For most people, the original Ghostbusters films are a good time, a good theme song, an opportunity for laughs, and a slice of peak Bill Murray with a side of ‘80s nostalgia. But for a select few, the 1984 film — and to a lesser extent, its 1989 sequel — has become an ideological rallying cry that has divided fans. Even if you wore out your Ghostbusters VHS tapes growing up, there’s more to life than movies, and whether you believe in nature or nurture, just about everyone can agree that a movie won’t override either. But the hyperbolic response of Ghostbusters fans — the ones who insist a reboot will ruin their childhoods, who devote energy to downvoting the new movie’s ratings on IMDb or Letterboxd, and who come up with conspiracy theories about the critics who give the reboot good reviews — at the very least suggests there’s something in the original Ghostbusters that resonates with the way they see the world.
It wouldn’t be fair to describe the original Ghostbusters movies as sexist, no matter what hatefulness has been spewed by those who think they're defending the movies' honor. The men in Ghostbusters, for the most part, don’t even talk to women that much — with the exception of Murray’s wannabe playboy Peter Venkman, the team of scientists focuses much more on busting ghosts than on making any generation-defining commentary on gender. But the movie is also very much a product of its time, both in its immediate production within 1980s Hollywood and as the inheritor to the science fiction comedy traditions that preceded it.
Ghostbusters premiered in 1984, which, to put it in perspective, was only one year after the final film of the original Star Wars trilogy had bowed in theaters, setting new box office standards for films across all genres. It was only seven years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind connected science fiction to the Baby Boomer psyche, at least a decade since Young Frankenstein and Sleeper offered up science fiction with adult humor, and over two decades after Jerry Lewis and Disney charmed families with professors both nutty and absent-minded, respectively. In the span of a generation, science fiction had resolutely moved from the realm of the familiar B-movie, with movies like Mars Needs Women and Plan 9 From Outer Space, into the realm of mainstream family filmmaking.
Ghostbusters was the movie to tie together all of the different versions of science fiction that had preceded it. The jokes were winkingly adult, with demon-possessed sex drives and suggested ghost blow jobs, but nothing was so explicit you couldn’t bring your kids along. The special effects mixed high-tech effects with goofy designs that called back to the days of low-budget sci-fi. The Ghostbusters were nerdy scientists, but the inclusion of Saturday Night Live superstars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd also made the team cool. And, of course, the way we know they’re cool is that in the end Bill Murray gets the dream girl; in this case, the admirably composed Dana Barrett — as played by the reigning queen of sci-fi from this galaxy to the next, Sigourney Weaver.
Murray’s Peter Venkman pursues Dana from the moment he sees her. He answers her call about supernatural activity in her apartment, and by the end of his house call he’s professing his love — which she promptly rejects. Venkman’s persistent courtship becomes the through line of the movie’s plot, as does Dana’s reasoned rejection. He meets her at work, and presents himself as the fun, unpretentious alternative to the usual bores she meets in her job at the city symphony.
"You don’t act like a scientist," she says. Venkman responds, maybe thinking it’s the route to a compliment, "They’re usually pretty stiff." But Dana’s not buying: "You’re more like a game show host." And then she walks away.
Throughout their first scenes together, as Venkman clods around her apartment with his goofy science equipment, and around the symphony in his goofier jumpsuit, Dana Barrett is presented as out of Venkman’s league in looks, in class, in intelligence, and in manners. But by the end of the movie, the Ghostbusters are rock stars — every job they go on, they’re met with adoring fans and cheering crowds. None of the Ghostbusters have the look of a traditional movie star, but their work saves the city, their business is a smash, and, more than anything, they’re funny. You might not be able to build a machine that can cause a total protonic reversal, and you might not have success with a real-life paranormal company, but in Ghostbusters, goofy charm becomes a currency in a world that usually trades on accomplishments and looks, and its value is dependent on humor being a novelty to the woman who has everything — except good timing.
It’s rare for the second Ghostbusters movie to be brought up with the same sense of reverence as the 1984 original, but maybe because it continued the same story, it isn’t being treated as an affront to '80s childhood everywhere in the way the new remake has been. Part of the problem with the sequel is that it lacks the energy of the original — where the first movie was a parade of constant success, the sequel is a portrait of men whose relevance has passed them by. Venkman is still a lovable cad, but his courtship of Dana is focused more on commitment than charm the second time around, with promises of stability and fidelity and candlelight dinners, and nights spent in the apartment tending to Dana’s baby. Suddenly the fantasy wasn’t quite so fun — compromising for the girl isn’t as satisfying as winning her.
In the second Ghostbusters movie, joy activates the positive potential of the pink slime, and the Ghostbusters literally use laughs to save the city. Maybe this is the source of confusion for the angry redditors protesting the new movie — where some superfans were inspired by the original movie to go out and become scientists or build replica cars, for others Ghostbusters made every man a superhero regardless of his actions. All you had to do to save the world was make a helpless, humorless girl laugh. If the first Ghostbusters sequel was tolerable at least in the familiarity of its characters and their strengths and weaknesses, the new Ghostbusters movie removes the central gender dynamic completely by casting women not just as keepers of the city’s safety, but keepers of the city’s good spirits, too. If women can be heroic and funny without the help of men, then what’s left for men to prove their value besides actual work?