Film Club / Although Being Armed With a Nuclear Laser Gun Would Also Help

Directed by Ivan Reitman



I don’t get Ghostbusters. 

Obviously yes it’s wildly successful. At the time it was released it was the highest grossing comedy of all time. It birthed a multi-billion dollar multimedia franchise. Toys. Cartoons. Sequels (of varying quality). That hit single. etc etc etc 

But watching the original 1984 movie that it’s all based on – I mean I feel like I’m just not seeing the same thing that everyone else is. Like: it’s a supernatural action comedy. Only – it’s not that scary, it doesn’t really have any real kind of action and (dare I say it?) it’s not really that funny?

I think most people would agree with the first part. The idea that Ghostbusters is anything like a horror movie seems incredibly wide off the mark. Unless you have a fear of Librarians and/or green slime monsters. I mean – I’ve seen scarier Muppet movies.

The idea that it’s an action movie is also pretty laughable. I mean action movies (if nothing else) are about the sense of the kinetic right? The people you’re watching should be moving and jumping and doing things and the camera should be taking part too. You know – fast cuts and dolly shots and zooms and that type of thing. One of the things that’s remarkable about Ghostbusters is how staid the whole thing is. The camera moves like it’s been operated by a 90 year old man. And the actors (regardless of how much they run their mouths) slowly walk from place to place as if they’ve all just finished eating a particularly hearty meal. 

I mean even the big climax when they finally decide to “cross the streams” involves not much more than them erm slowly facing into each other while their fire their magical glowing pensises. Erm. Sorry. I mean magic wands. Whoops. Sorry. I mean – proton packs. There are many things that you can call this – I’m just not sure that “action” is one of them?

Obviously the last claim is the most contentious. After all – who am I to claim that Ghostbusters isn’t funny? But come on now – Airplane is funny. Zoolander is funny. Borat is funny. Ghostbusters is more just kinda… wry. I hope I’m not going too far that the whole movie is basically a Bill Murray showcase? And Bill Murray isn’t really a performer that goes for laughs. He’s more about making you smirk. For my money the only two lines in the whole movie that actually merit a real LOL are 1. “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule…” and (of course) 2. “This man has no dick.” The rest of it is more like – gentle ribbing and lines that have become iconic merely because they’ve been repeated so much (see: “He slimed me.”) 

And I guess that’s my big question about Ghostbusters. When people watch it – how much of the movie are they seeing and how much are they just seeing the nostalgia? Like as a film I think it’s so boring that it’s almost unwatchable. Nothing really pops. Nothing is really that exciting. Everything is predictable. Everything is stiff and slow and forced. And then it just… ends. 

I mean the only thing that I think the movie does do really well is how it presents it’s iconography. I mean Bill Murray makes a crack early on about how “The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.” And credit where it’s due – the film is a well oiled machine in establishing all sorts of nifty bits of technology and locations and characters – Ecto-1; the proton-packs, the suits, the fire station, Slimer, The Ghost Trap, Zuul, Janine etc etc etc. It’s less a cinematic experience and more of a merchandising one. 

Maybe that’s why it’s so successful? The whole thing is a toy advert.

There is clearly a lot of nostalgia for the 80s adventure movies, from classics like Back to the Future through the Goonies to weird fluff like DARYL; and Ghostbusters is entirely an 80s adventure movie in that genre (shout out to Young Sherlock Holmes). Of course the action is bad and the heroes are slow: they are awkward scientist nerds… that’s like the entire premise. There’s even a joke where they rush into a building all hyped up and then discover they have to walk up some stairs. Of course it’s not scary, the main antagonist is a dessert! 

The plot, which is complete nonsense, is paced just well enough that you never have to think about it. I mean did the Ghosts initially appear because of Zuul, leading to the creation of the Ghostbusters? Because then what is the B-plot about opening up the central containment unit? But it doesn’t matter because the characters themselves also don’t really understand what is happening and are learning as they go. When they see a ghost they are as bewildered and awestruck as the audience, which is part of its charm. Despite the theoretical danger these Ill-equipped ne’er do wells runs towards the ghosts in the spirit of discovery and it’s relatable because if someone told you there was an actual ghost somewhere you might wanna check it out. Although being armed with a nuclear laser gun would also help. 

The best trick Ghostbusters pulls is to turn Woody Allen New York into a haunted house. This is helped by the use of 55 Central Park West – best bit of spooky location work since the carpet in the Shining – but also the excellent score just adds a little menace to ordinary transition scenes. Little instances like a haunted fridge or skeletal taxi driver help to suggest there are ghosts taking over all of New York. One of many criticisms one could level at Age of Ultron is that it failed to establish Ultron as a global threat who could be anywhere at any time and had taken hold of the internet. Just a couple of quotidian examples which showed how the world had been brought to a standstill would have been much more effective at raising the stakes. Because of three seconds of an evil fur coat when Venkman gives his speech about cats and dogs living together we believe his sincerity.

There are enough little details in the plot to give a more solid feel of it’s own lore, which as a kid I appreciated. Proton packs and the PKE meter join the Flux Capacitor and Speak & Spell as cool imaginary inventions that could never exist in reality. 

In Ghostbusters the real creepiness is that all the signs are there and actual ghosts start appearing and immediately all the scientists who speak about them are fired. Then another appears and the hotel pays to cover it up. Near the ends Rick Moranis is attacked by a demon dog in front of dozens of diners who pause for a second and continue their meal. I said Ghostbusters wasn’t a horror, but it could have been. Rarely was there a more telling parable for a society heading comfortably towards apocalypse. But it’s played for light laughs and so even the main characters are not that worried about the Nyarlathotep type prophet of doom until fairly late in the day, and even then they are hardly desperate Cassandras warning anyone who will listen.

It is interesting however how clear a vision of the apocalypse the writers had. When the Central Containment Unit gets shut down and the swirling clouds and lights go off around New York and a fire hole appears in the building. It’s kind of odd how much of a Chernobyl commentary there is in a film about haunted fridges and ghost blowjobs. The climax of the movie is literally the fallout from a nuclear explosion covering the city as our heroes emerge from a concrete sarcophagus. 

Of course the metaphor would have been more resonant if it had not been released two years before the Chernobyl disaster. In the prologue to V for Vendetta there is a line
“Back in 1981 the term ‘nuclear winter’ had not passed into common currency, and although my guess about climatic upheaval came pretty close to the eventual truth of the situation, the fact remains that the story to hand suggests that a nuclear war, even a limited one, might be survivable.”

And Ghostbusters like V and Where the Wind Blows is another harrowing little artefact of the grip nuclear catastrophe had on 80s collective consciousness so that any attempt to imagine the end of the world resembles a nuclear meltdown. I think we are glad that we have moved on from nuclear paranoid to pressing concerns. Now thanks to progress the police no longer beat up people who foolishly thought being melted into class was not ideal, and instead beat climate protestors instead. I recently watched the movie Boss Baby 2 where there is a joke about climate change and one of the characters notes it is a little dark, but that’s about the only recent incidence where I remember a mainstream thing even referencing the looming apocalypse. In the original Iron Man the point was that Tony Stark has invented infinite energy so maybe Avengers world has moved on, although it’s not clear that had created any improvements in people’s living conditions. Perhaps environmental collapse is just too boring to show cinematically. 

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