
Dr. Peter Venkman: They’re usually pretty stiff.
Dana Barrett: You’re more like a game show host.
She’s a little nicer to but equally skeptical of Egon and Ray; they don’t get as much focus as Peter, but are laboring just as much under a system and society that fail to recognize their value. The most emotionally intense scene in the movie taps into that frustration, when all three leads try desperately to convince the EPA and NYPD (ie., a judgmental authority) to trust them that the ghost capture protection grid should not be shut down. Eventually, however, Venkman and his friends prove the validity of their science to the authorities, to the public who now believes in them and cheers them on, and to Gozer by using science to kick its ass. Peter proves himself to Dana by rescuing her, and the end of the movie finds the Ghostbusters covered in marshmallow but triumphant, feted by a jubilant crowd who symbolize their validation. It’s not just that Peter’s arc works, but that his arc and the team’s arc are the same.
But where do you go in the sequel with that idea, and especially with that relationship? Ghostbusters 2 ends up with a cargo cult arc, recreating or mimicking different parts of the original’s without actually connecting them with one another in the way that made the first movie so satisfying. Peter and his friends are once more looked down upon by a public that is alternately disbelieving and resentful toward them, and have to prove themselves all over again–which defeats the purpose of having proved themselves in the first movie, doesn’t it? And unlike in the original, where Egon and Ray have to prove their value to the authorities, just as Peter seeks validation from Dana, in Ghostbusters 2 the group’s goals aren’t aligned, because the problem between Peter and Dana has nothing to do with Peter’s professionalism. Dana dated and broke up with Peter between movies; her relationship with Peter doesn’t have much to do with the supernatural conflicts on a plot level, either. All the baby-stealing is just an excuse for them to come back into contact.
The problem between Peter and Dana here is that Peter was your standard immature, afraid of commitment jerk type–she probably wanted to get married but he wasn’t ready. In the interim she got married to somebody else (who conveniently left her before the movie began) and had a kid, which has Peter thinking about what could have been. For her part, Dana is attracted to but wary of Peter, and his willingness to care for the kid seems to convince her to give things another try. There’s nothing too awful about this (it’s kinda basic and cliche, but it’s not bad). The issue is that it’s a totally different formulation from the gang’s larger problem–rather than achieving success but not wanting to commit, they achieved success that was more or less arbitrarily stolen from them (public opinion reversed, the city failed to pay them, etc).
This disconnect between the two major character problems of the movie is the flaw that destroys the unity of the film, and with it, any chance of the story functioning as a story. In the original movie, nobody respects Peter as a scientist, including the woman he wants to prove himself to, and then he does. In the sequel, New York City dislikes Ray and Egon and doesn’t want them around, and Dana doesn’t want Peter around either, but for completely different reasons and with completely different resolutions.
That disconnect is mirrored in the second way the movie carries over a major element from the original, the big supernatural conflict. Obviously this is the no-brainer element, because Ghostbusters as a concept really boils down to “funny people fight ghosts” and not “funny people fight ghosts while trying to have sex with Sigourney Weaver” or “funny people fight ghosts but nobody respects them” or whatever. The comedy goofballs + supernatural threat formula is a solid one that many stories have tapped into (I’m partial to John Dies at the End, myself–the novel more so than the film), but nothing does it better than Ghostbusters. And that includes Ghostbusters 2, which has one too many goddamn supernatural threats, just like it has one too many character conflicts.
And the pairs match up, too. On the one hand, there’s a river of slime flowing underneath New York, which literalizes the negative feelings that New York has in general and specifically the way New Yorkers (and NY institutions like the courts and the mayor’s office) feel about the Ghostbusters. On the other hand, there’s an evil painting of a dead wizard-tyrant who wants to return to life via Dana’s infant son, a plot which I’m only now realizing as I type this sentence mirrors the Peter/Dana relationship in this film to a far greater extent than I’d thought. (After all, that relationship is also long-dead but now might return via Peter protecting Dana’s child.) The thematic split here is also a plot divide, where the two supernatural elements are only tangentially related (the painting draws power from the slime, or maybe created it? the connection is neither clear nor strong). The result is a movie divided against itself, one that works scene to scene but in its overall structure is just going the motions. It remembers there were certain kinds of scenes in the first movie, but not why.
To be honest, with the exception of Vigo’s last words (“Death is but a door, time is but a window, I’ll be back”), the painting story is far, far less interesting than the slime story. While a little hokey, the slime plot is very dynamic, bringing both the comedy (the toaster scene comes to mind, as does the Titanic reference, which may be my favorite joke in the whole movie) and the spooky (all the underground stuff is super eerie, and I love the courtroom sequence). The Vigo plot, on the other hand, is pretty generic, the villain is boring, and Janosz is way on the wrong side of annoying. Rick Moranis is adorably pathetic because he’s a kind, good-hearted person who doesn’t know how much of a dweeb he is. Janosz is a sweaty, desperate, rape-y creepazoid, and it’s unclear how much of what he does in the movie is his idea versus Vigo’s. The movie would be at least 40% better if you replaced all the Vigo/Janosz stuff with more slime, and then in the end the Statue of Liberty could fight a giant slime monster instead of, uh, a rooftop.
So why choose these two concepts to define Ghostbusters 2? Ultimately I think this represents a lack of imagination or courage on the part of the filmmakers. It’s that The Hangover notion that audiences want as much as possible to be the same in their sequels, even though the best sequels tend to leap in a new direction (Aliens is my gold standard for that sort of thing). But I also think the desire to keep the same underdog sentiment from the first film, plot contortions be damned, speaks to the misunderstanding of Ghostbusters‘ comedic engine.
I talked above about how the tension between competence and incompetence drives much of the original film–are Peter, Egon, and Ray good scientists or not? But the humor doesn’t come from the idea that they’re bad at their jobs; it’s that they’re actually quite good at their jobs, just in an unconventional way. (For example, Peter threatening to put Slimer back in the hotel in order to get the manager to pay them.) In other words, the jokes come from the characters, from Egon’s incredibly boring nerrdom (“I collect spores, molds, and fungus”) to Venkman’s selfishness (“Everybody has three mortgages nowadays”) to Ray’s childlike innocence (“You gotta try this pole!”). They’re great characters, and great characters work well in any context. Put these guys on the moon and you know exactly what their reactions will be. But like any comedic characters, they thrive on new contexts, new material to bounce off of. Ghostbusters 2 should have allowed its leads to be successful, and worked to find the humor in that, rather than knocking them back down so that they can once again tell the same jokes about climbing up to respectability.
Overall, the movie has these big problems that leave it feeling like a scattered, unsatisfying carbon copy of the original. Does that mean it’s worthless? No. These are still talented, funny people, and there are plenty of good lines and good scenes, which I’ve tried to call out throughout my review. And in the absence of a better movie this is sometimes preferable to rewatching the original for the umpteenth time. If this wasn’t a sequel to such a phenomenal film, I think its reputation would be better than it is currently. But it’s still not great. And it could have been, if the filmmakers had been bolder and more willing to change up–to continue the story of these characters into a new place, rather than bringing the original formula back from the grave.
I’d say that I hope the new Ghostbusters movies make better choices, but I don’t think we’ll have to worry about them after all. According to Ghostbusters 2, humanity has mere months to live, as Peter’s talk show guest declares that the world will end on February 14th, 2016. (“Valentine’s Day. Bummer.”) So don’t worry too much about those new Ghostbusters movies–even the all-girl one won’t be released until July of next year, 4 months after the apocalypse. That’s one way to dodge expectations.