I feel that, over the years, the Ghostbusters narrative has lost the plot. And I’m not just talking about the story of the movies, but the whole nature of the series. It all started out as a cool idea for a one-off ’80s fantasy-comedy, with some adult elements and starring some of the great comedy performers of their day. But it became a merchandising and multimedia franchise that for the longest time was based on one great movie, a sequel that was disappointing to many, and a cartoon series. Ghostbusters is now about the menagerie of paranormal threats and the legacy of four guys with a silly business, when to me, the appeal of the “series” (really the first movie) was the presence of the fantastical elements facilitating some good jokes. I don’t know, I’m not trying to excise the very premise of Ghostbusters from why I like it. I like the ghosts and original practical effects and all that! But with the series’ latest release, the long-awaited direct, years-later sequel to the original duology, AFTERLIFE, I can’t help but feel there are more middling-to-bad Ghostbusters things than there are good ones. With that vote of confidence delivered, this piece ranks the four Ghostbusters movies released so far, from the 37 years from 1984 to 2021. It’s a pretty straightforward progression (or regression).
#4 — GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021)
D: Jason Reitman
Some light spoilers!
I actually wanted to like GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE, in spite of whatever problems I have with its director Jason Reitman, son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. By problems, I mean that Jason seems to always…misplace emotional notes. There’s always a buildup to things that are just ultimately not very compelling to me. And yeah, that problem continues into AFTERLIFE. My biggest problem with the movie is the wide array of moments where characters take a breath or pause, music swells, and they say something so mundane. There’s not even an evident attempt at a joke, or a meaningful line. It’s just weird. I also understand AFTERLIFE’s introduction of a “new generation,” as the movie is a play at older fans and their kids. But the STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) influence is strong, and that’s not really what I want from the, again, originally slightly adult tone. I should note, however, that Mckenna Grace does well as a mini-Egon. And I think the story’s root in Spengler (my favorite Ghostbuster) is interesting and a good connection to the original movies. As with any good thing about AFTERLIFE, it also feels a bit cheap at the end, although I was moved as a big ol’ nerd and huge fan of Harold Ramis. In spite of AFTERLIFE’s more direct connection to the original movies, most attempts to make it a significant or faithful ode to the original fell flat. It’s played serious way too often, and when it tries to make jokes or be fun, it’s weirdly muted!
#3 — GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)
D: Paul Feig
Look, GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 (or subtitled “Answer the Call” after the fact, like other movies at the time that got weird rebranding when they came home) is not good. But neither is AFTERLIFE. And pound-for-pound, I had more fun watching this woman-led reboot than the “canonical” AFTERLIFE. GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 ignored the stories of the original movies and brought variations of the personalities of the original quartet into new roles from a majority SNL-associated cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The intense backlash to the announcement of a “female” Ghostbusters movie, and the accompanying bad reviews, obscure the fact that GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 is bad for reasons beside the gender of the central performers. Indeed, the four of them do fine with what they have, especially McKinnon. The stars of the original movies (minus the dead Harold Ramis) show up in “Answer the Call” in cameos, albeit as different characters, but otherwise, GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 feels a bit more like a Ghostbusters movie than AFTERLIFE because of its New York setting and more direct focus on, well, jokes. It gets started more quickly than its successor as well, and although, again, GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 doesn’t stand as a good comedy on its own, it moves more quickly and doesn’t carry a strange, faux significant, or self-serious tone.
#2 — GHOSTBUSTERS II (1989)
D: Ivan Reitman
I was a stupid kid when I saw it originally, but I thought GHOSTBUSTERS II was pretty good. Even with later viewings, I thought the intense dislike of this sequel, widely seen as disappointing, was overblown, and I do think it has softened over the years. It did, however, begin the more family friendly slant of at least the movie franchise and more directly capitalized on the merchandise and video game angle; THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS (1986–1991) cartoon series admittedly did shift this earlier, but of course it wasn’t at the same scale. But I always thought Vigo was a cool villain, Rick Moranis was as funny as ever, and the effects were still impressive to me. GHOSTBUSTERS II is not a great movie or a great sequel, but its reportedly steep decline from the first is a little more level as I see it.
#1 — GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)
D: Ivan Reitman
But there’s absolutely no competition for the best Ghostbusters. In fact, GHOSTBUSTERS is the only great movie in the series. The numerous iconic moments, lines, visuals, and characters stem from a genuine and satisfying fusion of high-concept fantasy/horror and the style of comedy that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis performed in their other films. GHOSTBUSTERS is in debt to the “old haunted house” comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it expands and modernizes the appeal of those movies to great effect. The main trio just have tremendous comedic chemistry, while the supporting roles from Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts are brilliantly woven into the character dynamic. I love the practical effects, which were of a kind that only the ’80s were able to produce, and while I think overt “emotional” moments are in the sparsest supply compared to the movies to come, GHOSTBUSTERS is as touching as it is funny and thrilling. Of course, it is one of the best-known and best movies of its day, an appeal that has continued to last, as shown by the constant attempts to recapture its energy. But GHOSTBUSTERS may just forever reside in a brilliant pocket of its own.