I was 14 when "Ghostbusters" opened.
I had spent the two weeks before the movie opened with my grandmother in Memphis. She was my most dedicated moviegoing co-conspirator. A trip to Grandmommy's house meant a full week of going to see everything playing in the theater all week long. I picked. We went. That was how easy it was. I was set to leave from her house and go straight to Boy Scout Camp for two weeks, and the day before I left from her house, "Ghostbusters" opened.
I was the only kid in camp for those two weeks who had seen "Ghostbusters" before leaving home. While the outside world was going crazy for the movie, with bootleg t-shirts onsale in Times Square three days after the movie opened and the dialogue instantly becoming the most-quoted lines of the year, inside the camp, I was alone in my mania, and I think I must have sounded like a lunatic to everyone else as I tried to explain just why "Ghostbusters" was so incredible.
Even now, it's hard to explain to someone who wasn't a movie fan at the time just how big an impact the film had. It was a monster runaway financial hit, sure, but beyond that, it was one of those genuine collective cultural moments, and I would argue that "Ghostbusters" is one of the most influential movies of the '80s. What they did so well was make a blockbuster horror film, complete with "state-of-the-art" ghosts and hardware, while making fun of it at the same time. The attitude of Bill Murray's character, Peter Venkman, has become the prevailing attitude of pop culture in the '90s and the '00s. Pop culture ribs itself so mercilessly all the time now that sincerity is almost subversive.
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"Ghostbusters" was absolutely part of effecting that cultural shift. People went berserk for Bill Murray's biggest moments in that film. They screamed. They laughed. "Ghostbusters" was an audience movie, and the whole audience was rooting hardest for the guy who kept giving that student electric shocks at the start of the film to score points with a pretty coed. Venkman's a "game-show host," as Sigourney Weaver ad-libbed, and that's precisely what audiences loved. They loved having someone on-screen thumb his nose at the outrageous things happening around him.
And the proton pack was the single best sci-fi gadget created since the light saber. I love the proton packs and the traps and the Ecto-1 and the firehouse set and the gear of the Ghostbusters. There's something so utilitarian and great and hilariously mundane about the design of "Ghostbusters," one of the most perfectly stylized comedies ever made. Every call they made on the look of the film was right on the money. The animated energy beams. The slightly exaggerated goofy ghosts and the occasional moments of real horror. The lush widescreen Lazlo Kovacs cinematography. The score. It's just perfect.
I've always been sorry that the principal partners on "Ghostbusters" couldn't keep the series more active over the years. I think this is as flexible and smart a franchise idea as "X-Men," if you manage it right, and Danny Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are step number one in managing it right. There is no "Ghostbusters" without Aykroyd, and without Ramis, no one's going to reign Dan in and keep him speaking something approximating English. As soon as they had that scene in the first movie where Aykroyd mortgages his house, I thought I'd be seeing 17 of these films by this point in my life:
"PETER: You're never going to regret this, Ray.
RAY: My parents left me that house. I was born there.
PETER: You're not going to lose the house. Everybody has three mortgages nowadays.
RAY: But at nineteen percent! You didn't even bargain with the guy!
EGON: Ray, for your information, the interest rate alone for the first five years comes to $95,000.
PETER: Will you guys relax? We are on the threshold of establishing THE indispensable defense science of the next decade. Professional paranormal investigations and eliminations. The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams."
I mean, what a great natural set-up. By the end of this film, it was obvious that the world could get as weird and outrageous as the guys wanted to make it. A giant marshmallow man attacks New York. That gives you permission to go pretty much anywhere with a series of sequels. And yet, until now, we've seen a cartoon spin-off and one sequel which was not terribly well-liked. Hardly the cultural force it seems like "Ghostbusters" should be.
It has, after all, been 25 years. And, yes, for you math wizards, that makes me "really damn old." And yet, for a few hours over the weekend before last, I felt like I was 14 again, only with one thing that I never could have imagined at 14... a "Ghostbusters" game that really does simulate what it would be like to have to trap the ghosts as part of the team. And not just any team... the team.
Atari's "Ghostbusters: The Game" took a fairly circuitous route to stores, and it wasn't until the Terminal Reality development team had been up and running for a while that they hooked up with Akyroyd and Ramis, which took their project from a licensed game to an actual extension of the original films. Not only did Dan and Harold cowrite the game script, they also helped get most of the original cast in place to provide their voices for the characters they defined in the films. The result is an authentic Ghostbusters experience. You play a new cadet, hired to help out with all the Ghostbusting now that the company is working directly for the city. The gameplay pretty much throws you into the deep end right away, and I actually found the first few levels to be the hardest stuff in the game. After the learning curve of figuring out how to finesse the proton beams in order to catch a ghost and then wrangle it into a trap, there's not really much else to the game. What works is the world itself. The events of the game tie the first film and the second film together, as it becomes apparent that the slime from the second movie and the crazy occultist architect, Shandor, from the first film may actually be related. As a result, you interact with some familiar characters and landmarks over the course of the game, as well as fighting your way through new obstacles in new places.
I enjoyed every second I spent playing "Ghostbusters." Altogether, I spent less than six hours, and I played the whole game from start to finish. That isn't a negative thing, per se, since it's not like I'm made of time to begin with. But it is surprising, especially in a world as rich with opportunity as this one. It's very much a game where you're encouraged to stay on the rails. Don't expect a sandbox where you get to walk around New York doing anything you want. I wish it had been structured more like that... where you're just able to respond to all the calls coming in, pick your own missions, with a larger story inching forwards rather than hustling through it all at once.
Even so, I found the gameplay engaging, I was surprised how often the game was genuinely funny, and the iconography is just as much fun to look at as it ever was. "Ghostbusters: The Game" isn't the single greatest licensed game of all time, but it's also not the disaster that most of them are. It delivers on the promise of putting you into the experience, and for that alone, I would say it's worth playing. I reviewed the PS3 version of the game, for the record.
I also used the PS3 to watch the new BluRay release of "Ghostbusters," and I've actually played it a few times now to try and wrap my head around the image quality. I've read other reviews online, I've talked to people who work on BluRay transfers and I've even seen guys like Robert Harris, a truly brilliant man who cares deeply about preservation and restoration, say that they think this is as good as "Ghostbusters" has ever looked.
And I still sort of hate the transfer. A lot.
I think it's horrible. I know what film grain looks like. I know that not every film is going to look brand-new. I get that. But there are so many things wrong with this transfer that I hardly know where to start. The brightness seems to be way overcranked all the way through, and the result is a washed out, noisy clarity, a transfer that I think looks worse than the 1999 DVD release of the film.
There are some nice extra features (many of them reproduced from the 2005 DVD release, which had several of the exact same transfer issues that this has, suspiciously enough, although Sony swears it's a brand-new transfer done last year), including something called "Slimer Mode," a pop-up visual commentary that runs throughout the film. I like these new variations of the commentary formula, and I think it really enhances the 40th viewing of an old familiar favorite like this. And the soundtrack for the film has been given the sort of treatment I wish the image had also enjoyed, so the film sounds amazing. I just wish this was a better overall disc. "Ghostbusters" is important enough to deserve better than this.
If they do make a "Ghostbusters 3," I hope it's less about the first two films than the game is, and more about moving forward. I still think there's life in these bones, and even if I have some gripes about both of these releases, they work best when they remind us exactly why the Ghostbusters hold such special cultural relevance in the first place.
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