Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: "Ghostbusters II"

So... I don't hate this movie. I know that might be surprising after I basically ranted for a week about all the myriad ways in which I hate this movie, but hear me out.

As I finalized each part of my Recap, I became increasingly aware of the fact that even though pretty much everything about it bugged me to pieces, I didn't hate it.

I was surprised, too.

Plot/Themes
Before I talk about the overall plot, I need to mention the three plot lines.
  1. Hate slime
  2. Vigo
  3. Ghosts
As originally filmed, none of these things seemed to be related to each other. Extra bits were filmed to explain that the ghosts were coming from the slime, and Vigo was feeding off the slime’s hate energy. Of course, there are still unanswered questions.

Was Vigo behind the slime’s existence? Or was he simply using it as a power source? Why were there ghosts in the slime? Why did Vigo all of a sudden gain power and begin setting his plan in motion? Was there finally enough slime? Or did it have to do with the impending New Year?

It's easy to come up with some headcanon as to the answers, and I wouldn't be surprised if you were already preparing to type your theory into the comments section. I just find it frustrating that even after some reshoots and rewrites with the purpose of helping explain these points... they still go unexplained.

It'd be like if the first film didn't include the bit about Ivo Shandor specifically designing Dana's building to accumulate ghosts and absorb their energy, which neatly explains why the ghost population was increasing and why the Ghostbusters' existence neatly coincides with the same rough timeframe as Gozer fooling around inside Dana's fridge.

The only concrete answer to the slime's origin that I could find is in the 2009 video game, where the slime was being spewed out by a giant Sloar.

No word on any Shubs or Zulls roasting in its depths.
As for the overall plot, basically, they took the formula to the first film… but changed the ingredients. Ghostbusters II is basically the first movie with the details changed. The Statue of Liberty instead of a marshmallow man, lack of respect at the beginning of the film, a bureaucrat in their way, et cetera.

But as I’ve said before, the biggest problem with creating a sequel is figuring out which stuff to change from the original and which stuff to keep. And to make the script-writing process even harder, they were forced to tone down the content for kids. And to make things even harder, keep in mind that Dan Aykroyd’s original script from the first film had to be whittled down and rewritten by Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman in order to bring us the first movie. So Aykroyd was writing a sequel to a script that, when you really get down to it, he never set out to write in the first place.

Ghostbusters II basically had no chance of being objectively good and universally enjoyed. But some people do like it. Other people hate it. But why the massive difference in opinion? Well… I have a theory.

I think your enjoyment of Ghostbusters II depends on your ability to either like or tolerate the tonal shift from the first movie. And I’m not just talking about the toned-down content, either. I’m talking about the subtle genre switch.

Tonal Shift: From Science Fiction to Science Fantasy
Look. I gave Ghostbusters a lot of slack when it came to that film's handling of the supernatural. Mainly because I was very impressed by the amount of research that was done into real life paranormal "science." Ectoplasm, demonic possession protocol, the ESP test, the whole thing. The way it was handled was basically a paradigm shift in how horror films worked.

As I mentioned in my Review of the first film, Ghostbusters was fairly unique for its treatment of the supernatural. "Magic" got the Arthur C. Clarke treatment of being science that we as mere humans don't fully understand. Gozer, an ancient Sumerian god, is quantified as an extra-dimensional being that thinks of humans as "sub-creatures," similar to the many-angled beings in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. The ghosts themselves emit a specific energy frequency, which renders them vulnerable to being trapped within a laser grid charged with opposing energy.

So while Ghostbusters delves into the paranormal fantasy genre, it still stays solidly rooted in relatively-hard science fiction. But the sequel goes beyond "paranormal" and dips into “disproven theories.”

The film’s main conceit of inanimate objects being empathic is... just... absolutely wrong. Definitively wrong. Any supposed "proof" that's popped up over the years can be easily explained by random outside interference or even crappy equipment. Polygraph machines are, for example, infamously crappy hunks of junk. They're so easy to beat, that you could actually find a class to teach you how. They are far from being foolproof testing equipment. Heck, they taught my dad to fool them when he was in the military. And that series of experiments where they hooked a polygraph up to a plant and concluded that it had emotions? All they actually discovered was that their crappy machine kept picking up outside stimuli.

My point?

The first Ghostbusters film primarily relied on a single unproven paranormal theory: The existence of ghosts.

Which is easily forgivable. I mean, if there aren't any ghosts, you don't have a movie, you have a 5-minute sequence where three professors get kicked off a college campus. And even then, it made sure to justify the ghosts as, basically, energy patterns manifesting a semi-solid form thanks to extra-dimensional plasma.

Basically, it's the same technique Doctor Who uses, saying "They're not vampires, they're fish monsters with holographic disguises that render them invisible in mirrors and don't hide their fangs!"

Or how Thor says "They're not Norse Gods, they're advanced aliens!"

Or how Stargate SG-1 says "They're not Norse Gods, they're advanced aliens!"

Ghostbusters II ups the ante and adds more paranormal pseudoscience. That wouldn't be so bad, but they're just kind of throwing it out there without as much sci-fi justification.

Mood slime. Why? It just is.

Vigo's spirit resides within a painting. Why? Probably magic, or something.

...I know, I know, you're still waiting on my point.
My point is this: Ghostbusters was, at its core, a relatively hard sci-fi/horror/comedy. Ghostbusters II softens up the sci-fi and adds an evil wizard in a painting for good measure.

Is this some big crime? No. But it changes the tone of the film. This change isn't necessarily automatically a bad thing, though. In fact, it kind of gives this film its own identity. Except, simply as matter of opinion, I like the first film's tone better.

I liked the idea of scientists being humanity's last line of defense against the unknown.

I liked the idea of humans kicking a demon's butt back to Hell by splitting some atoms and shooting out the protons left over.

I preferred it when Ray Stantz was a scientist, rather than the owner of an occult shop. And really, that pretty much represents all my complaints with how the sequel handles the supernatural all wrapped up in a single point.

The first movie had more of a sci-fi bent, and Ray was a scientist. Sure, he believed in ghosts, but he and Egon went out looking for them with scientific equipment using something that resembled proper documentation.

And then he started up a magic shop and sold crystals to a coven in the sequel. I mean, sure, there's no evidence that they work at all, and Ray always was the most supernatural-minded of the team, but it's still really jarring. Then he found some psychic slime and got possessed by an ancient wizard who lived in a painting.

To make a long story short….

Quiet, you.
One of the most distinct differences between the two movies is how, despite identical story beats, the sequel acts more like a traditional fantasy/horror movie with a few sci-fi trimmings, rather than the unique blend of supernatural sci-fi the original was.

From this...
...to this.
And as for toning it down for the kids, let me just say that I find it paradoxical that Columbia Pictures wanted to pander to the kids who loved the first film… while also being under the impression that the first film was too scary for kids to watch.

I can only imagine that this is how they saw entire swaths of kids reacting.
Characters
I'm not going to have as much to talk about here for some of these characters. Some of them are pretty much exactly how they were in the first movie, and I'd rather not just say the exact same things at length again.

So instead, I'll assume you've read my Review of the first film (here's a link if you haven't) and instead of wasting your time, I'll focus on things exclusive to this movie, or any changes between this one and the previous one.

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray)

Once again, Peter Venkman undergoes the main character arc of the film. And once again, he’s learning how to be a better person. But instead of his transformation from a jaded cynic into a sarcastic hero, Peter starts off as a manchild and turns into father material. It’s really not an interesting arc, mainly because it takes the form of a romantic comedy in the middle of this comedy/horror movie. It also doesn’t help that Peter Venkman has apparently been comedically neutered; thanks to Columbia’s increased awareness of the kids in the audience, Bill Murray’s performance is more akin to the one he phoned in for Osmosis Jones, rather than, say, a classic like Groundhog Day.

It’s easy to see that he was either unwilling or not allowed to ad-lib for this one. At least, not as much as the last film. As such, the off-the-cuff charm of the character is pretty much gone. This could be why he once commented that the film was "a whole lot of slime, and not much of us."

Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd)
Ray Stantz is a very interesting character... in that he's pretty static in both films. The only thing of note I really have to say is that Aykroyd’s performance is as good as ever, although I take some issue with such a scientifically-minded man opening up an occult shop, as I’ve said.

Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)
For whatever reason, Egon is certainly livelier in this one. Most of his lines in the last film were comedically blunt (“I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” “Print is dead.”), but this one gives him all sorts of one-liners. Still, Harold Ramis is a good enough actor to make them work for the character, and he even utters my favorite line in the movie.

Too bad they gave his romantic arc form the first film to Louis, but it can’t really be helped; Ramis hated the idea of Egon and Janine hooking up.

Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson)
Okay, seriously. Did somebody working on this movie just hate Ernie Hudson?

Winston got sidelined in the first movie because of the numerous rewrites. It sucks, but I get it. These things happen sometimes, and Dan Aykroyd felt really bad about it.

So why was Winston sidelined again? He wasn’t there when the guys tore up the street, so he wasn’t there at the trial, which means that he wasn’t there when the team made their triumphant return. Despite the fact that he’s supposed to be a full-fledged member of the team at this point. I get that Winston wouldn’t be much help with their paranormal research for Dana, but the guy could at least help them dig up the street, you know?

…Or maybe Winston simply has common sense that the other team members lack.

Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver)
At least Dana was turned into an evil minion last movie. That was interesting.

In this film, Dana regresses to a boring love interest who only gets involved with the plot because Janosz targeted her son… for some reason. I know, I know, he was interested in Dana, but Janosz sucks as a minion. He could have just nabbed some random kid in a crowd if he really cared about the will of Vigo.

Dana has so little character beyond “love interest” that I’ve actually said more about Janosz in this part.

Oscar Barrett (William T. Deutschendorf and Hank J. Deutschendorf)
These kids are terrible actors. They pretty much keep the same blank expression on their faces the whole time, and they keep looking either at the camera or the off screen boom mic. I guess it doesn't really affect the quality of the movie, but it's pretty distracting once you start noticing it.

Louis Tully (Rick Moranis)
He has no reason to be in this movie as much as he is. His subplot was cut out, and I think the audience would have been happy if they had limited his presence to a cameo in the trial. But no, he falls in love with Janine in a subplot that basically goes nowhere. He asks her out, they babysit together, they start making out, they’re a couple. That’s it. That’s their whole story together.

Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts)
As for Janine herself… meh. Annie Potts is as wonderful to watch as ever, but her sarcasm and humor is replaced with sarcasm-byproduct and humor-like substance, thanks to the watered-down script for kids. Not even Annie Potts can make her lines funny.

Vigo (Wilhelm von Homburg)
And this is where things get… interesting.

Von Homburg has led a rather interesting life, filled with hardship... and the terrible things he's done, including the rape of his own stepmother.

The man was born Norbert Grupe, but changed his name to Wilhelm von Homburg for his wrestling career, as it sounded more evil. The guy was a career heel, which is wrestling slang for the guy the audience is supposed to be rooting against. The guy thrived on being hated, which is ironic, because he was really excited about his big break in film. So much so that when his unintelligible performance in this film was dubbed over by Max von Sydow (who you might recognize as Ming the Merciless from the 1980's Flash Gordon film), he stormed out of the film's premiere.

He never got along with his dad, but he was really upset when he was told about his father's death... a month after it happened. So angry, in fact, that Norbert had a friend keep his own painful death from cancer a secret from his sister (possible daughter, what with the aforementioned rape) until a month after the fact.  Along with a single message: Touché.

Long story short, Norbert was a spiteful, hateful, terrible human being who did some terrible things and suffered greatly in this life. And according to the filmmakers, he got the job of Vigo because his oft-broken face and general demeanor seemed hatefully villainous. And I have to agree; Vigo might not get much screen time, but the few moments he has onscreen simply ooze with the villainy that came natural to Grupe.

Now... the elephant in the room.

Yes, as I have noted, Norbert Grupe is a rapist. And that might color how one sees the movie as a whole, much like how many people found themselves unable to watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off after Jeffrey Jones became a convicted sex offender. Honestly, the question is whether or not one is able and/or willing to separate the actor from the character. And that's up to the individual audience member in question.

In the end, though, I have to say that reading up on the actual life story of Norbert Grupe was more interesting than Vigo, whose half-Rasputin, half-Vlad the Impaler characterization certainly lacks the presence and horror of Gozer the Gozerian.

Janosz (Peter MacNicol)
Peter MacNicol put a lot into his performance. Apparently, he helped turn the character from a boring guy named “Jason” into the vaguely-foreign dweeb he became. Apparently, MacNicol went to foreign embassies to craft his accent, came up with the idea of Janosz being a Carpathian art scholar, and even created a fictional backstory for the Carpathian region he and Vigo hail from.

So really, after all that effort to craft his character, it's a darn shame that the script didn't back him up. Even the best performers suffer when their lines suck. (See my comments on Janine.)

Jack Hardemeyer (Kurt Fuller)
A cheap, unremarkable Walter Peck knockoff. Moving on.

Prosecuting Attorney (Janet Margolin)
She’s the prosecuting attorney. I have little to say about her, other than this was the last role Janet Margolin had before passing away from ovarian cancer a few years later. May she rest in peace. Her performance was fine, I’m just wondering why she got her own cutaway in the credits. Speaking of the credits…

Slimer (Robin Navlyt)
Robin Navlyt, currently Robin Shelby, was given the shaft when it came to the credits, with Slimer being credited as himself.

Way to devalue a performer's hard work, movie.
So I want to give her credit where it's due. She did a great job of manipulating that puppet for its brief scenes.

Unfortunately, the puppet itself has gotten a terrible redesign. See for yourself.

Oh, Slimer. They've turned you into a green prune.
The original Slimer puppet had smoother features, smaller eyes, and horse-like teeth that gave the puppet a creepy grin. The redesigned puppet has big goofy eyes, a big goofy grin, and a head with an exaggerated shape. It looks creepy, but in more of a “demented clown” way, rather than a “this thing might eat you” way.

And you know why the change was made?

Curse you once again, The Real Ghostbusters.
Ecto-1A
I know, not really a character, but I had to mention it at some point. The Ecto-1 is replaced with the Ecto-1A. Flashing lights, stickers on the sides. It’s up to each individual whether the original Ecto-1 looks better.

Similar, but not exactly the same. Kind of like this movie, huh?
Visuals
The ghosts look really cool in this. I’ll admit it. But I’d also like to say that the majority of them don’t exactly seem like ghosts. At least, not the vaguely-humanoid monstrosities of the first film. Sure, the Scoleri Brothers and the jogging ghost are clearly your classic flavor of spook, but the coat that comes to life? The numerous monsters running around?

So, exactly what kind of person leaves that kind of ghost behind?
The Real Ghostbusters ended up receiving a mandate from the higher-ups (due to reasons that are too complicated to get into here) that they had to make the ghosts more monstrous and less human. I’m wondering if that may have been the case with this movie, too.

But the river of slime, the proton packs, they all look top notch. I have to mention the Vigo painting as well, which was actually a gigantic photograph made up to look like a painting. The practical effect of using a rubber painting to make Vigo’s 3-D face pop out in some scenes looked really amazing. Even with the rushed deadline.

It’s easy to see why some people think this movie was actually scarier for kids; the monsters are certainly less human, and arguably freakier, while the practical effects look like they came straight out of a straight-up horror flick.

Music
Randy Edelman’s score is… okay. Nothing to write home about. And the incidental music is hit-and-miss. Some songs are good, such as Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own,” but Run-D.M.C.’s version of the theme song is terrible. No joke, go listen to it. It sounds amateurish.

Best Character: Egon Spengler
His continued presence made the movie a lot better than it might have been otherwise.

Best Actor: Peter MacNicol
He put a lot into his role. If only he’d taken it upon himself to modify his lines a bit.

Best Line
Egon: "We had part of a slinky. But I straightened it."

Final Thoughts
I honestly don't know how I feel about this movie. It does a few things well, but in other ways, it's utterly infuriating. The more I think about this movie, the less I like it. And yet, if this movie's on, I'll occasionally put it on in the background while I'm painting, or drawing, or something.

Heck, my Redesign of the Space Phantoms was inspired by the river of slime, which I always thought looked really cool.

While recapping this movie, I came to hate it. And I thought that would be my final opinion on it, even as I began posting my Recaps. But after thinking about it a bit more, I think that it's sort of a reverse "sum of its parts" deal. Each problem with the movie annoys me to an extreme degree, but I find the end result to simply be not very good, as opposed to a full-on travesty.

In the end, I would say that its biggest problem is that it simply tries to rehash the formula of the first movie instead of doing its own thing. So it seems like a retread, rather than a sequel. And as I've said, I prefer how the first film handles the concept. More than anything else, this movie just disappoints me.

Still, at least I can take some solace that even if the upcoming reboot of Ghostbusters ends up being disappointing… I don’t think it can be quite as disappointing as Ghostbusters II. Not many things are.

6 comments:

  1. Wow, reading your review makes me hate the movie more than the sparse times I've watched it. I think its because it had to be toned down, it somewhat embraces an undercurrent of Anti-Intellectualism. Considering how prevalent it is nowadays, especially within my uncritical thinking family, its just another reminder of how I feel I need to always dumb myself down to everyone IRL.

    Have you ever thought of doing a recap of the "Extreme Ghostbusters" series? I saw an episode that had a writer that was a mix of RL Stine and Clive Barker be held prisoner by his Cenobite-like creations, I found it quite good.

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    1. I see your point, though I think the anti-intellectualism was a side effect of the rampant commercialism.

      And I LOVED Extreme Ghostbusters as a kid, and when I rewatched a few episodes a while back, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they largely held up.

      The biggest obstacle towards recapping them is simply FINDING them. As far as I know, they weren't even released on VHS, let alone DVD.

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    2. easily remedied buddy, I found them on youtube

      https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=extreme+ghostbusters+episode+1

      And while you're on youtube and I'm using this thread for self-promoting, check out my let's play series
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCImrGHJNZxMQ6Q0WuQFdp1A

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    3. YouTube isn't exactly what I'd call my "Plan A," but I appreciate the thought.

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    4. This is Robin Shelby (Slimer, GB2) Just wanted to say thank you for your kind words. :) I had such a great time working on this film. I'm a lucky girl. :)

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    5. You're absolutely welcome! I'm glad your experience on the film was a positive one. I can't imagine that outfit was comfortable to wear, though.

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