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Reviews

Ghostbusters: 30th Anniversary edition

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Ivan Reitman
Blu-Ray; Cert 12a; 105 mins

Some folk believe that the qualitative experience of watching cinematic images is determined by how they are projected - front projection (as in cinemas) apparently draws out right brain functions, which control empathy and enjoyment; rear projection (as in televisions) speaks to the left brain, in charge of logic and technical processing. The theory of left and right brain dominance is seriously questioned today, but the notion that the manner in which light is transmitted onto a screen somehow affects the manner in which the image is received by the viewer isn't absurd. How we see determines what we see isn't a controversial idea; and it was in the forefront of my mind (left and right) while watching Ghostbusters, the classic comedy being re-released to cinemas for Halloween. Whether it's speaking to a specific hemisphere of the brain or not, the nostalgia afforded by a re-release provides the opportunity to reflect on the dreams we had on our first viewing, the dreams we have now, and the spaces in between.

Ghostbusters surprised its makers by the sheer proportion of its success - it was a gargantuan hit in 1984, but for readers who were kids in the mid-1980s, it's much more than a box office titan. Along with filmic cousins like Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters mediated our vision, not only of what the USA was (a place where dreams come true amid enormous buildings) but what life was all about (it starts with being one of those dreamers). Those four films have something else in common: they depend on some form of magic to drive their plot (supernatural stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a centuries-old treasure map in The Goonies, 1.21 gigawatts of plutonium and a re-tooled Delorean in Back to the Future, and as for Ghostbusters, there was a certain substance called ectoplasm.

The story - graduate students on the verge of being expelled from university catch a lucky break in the form of ancient demonic spirits choosing just that moment to emerge from Sigourney Weaver's fridge and take over the world - was, of course, never plausible. What makes Ghostbusters work is the characterization, which primarily consists of Bill Murray's feckless Peter Venkman, more interested in the conquest of women than understanding the paranormal world, Dan Aykroyd's clumsy true believer (apparently not unlike Aykroyd's real life persona), and the late lamented Harold Ramis' delightful nerd Egon Spengler. These all feel fully realized, supported by the magnificent comic essay by Rick Moranis as one of the more put-upon adorable schmucks in cinema.

Authentic atmosphere and craft are so rare in comedy, but Ghostbusters doesn't just create a sense of place (it's one of the great New York films), but relies upon the distinguished film composer Elmer Bernstein to follow such iconic works as On the Waterfront and The Magnificent Seven with witty piano and gorgeous theremin. The writing is tight, following the adage that scenes should begin late and end early; the overall pacing and cinematography confirm Ghostbusters as a real work of art.

As for what it's about, well there may be only so much you can say about green slime monsters trashing elegant hotels, but there's more to the adventures of Team Ectomobile than goo and marshmallow Frankensteins (and it is actually a bit frightening in places). The philosophical heart of Ghostbusters is a challenge to pomposity - poking fun at academic and political authorities who aren't willing to think outside the box. A cardinal responds to the evident destruction of the city saying, 'The church won't take a position... but don't quote me on that.' Ghostbusters is quoted widely, three decades after its release, partly because it reminds us of a more innocent vision of the US (and ourselves), why Bill Murray is so universally popular (he's ordinary and annoying and he gets the girl), and ultimately because it appeals to the part of each of us that wants to believe we're funny too.