The nostalgia factor

A confession: until this week I’d never seen Ghostbusters (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman).  I grew up in the late ’80s; I was well acquainted with the theme song and drank “Ecto Cooler” juice boxes with pictures of Slimer on them in elementary school.  But I wasn’t familiar with the film itself.  It’s a strange thing, watching for the first time something that has already become a kind of cultural touchstone for your generation.  And I hate to say that without the nostalgia factor films like Ghostbusters seem a bit underwhelming.  Would those who grew up with this film love it as fondly if they suddenly saw it now, as adults, for the first time?  Perhaps not.  I certainly wouldn’t feel the impact of a film like Return to Oz the same way now that I did watching it on video as a kid, when it fascinated and terrified me. 

I know that many people my age cherish this movie, so I’m loath to beat up on it too badly.  It’s a fun movie; Bill Murray is, as always, irresistibly funny and rather sad (in his hangdog expression and drooping eyes here you can see the seeds of the roles he would play so beautifully in later films like Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers).  Sigourney Weaver, on the other hand, seemed more or less wasted in a part that gives her almost nothing interesting to do.  But there are plenty of charming touches here—Annie Potts as a comic-strip secretary with big glasses and a Brooklyn accent thick enough to make a sandwich out of.  I was less charmed, though, by the dumb sex gags—Dan Aykroyd dreaming about a beautiful ghost pulling open his pants, or Sigourney Weaver possessed by a demon that makes her horny, etc.  They didn’t seem to sit well with the rest of the film, which seemed to me unsure of the tone it wanted to strike, as if it hadn’t made up it’s mind whether to be an innocent, good-natured family-friendly cartoon or a hip comedy for the SNL age.  (Murray’s deadpan comic timing, an example of the latter, seems to be coming out of a different movie than the kinds of broad caricature that we find in, say, Potts’ receptionist, or Rick Moranis’ nebbishy accountant.)

So: do folks think this is a legitimately great film?  Is it simply an okay movie that gets rounded up to classic status for reasons of nostalgia?  Is there something I’m missing?  Or is it that I’m missing having seen this as a kid with everybody else?    


  1. I love the Ghostbusters movies. I've watched them repeatedly, albeit mostly in their modified-for-TV format. They are flawed, dated, and uneven, but they're also iconic, archetypal, and incredibly grand pieces of film-making.

    The Ghostbusters movies will forever have a place among the great sci-fi/fantasy franchises of all time. Will it ever be considered one of the greatest comedies? No. Action films? Natch. But, to geeks, they're gold medal winners.

    Let's break the film down: the lonely, nerdy guys start a business doing something nerdy and lonely: hunting ghosts. For reasons associated with opening the Hellmouth, ghosts start showing up everywhere, meaning that suddenly these crackpots are in demand.

    This is nerd wish fulfillment at its finest. ECTO-1, the proton packs, the jumpsuit, the logo - these are iconic symbols in geek culture. Why? Because they represent what all geeks aspire to: to be hailed as heroes for their own unique, obscure interests and skills.

    Is this nostalgia? Not really. Most Ghostbusters fans of our generation grew up watching the cartoon version, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, which was much better, on the whole, the either movie. However, the movies hold a special place in our hearts, despite their shortcomings. My view of the films is probably tinted by nostalgia, but I would happily watch along, quoting lines and humming the tune. At this point, I know they're flawed and I still love them. Isn't that what love is?

    If Ghostbusters 3 were announced tomorrow, it would result in the largest collective geekgasm since the proof-of-concept short for Tron: Legacy. Would the resulting movie be terrible? Almost assuredly (See Reitman's 2001 film Evolution for evidence). Would I pay money to see it and not give a damn. Hell yes I would. Nostalgia would be part of that, I suppose, but there's something else besides: affection.

  2. Thank you for breaking that down, Jon! I agree 100% and I completely understand the phenomenon you're describing. There are plenty of movies that I, too, feel such love and affection that the flaws in the structure don't seem to matter much. (Maybe my own personal example of that would be the Fairy Tale Theater series--I can see that it's imperfect in a lot of ways, but it taps directly into my childhood like few other movies/TV shows do, and I will always love it passionately and irrationally for that reason.) And I think your nerd-wish-fulfillment theory is right.

    Bear in mind that I'm not trying to beat up on Ghostbusters; I'm just trying to understand the film and the phenomenon, and I'm coming from a place where my opinion is colored by neither a) nostalgia nor b) my belonging to the sci-fi nerd community to which it speaks so powerfully, as you say. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Okay, so, I'm coming to this insanely late, but I wanted to chime in as I felt I gave you an unjust ribbing for "giving 'Ghostbusters' a bad review."

    Brilliant hypothesis! I completely understand the idea that nostalgia makes us blind to the flaws in things we love, and I think it's worth exploring further! In my case, these observations are usually relegated to musical works (I know people think Puccini is schmaltzy, but I don't care), but your post made me actively apply the thesis to the films I love as well. I genuinely think you should flush this out further. Perhaps a book? I know, I know, you have copious amounts of spare time, but I stand by my idea!

    As for the film itself: I will wholeheartedly admit that my attachment to it has much to do with memories I have of my early experiences with it. I remember running around with friends attempting to slay ghosts a la "the Boys in Grey" in the 80s. Plus I vaguely remember the TV show and the song as being constantly in my peripheral vision somehow.

    However, in my adulthood, I still point to "Ghostbusters" as being one of my favorite comedies. I love it for the structure elements that Jon mentioned (misfits ban together and the very thing that makes them outcasts makes them heroes), and the half-sad/half-hysterical self-consciousness of the characters...particularly of Bill Murray's. There's something incredibly endearing about an anti-hero who know he's pretty much good for nothing, but still, at the end of the day, wants to do something good. In the second film he has a great line in which Sigourney Weaver's character says something like, "You weren't very good for me, you know that," and he says, "Heck I wasn't very good for ME." I think there's something very poignant and funny about that.

    Also, the writing is pretty witty at times--you have to admit. One of my favorite exchanges of all time:

    Hey, where do these stairs go?

    They go up.

    It's silly but it's strangely intelligent. It's also general wiseass-ness, which I find never really grows old.

    I must also defend Sigourney Weaver to some extent. Being the girl that I am, I have to say I don't feel she's wasted at all, but rather lends a sort of high-brow, Margaret Dumont quality to the whole thing. She's the straight man, but she's brilliant at it--always slightly cocking her head or saying something noncommittal in response to Murray's antics like "Okaaaaaaaay..." Plus, the scene in which she first rejects Peter's advances is beyond classic. It's everything I would want to say to a potential and unfit suitor and more. I'm storing away lines like "You are SO ODD..." and "Yes, we both have the same problem...YOU," for future use. Classic (and classy) put downs.

    I agree that the sex gags are rather ridiculous, though I will say that the contrast between Dana Barrett's tight-lipped and proper cellist and the over eye-shadowed "possessed" version of her as "Zule" is rather brilliant. I think we get to see what a range Sigourney has, if only for a few moments. Plus, it makes for some adorable double entendre with Bill Murray. I know it's kitsch, but it still makes me laugh.

    I believe "Ghostbusters 3" is already filming or at least in production. I second Jon's assertion that I will play money for it without batting an eyelash. In fact, I'm quite excited.

    Thanks again for opening my eyes to the "nostalgia phenomenon." :)