2.5 out of 5 stars

Why was the sequel to one of the world’s most beloved, successful comedies such a failure? Had the national zeitgeist shifted? Or was the production simply doomed from the start? Beneath the veneer of a light-hearted sequel, there were public spats, long delays, a reluctant cast and crew, unsuccessful test screenings, and extensive last-minute revisions to Ghostbusters II. The result was something strange in the neighbourhood: an unfunny comedy and a dull summer film.

Five years after saving an entire metropolis, the Ghostbusters are bankrupt and despised by the general public. They’ve sunk to performing at children’s birthday parties, or have returned to their scientific careers. That is, until they discover a potent, psycho-reactive substance—or, in layman’s terms, “mood slime”—coursing beneath New York City’s streets. As Dana (Sigourney Weaver) has recently experienced another paranormal event, the Ghostbusters spring into action to save the day once again.

In my review of Ghostbusters (1984), I mentioned how those involved in the film miraculously avoided complete disaster. The entire concept for the film doesn’t seem to work on paper, yet it was still a giant success. Ghostbusters II confirms that the creative team simply captured lightning in a bottle.

The sequel isn’t as fun, entertaining, or wacky as the first, and falls flat where the original stands tall. It doesn’t help that some of the cast look noticeably bored, turning it into a pale, dull entry into a franchise that probably should have remained a standalone effort. Additionally, production problems have tampered with the final product, making the film feel listless and messy.

Even without the studio interference, the film probably would have been a confusing affair. Much like Dan Aykroyd’s original script for Ghostbusters, there were too many disparate ideas that couldn’t quite be coalesced into a uniform whole. Aykroyd wanted the film set in a new location, entertaining ideas for a plot based in Scotland, including fairies and underwater battles. Needless to say, some of these ideas were considered too far-fetched, even for the Ghostbusters.

Instead, we are reintroduced to our protagonists right where they belong: in the Big Apple. However, we soon discover they have been ostracized as lunatics by society, but it isn’t explained why—the entire city of New York witnessed their dismantling of supernatural forces less than five years ago. It seems as though Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd wanted to paint their characters as disbelieved, misunderstood heroes to garner the audience’s sympathy, but it only comes across as bizarre. Is the whole city suffering from some kind of ghostly amnesia?

Perhaps it’s just apathy towards society’s treatment of heroes, a theme Aykroyd was keen to explore. A central idea that made its way from the earliest developments of the story was the negativity and anger so prevalent in large cities. New Yorkers’ malice and aggression are manifested in a slime that runs beneath the metropolis, threatening to reduce the entire city to ruin.

Aykroyd claimed that this metaphor was buried deep in the story’s structure. However, the final monologue, where Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) espouses the need for urbanites to treat each other kindly, feels immensely pointed and tonally inconsistent with the franchise. Ray laments dramatically: “You know, I just can’t believe things have gotten so bad in this city that there’s no way back. I mean, sure, it’s dirty, it’s crowded, it’s polluted, it’s noisy and there’s people all around who’d just as soon step on your face as look at you. But come on! There’s got to be a few sparks of sweet humanity left in this burned-out ‘burg!” Suddenly, it feels as though we’re watching an excerpt from Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

Scenes like this one completely miss the mark, and lack emotional weight for several reasons. Firstly, the original Ghostbusters was never intended to be an edifying experience; the whole film is daft and never tried to be anything else. Including a moral in a Ghostbusters film seems like an uphill battle, especially considering that the original instalment didn’t even attempt emotional journeys or character arcs. Implementing a lesson in a summer film had better actually serve the plot—like in Jaws (1975)—or you risk alienating your audience.

Secondly, the plot often feels like the mere assemblage of trailer moments designed to recapture that sense of that precious feeling of wonder audiences had when seeing the first film. The mayor leaning over his desk and gesticulating wildly—“Get me the Ghostbusters!”—feels forced and unnecessary, much like the film itself.

Oftentimes, the film seems unsure of what it’s doing. This is probably largely due to the numerous rewrites the film experienced. Aykroyd was asked to tone down the adult components of the film to make it more suitable for a younger audience, who had become a large target audience after the success of the cartoon series The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991).

Reports on the extent of these changes vary. In 2021, Bill Murray divulged that they ended up with an entirely different screenplay than the one they agreed to film when the cast signed onto the project. Whether this is true or if the grumpy actor is merely indulging in hyperbole is beside the point; there were significant alterations made during production. Director Ivan Reitman even confessed that the ending of the film was met with such a poor reception by test audiences that they cut the final 25 minutes of the film, and reshot the ending using an improvised script a mere two months before the release date.

In hindsight, it feels as though the cast and crew were trying to circumvent an unavoidable truth: the original film could not be recreated, no matter how hard they tried. This was largely because the 1984 comedy had a pleasing element of surprise; it was a novel concept and was delivered with enthusiasm by capable performers. Here, our stars—particularly Murray—seem to lack enthusiasm, and the novelty of the premise has vanished.

This partly explains why the film wasn’t a hit with audiences upon release, with many citing that the plot was too similar to the previous instalment. The public had waited five years for the return of the Ghostbusters, and was met with a lukewarm imitation of their previous adventures. This is not to mention some pacing issues (which were probably exacerbated by rewrites and other production problems) and another generic villain with apocalyptic intentions.

Reitman himself later went on to note that, despite being proud of his directorial effort, he felt Ghostbusters was a film that couldn’t be easily emulated. He stated that the visual effects and dramatic finale simply don’t work repeatedly as they become tired and stale concepts. Indeed, the visual effects do seem to be relied upon too heavily in the sequel, something which Murray complained about—though, one can’t be sure if he has legitimate grievances or if he simply enjoys complaining.

It’s somewhat understandable that the VFX department wanted to showcase its capabilities after a five-year gap since the original. The river of evil slime appears to utilise the same visual effects as those used by James Cameron in his groundbreaking underwater thriller, The Abyss (1989). Perhaps less forgivable was the decision to include Slimer in the film. He was incorporated into the sequel to appeal to their child audience. However, his presence as the Ghostbusters’ pet living at the firehouse is never explained within the film, as it’s a subplot in the cartoon TV series.

What Reitman failed to mention was the uncharacteristic lack of humour. The key component that saved Ghostbusters from becoming an oddball B-movie was its amusing lines and charming commitment to gags. Ghostbusters II, in contrast, lacks both charm and laughs. There are several moments in the movie where it feels like the editor has left a pause for the audience to laugh, though I suspect that silence greeted these brief lulls.

Ramis’ Egon provides some of the only funny moments in the film, particularly in his tests on human emotion at the beginning. He interferes in a couple’s marriage counselling session, and then measures the happiness levels a young girl experiences when stroking a pet rabbit. Smiling with interest, he intones to his assistant, “Now, let’s see what happens when we take away the rabbit.” Unfortunately, these forays into more offbeat humour aren’t sustained, and the film soon descends into unfunny silliness.

There’s also an inexcusable lack of Janine (Annie Potts) in the story. Having become something akin to the group’s irritable elder sister in the first film, she’s almost absent in the sequel. Her role is essentially condensed down to another trailer moment when she picks up the phone and offers a wry grin: “Ghostbusters… Yes, we’re back.” If the film possessed the same energy as the first, it would be a joyful moment, but it instead feels like a desperate attempt to revitalise viewers’ nostalgia for the original product.

Rick Moranis’ performance, though short, is probably the best of the entire cast. His rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from an accountant’s perspective is hilarious, as is his pairing with Janine. Sigourney Weaver has far less to do than she did in the first film, while Ernie Hudson is again given little material to work with as the gang’s sidekick.

All in all, Ghostbusters II takes on the air of a perfunctory, soulless endeavour, the kind that many studio-enforced sequels have come to demonstrate. The cast and crew were ambivalent about the project from its inception, a symptom which was worsened by the various production problems and rewrites.

The film’s failure, both critically and commercially, has led many to question the true reason behind its downfall. Was it released at the wrong time of year? Was it simply made too long after the original? Perhaps the national demand for upbeat, light-hearted films had shifted towards darker pictures. Or, perhaps, the simplest explanation is also the correct one: Ghostbusters was an original comedy film that simply didn’t need a legion of sequels.

USA | 1989 | 108 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Ivan Reitman.
writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis.
starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson & Annie Potts.