My analysis of Ghostbusters II provoked some healthy debate when it was posted on Proton Charging’s Facebook page yesterday. It is a testament to Ghostbusters—the movie, the franchise, and the sequel—that it continues to inspire such a passionate following over twenty-five years after the last installment was released.
Speaking of which, I suspect the development of Ghostbusters II went something like this: Someone on the creative team—probably Dan Aykroyd—became taken with the notion of a river of slime as a key element of the sequel (I believe I’ve even seen drafts of the script in which “River of Slime” was suggested as the movie’s subtitle). It probably didn’t take long to realize, however, that a river of slime is a noncorporeal entity—flowing ectoplasm has no agenda beyond existing, no antagonistic impulses whatsoever—and this Monster in the House movie was clearly in need of a monster—i.e., someone the Ghostbusters could actually fight. Hence, Vigo the Carpathian was conceived.
The problem with Vigo, as I established in my aforementioned study, is that he has no discernible connection to the slime—he’s an altogether unrelated paranormal entity (and you’re only allowed one supernatural catalyst per story, making his presence an instance of Double Mumbo Jumbo). So when you take a microscope to Ghostbusters II with that in mind, you see how wobbly its structural integrity is: The entire plot hinges together on a series of loosely related (or altogether unrelated) coincidences. The initial moviegoing audience—myself included—was distracted from this narrative flaw by all of the film’s perfectly engaging “ornaments”: the rich performances; the cast’s unparalleled comedic chemistry; hilarious dialogue and situations; the emotional stakes of Peter and Dana’s romantic subplot. So, you walked out of the theater entertained—Ghostbusters II is a joyous movie that pushes a lot of the right comedic and emotional buttons—but with this nagging feeling that the sequel just wasn’t as good as the original. But, you chalked it up to the fact that sequels are seldom as satisfying, and that’s kinda that.
But, this is a site that celebrates and studies screenwriting craft, and, after a quarter century of being a Ghostbusters II apologist, I wanted to put my finger on exactly what about the sequel wasn’t connecting with general audiences like the first one did—why even series director Ivan Reitman always seems so nonspecifically displeased with it (how I wish he’d been more candid in the recent interview featured on the Blu-ray release). And it became apparent to me, upon last year’s viewing, that the screenplay violates DMJ. And the fact that it “broke a screenwriting rule” isn’t the basis for my indictment—I don’t believe in those kinds of rules, anyway—but rather I submit that its failure to observe that time-honored principle resulted in a structurally problematic narrative: If you weren’t fully satisfied with Ghostbusters II, it’s because the storytelling just didn’t have the elegance of the first movie. When you consider that conventional transgression alongside the fact that the sequel is otherwise so damn entertaining, I propose that is the reason why no one (counting Reitman among them) has been able to identify precisely why the movie fell short of its forerunner’s greatness—why it has always been criticized (and defended) in vague, general terms: “It wasn’t as good” or “C’mon, Ghostbusters II isn’t that bad!” The point of my earlier piece was to both criticize and defend it with concrete analysis so as to make storytellers aware of the pitfall of DMJ—because if screenwriters of the eminent caliber of Ramis and Aykroyd can fall victim to it, anyone can.
One of the tricks to taking critical feedback, as a screenwriter colleague of mine has wisely propounded, is to understand the difference between the suggestion and the underlying note. So, someone may read, say, your horror screenplay or manuscript and suggest that you incorporate more monster attacks—maybe here, here, and here—but the note underneath that suggestion is that the story left them bored or insufficiently scared in places. So, the suggestion itself may or may not be right—that’s something you’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis—but the note points to an overall issue you will need to address (in whatever way you deem appropriate). When my feedback is solicited, I try to offer notes, not suggestions; however, since Ghostbusters II is no longer open for development, let me make a suggestion, using the story’s “river of slime” conceit, as to how it might’ve established a more credible basis in internal logic:
Remember when the judge is reaming the poor Ghostbusters in court, growing angrier and more belligerent as his invective persists, until the jarred specimen of psychoreactive slime on the evidence table bubbles over and explosively discharges the malignant spirits of the Scoleri brothers? Well, what if, instead of that sequence culminating with the Scoleris’ capture and ecto-containment, the wicked spirits instead escaped the courthouse with an evil plan to get revenge on the city (and state) that had consigned them to the electric chair? Or maybe it wasn’t the Scoleris that were released from the slime at all—perhaps it was Vigo (how he was “trapped” in there to begin with would have to be pseudoscientifically addressed, mind you, but that wouldn’t be particularly challenging from a screenwriting perspective). Point is, whether we’re talking about the Scoleris, Vigo, or another apparition altogether, now we’ve got a corporeal villain—something with an agenda that our heroes can fight (and that fights back)—that is a direct manifestation of the river of slime. And because this antagonist was contained in the slime before the judge’s abusive tirade “let the genie out of the bottle,” so to speak, the story is now embedded with the equivalent of the “crossing the streams” precept in the first movie; i.e., a set of internally logical rules whereby the very thing from which the specter originated can also be used—in a last-ditch Hail Mary, of course!—to vanquish it. In that scenario, Double Mumbo Jumbo has not been violated, because the whole plot is now operating on the principle of cause-and-consequence.
Because good storytelling must be predicated on causality. Yes, there are “Antiplots,” as Robert McKee calls them (he cites Wayne’s World as a popular example)—an anti-structural inversion, often self-consciously satirical, of classical narrative design (the monomyth)—but those, in their own absurdist way, are themselves a statement about the nature of causality in storytelling: the necessity of it if story is to have meaning. In a classically structured narrative (like Ghostbusters and the majority of commercial entertainments), the inciting incident can be a complete coincidence—an off-duty cop finds himself in the same place at the same time as a gang of terrorists who seize control of an L.A. high-rise—but everything thereafter needs to obey the laws of cause-and-effect: John McClane and Hans Gruber spend the remainder of Die Hard reacting to one another’s moves and countermoves. Causality. Defy it at your peril. It not only grounds your movie in logical consistency—something even more crucial in farce and fantasy in order to make the world contextually believable—but it allows for setup and payoff: How thrilling it is when a small, insignificant detail pays unexpected dividends at the climax of a story (and no movie, for those seeking illustration, is more loaded with elegant setups and payoffs than Back to the Future). Ghostbusters II spent a lot of screen time overcompensating for the absence of causality as a ramification of its DMJ infraction, and, as such, couldn’t end on a thrillingly revelatory “crossing the streams” moment; rather, it climaxed with a bit of a nonsensical mishmash. To be certain, we were rooting for our heroes to prevail—that’s what the movie got gloriously right—but we couldn’t fully share in their celebration, because it was never made particularly clear how they managed to emerge victorious.
Twenty-six years after its release, Ghostbusters II still inspires impassioned deliberation from a devoted fanbase, which only serves to emphasize the lofty responsibility that’s been taken on by Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, the respective director and screenwriter of the announced series reboot. However their efforts are received when the film is released, they will bring their own idiosyncratic approach to the fictional world initiated by Aykroyd, Ramis, Reitman, et al., which only enhances the innate value of Ghostbusters II: It is now, with certainty, the final contribution to this cherished piece of cultural folklore from the brilliant minds that originated it.