If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, you know who to call. But what if you find yourself 30 years in the past, and your neighborhood doesn’t exist at all? Who can possibly help you then?
These are the questions pondered in this week’s column as the two most successful sci-fi comedies of the 1980’s (and possibly of all time) go head to head in the Reel Rumbles arena. Who will stand, and who will fall? Read on as Ghostbusters charges forward into battle against the formidable Back to the Future.
In Ghostbusters, the 1984 hit from director Ivan Reitman, three professors lose their grant and positions at a university and decide to start an extermination business. But Venkman (Bill Murray), Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Spengler (Harold Ramis), are not hunting just any kind of garden variety bug. They are putting their passion for paranormal psychology to use and tracking down ghosts. And it’s a good thing, because New York is infested with them. Ghostbusters is a classic example of how a film can be successful without a particularly strong story. That’s not a knock on the Aykroyd-Ramis script. Ghostbusters knows what it is, and it knows what it isn’t. It is a vehicle for Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis, to flex their comedic muscles. It is not an intricately plotted story with suspense or surprises. It will not take viewers to places they didn’t expect to go, and the same could be said upon its original release. There is a damsel in distress, a predictable and quickly-developed love story, a pesky meddling government official, and a special effects extravaganza at the film’s climax. Many films, before and after, have utilized the same formula with varying results. Watching Ghostbusters 25 years after its debut, the story does not stand out from the throng. Luckily, an excellent cast, plenty of laughs, and an experienced director, pick up the slack; but more on that later.
Back to the Future comes out swinging with a combination of laughs and thrills that are strengthened by a nearly flawless Robert Zemeckis-Bob Gale script. Zemeckis also directs, and takes the opportunity to wring every last bit of story that he can from the proceedings. In Back to the Future, teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has inadvertently created a problem that threatens his existence. After a violent encounter with Libyan terrorists leaves Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) dead, Marty jumps into the doc’s time machine and ventures back 30 years to 1955, where he meets younger versions of Doc Brown, his parents, and other familiar faces from his hometown – a neat fantasy unless you accidentally interrupt your parents’ meeting, become the object of your mother’s desires, and all but doom your chances of ever returning to your own time. Once the events are set in motion, Marty realizes how heavy his dilemma actually is, and the harder he tries to correct it, the worse things become. His interference with his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and father’s meeting story means father George (Crispin Glover) will have to work harder to win her over. He’ll have to stand up for himself, show backbone and be confident. All the things he never learned how to be, is what he must become. It’s a big task, and one Marty must take charge of if he ever wants to be born. So in a sense, Marty must parent the parent. Much of the humor comes from these interactions and the difference between memory and reality. For example, George was not bird-watching when he was hit by his future father-in-law’s car. He was peeping at Lorraine from a nearby tree as she undressed. Furthermore, older Lorraine condemns “parking,” yet when Marty encounters her in 1955 after he one-ups the town bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), she is ready to do a lot more than that.
Back to the Future has so much fun developing characters, reveling in 1950’s nostalgia, and punching up the hip-ness of the 1980’s that Ghostbusters must simply hang on for the next round. Scorecard: 10-8, Back to the Future.
The Aykroyd-Ramis script for Ghostbusters is a fun, light-hearted romp, written to the strengths of each actor, and full of funny and memorable lines. “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass,” “He slimed me,” and “Don’t cross the streams,” are all instantly recognizable to film students with any knowledge beyond what is currently playing at the local cineplex. The climactic set-piece featuring the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is a pop culture icon that represents the deceptive nature of evil. Sometimes the worst things can come in the most harmless-looking packages. Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) is also an authentic depiction of the modern woman – feminine, graceful, attractive, confident, and perfectly capable of forging her own way in the new landscape, so long as there are no hellish deities around to get in the way.
Back to the Future’s screenplay answers the bell with finely rendered characters, tightly plotted twists and turns, and a pace that sizzles with laughs and tension, blitzing to a three-crescendo finale: George’s confrontation with Biff, George and Lorraine’s first kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance amid a soaring performance of the classic “Earth Angel,” and Marty’s final moment in 1955 when Doc Brown channels lightning into the time machine and jettisons Marty back to the future. It was clearly a more difficult script to develop, but Zemeckis and Gale proved up to the challenge, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. As a result, Back to the Future earns the 10-9 edge.
The role of Venkman was originally written for John Belushi, but Murray seems custom-made for the part. He delivers with a smugly likeable edge, and steals most every scene he’s in. Murray is a master of brash arrogance and condescending understatement. He can pull off both while remaining imminently loveable. Weaver also makes the most of the role given her, shedding a little of that hard edge displayed in Alien and comfortably settling in to her sexuality. As straight men to Venkman’s constant cheesing, Aykroyd and Ramis keep Ghostbusters from getting too silly, while enjoying a moment or two of their own to bask in the spotlight. Annie Potts, as the Ghostbusters secretary; Ernie Hudson, as the add-on fourth ‘Buster; and Rick Moranis, as an obsessive nerdy accountant pining for neighbor Dana Barrett, add support as well.
The cast of Ghostbusters is enough to floor lesser competition, but the performers in Back to the Future come ready to rumble. Michael J. Fox is a likeable teen, wise beyond his years, and someone with whom audiences of all ages can connect. Christopher Lloyd steals scenes as the addictive and animated Doc Brown. Fox and Lloyd’s relationship is believable even when it shouldn’t be. You never stop to question the authenticity, because both characters meet so clearly in the middle. They ground one another while allowing their inner children to play. Lea Thompson glides effortlessly between old Lorraine and young, showing she has the chops to pull off uptight forty-something and sultry teenage vixen. And Crispin Glover lands a bruising body blow with his hysterically aloof portrayal of young and old George McFly, the ultimate in no follow-through, no backbone, and no ambition. Again, Back to the Future wins. Scorecard: 10-9.
One weak spot of Reitman’s direction in Ghostbusters is how he handles the special effects of supervisor Chuck Gaspar and crew. Even at the time, Ghostbusters’ stop-motion animation and scale modeling were rudimentary. While Slimer and the photon rays are relatively convincing, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and devil dogs do not hold up well. While that isn’t Reitman’s sole responsibility, he does have the last say on how his final product looks. Reitman’s best attribute as the production’s leader is, by far, the trust he places in his strong cast of veterans. Likewise, Zemeckis relies on a skilled and talented arrangement of familiar faces and then up-and-coming stars to weave his story’s complexities. It’s worth noting that time travel is not an easy subject for anyone to tackle. Messing with the past compromises the present as Marty McFly comes to know all too well, and keeping all of that straight from script-to-screen is an amazing feat. Zemeckis also has great fun bringing the Fifties to life and creating a 1980s that grows into its own form of nostalgia on subsequent viewings. Advantage: Back to the Future, 10-9.
Ghostbusters is a fine movie. It’s a fun escape, a funny adventure, and a freaky good time. But in this showdown, Back to the Future is the heavyweight powerhouse. While Ghostbusters answers each bell and delivers a few good licks, Back to the Future scores a UNANIMOUS DECISION through its superior story, tightly knit screenplay, memorable performances, and fast-paced direction.