Given that this summer marks the thirtieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries, respectively, of Ghostbusters (enjoying a limited theatrical rerelease this week) and Ghostbusters II, I recently took an opportunity—the first since screenwriting on a professional basis—to re-watch them. This can be something of a perilous exercise—bringing my experienced analytical eye to a movie that carries such personal nostalgic weight for me—but I almost always walk away with an enhanced appreciation for the film in question, be it a newfound recognition of its merits or clearer grasp of its shortcomings.
Much has been written about Ghostbusters; much less about Ghostbusters II. In the years since its release, the latter has come to be considered the bastard, redheaded stepchild of the franchise, which includes the highly regarded animated series The Real Ghostbusters (1986–1991). When discussing Ghostbusters, the sequel typically merits an obligatory, passing mention, though often with a discernible tenor of embarrassment; even series director Ivan Reitman offered this vague and somewhat apologetic assessment of the follow-up in a recent retrospective published by Vanity Fair: “It didn’t all come together. We just sort of got off on the wrong foot story-wise on that film.”
Other appraisals of Ghostbusters II are equally nonspecific. Other than a general consensus that “it wasn’t as good as the original,” I’ve been hard-pressed to find a critique that adequately identifies why, as Vanity Fair notes, it “failed to generate the passionate enthusiasm spurred by the first film.”
“WE’RE THE BEST, WE’RE THE BEAUTIFUL, WE’RE THE ONLY… GHOSTBUSTERS—WE’RE BACK!”
Fan apathy is especially perplexing since, upon renewed viewing of the picture, the screenwriter in me came away impressed by all the things it got right. The chemistry amongst the talented cast hadn’t waned in the least five years on. Screenwriters Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd conceived a believable low point at which to start the Ghostbusters in their second installment (a direct consequence of the climactic events of the first film), effectively recapturing the joy of watching our hero underdogs launch their unlikely business essentially from scratch again. New obstacles in the romance between Venkman (Bill Murray) and Dana (Sigourney Weaver) are credibly established, fertilizing a more emotionally complex and—for my money—more fulfilling love story this time around; most sequels struggle with incorporating new character arcs for returning protagonists (a pitfall David Freeman calls “sequelitis”), but Ghostbusters II handled the matter expertly. And whereas the first film had its share of one-liners, it was, overall, more situationally funny; the sequel, on the other hand, is full of hilarious, character-specific dialogue exchanges like this one:
RAY (apprehensively): You think there’s a connection between this Vigo character and the… slime?
EGON: Is the atomic weight of cobalt 58.9?
Some have accused II of being “sillier” than the original, but I think marching the Statue of Liberty up Fifth Avenue is an uproarious (and almost inexplicably uplifting) sight—and perfectly tonally consistent with the original movie, which had the boys in a battle royal against a “hundred-foot marshmallow man” on Central Park West. Ghostbusters II doesn’t betray or shame the spirit of its forerunner in any way. It didn’t necessarily build upon the mythology of the first film; it’s no Aliens—few sequels are—but it’s certainly no Beverly Hills Cop III, either. It’s hard for me to imagine why there isn’t more love for the Ghostbusters’ encore outing.
“FOR A MOMENT, PRETEND THAT I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT METALLURGY, ENGINEERING, OR PHYSICS, AND JUST TELL ME WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON”
The movie is marred, admittedly, by a structural imperfection that only upon recent viewing became apparent to me. I can’t say whether this is the silver bullet—the flaw that has unconsciously nagged at viewers for a quarter-century—but here goes: The plot of Ghostbusters II lacks the causational elegance of its predecessor. And there’s a specific reason for this: It violates a principle that Blake Snyder termed Double Mumbo Jumbo.
The essence of DMJ is this: An audience will accept one “act of magic” only. “You cannot have aliens land and then be bitten by vampires and become both alien and undead,” Snyder propounds. Aliens and vampires are two unrelated instances of “magic,” and to ask an audience to believe both coexist independently in the same fictional universe is to strain its so-called willingness to suspend disbelief. It’s the reason why Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason sound cool conceptually, but never quite cohere in execution (well, that and over-franchising).
Take Groundhog Day. Imagine, at some point during the story’s second-act time loop, E.T. had landed in Punxsutawney for a close encounter with protagonist Phil Connors (Bill Murray). That would’ve thrown you completely out of the movie—it would’ve felt wrong, even if you couldn’t put your finger on why. That’s Double Mumbo Jumbo.
It gets violated all the time by talented filmmakers who should know better. Looper is set in a futuristic world in which time travel is possible and a percentage of the population has developed telekinetic powers—two totally unrelated bits of magic. Pacific Rim asks us to believe that gargantuan otherworldly creatures invade Earth by way of a dimensional portal on the seafloor. Okay—I’ll go with that. To combat this threat, humanity constructed robots the size of skyscrapers that require—oh, boy, let me see if I have this straight—two pilots apiece whose brains must been linked via some neural interface so as to not overload the mind of either operat—
Oh, forget it—too complicated. Interdimensional monsters and giant robots with mind-numbingly convoluted operational technology are two separate “buy-ins.” I’m willing to grant you one, but not both.
Let’s look again at our speculative Groundhog Day scenario whereby E.T. makes an appearance: If the time loop is a direct result—intentional or otherwise—of the alien presence, as is the case in Edge of Tomorrow, then the DMJ principle has not been contravened, because the temporal repetition is a consequential permutation of the extraterrestrial intervention. Translation: It’s a case of one act of magic with ensuing consequences—not two separate magical occurrences. The many instances of magic in Harry Potter—and there are a lot—are all attributable to a single source: the conceit of the “wizarding world”—a secret society in which magic (in all of its many iterations as defined by author J. K. Rowling) is taught and practiced outside the purview of the rest of us ordinary Muggles. Because the parameters of this wizarding world allow for the coexistence of such varied hocus-pocus as magic wands and invisibility cloaks and lycanthropy, Double Mumbo Jumbo does not apply. (If aliens invaded Hogwarts, however, the narrative might grow, shall we say, unwieldy.)
“WE’RE READY TO BELIEVE YOU”… JUST PLEASE KEEP IT SIMPLE
The plot of Ghostbusters II is missing that grounding component of any good fantasy—logical causality—because it breaches DMJ. On the one hand, a river of slime has materialized in the abandoned pneumatic subway tunnels beneath Manhattan as a physical manifestation of all the hostility and bad will being generated by the irascible New York masses on the streets above; meanwhile, at the Museum of Art uptown, the spirit of Vigo the Carpathian, a seventeenth-century despot—imprisoned in a portrait that’s recently been pulled from storage for restoration—has his sights set on Dana’s infant son as the vessel through which he might return to corporeal form. These two distinct supernatural occurrences have nothing to do with one another. Now, a token attempt is made by the screenwriters to link them (see the dialogue citation above), but the correlation—or lack thereof—is papered over with a joke, not addressed with an explanation. Because there is no explanation, other than unfocused screenwriting (with all due respect to the genius of Ramis and Aykroyd).
Now consider the causational machinations of the original Ghostbusters: Dana’s Art Deco apartment building on Central Park West had been expressly designed by a misanthropic architect after the First World War as a gateway through which Gozer the Gozerian, the god of destruction, would enter our world and bring about its untimely end. The proliferation of paranormal activity in New York—the very thing that incites the Ghostbusters to open up shop in the first place!—is later deemed to have been a harbinger of Gozer’s arrival. So, all the spectral activity that occurs in the movie, including the demonic possession of Dana in her own haunted penthouse, stems from the same magical source—the dimensional portal on Central Park West—allowing the seemingly random events of the plot to converge and pay off with tremendously satisfying results at the rooftop climax.
Contrast that with the third act of II, in which the museum is inexplicably coated in an impregnable ectoplasmic shell (if Vigo the Carpathian can control the subway slime, it’s never definitively established, so what gives?), and Vigo somehow prematurely emerges from the painting to do battle with the Ghostbusters (wasn’t the point that he couldn’t enter our world without a human host body to possess, hence the reason he went to such trouble to acquire Dana’s baby?). The supernatural rules of the second film are muddled because the two pieces of magic that drive the plot are unrelated.
And since the rules are cloudy, the central conflict can’t possibly be brought to a fully satisfying, surprising-yet-inevitable conclusion. At the finale of just about any story, the heroes charge into danger with renewed resolve—and a “foolproof” stratagem for success (in a beat Snyder calls “Executing the Plan”)—only to see said scheme unexpectedly foiled (“The High Tower Surprise”), thereby compelling a moment of inspiration or bravery or both (“Dig, Deep Down”), and prompting “The Execution of a New Plan.” So, in Ghostbusters, this sequence plays out as follows:
- “Executing the Plan”: The Ghostbusters face Gozer and use their reliable tools of the trade to attack…
- “The High Tower Surprise”: Their “ghost-catching” weapons are ineffective against a god!
- “Dig, Deep Down”: The only way to close the dimensional portal is to “cross the streams” from their particle throwers—a last-resort measure that carries world-ending risk (a seemingly insignificant detail that had been skillfully foreshadowed by writers Aykroyd and Ramis during the team’s first ghostbusting gig at the Sedgewick Hotel)…
- “The Execution of a New Plan”: With no small degree of apprehension, they cross the streams and succeed in closing the gateway.
At no point is the audience confused about the logic and stakes of the action; the same can’t be said for the finale of Ghostbusters II: Because the story never sufficiently makes clear what Vigo and the slime have to do with one another, the climax skates by on goodwill over internal logic. And, to be sure, there is enough goodwill in II to compel the audience to just “go with it” and enjoy. The film’s screenplay has a great many assets—it succeeds as a sequel where others have failed—but it is saddled with an unfortunate case of Double Mumbo Jumbo that undermines the logical consistency of the story, rendering the experience perfectly enjoyable if not fully satisfying.
Is that what Ghostbusters fans take issue with? I don’t know. It could be a host of reasons—first and foremost that a sequel can never deliver on the one thing we want most from it: a precise emotional encore of the earlier experience. It’s part of the reason I won’t mind if the long-gestating Ghostbusters III never gets made (though I’m certain the brand will be exploited again sooner than later): The original films were of their time—not entirely flawless in execution but just perfect in memory.