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This Week in Genre History: Ghostbusters II got slime all over New Year's Eve, and maybe gave us a little hope

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Dec 30, 2020, 10:00 AM EST

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released — well, most of the time. This week, we’re looking at a movie that didn’t come out on the week of New Year’s Eve, but it’s undeniably about this special holiday. 

New Year’s Eve is one of the most popular holidays in movies, and for good reason. It’s an inherently dramatic day, an occasion in which we attempt to break with the past and proceed into a brighter, more hopeful future. Letting go of the past and moving forward is, in many ways, every movie plot; New Year’s Eve gives you a perfect pivot point. But generally speaking, New Year’s Eve is a holiday built for romantic comedies; love is always at the center of the big movie moments. When Harry Met Sally..., About Time, Carol, even, uh, New Year’s Eve... they’re all about the big breakthrough, the big revelation, the big kiss.

It is difficult, through the purview of this SYFY WIRE column, to find a great genre or science fiction New Year’s Eve movie — much less one that was released over the New Year’s week, a period of time that isn’t exactly flush with blockbuster premieres. Which is how, when we scrolled through to find the right New Year’s Eve movie, we landed, perhaps inevitably, on Ghostbusters II. The sequel was not released on New Year’s — it came out in June 1989, which means its 30-year anniversary was in 2019 — but its whole story leads up to New Year’s Eve and the film ends up being an essential New Year’s Eve movie. All those romantic comedies might not have actually had any Slime of Good Feeling. But deep down, that’s what they were really about. And that's something we could really use in 2020.

Why was it a big deal at the time? For all the happy success that the original Ghostbusters had, the road to the sequel was arduous... and it wasn’t entirely Bill Murray’s fault. Sure, the star had long resisted the idea of a Ghostbusters sequel, and he was the actor everyone involved would have to work the hardest to convince (as would still be the case decades later). But Columbia Pictures itself was wary to do a sequel until it had a change in management, and even when they gave the green light, it was clear the movie would have to be bigger, broader, and more family-friendly. Co-writers (and of course fellow Ghostbusters) Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis had to come up with something light and even uplifting, though Ramis, as usual, had a smart spin on it: “What if everyone in New York City had to be nice for 48 hours?”

Thus, the concept of the river of slime, which could manifest all the bad feelings of a whole city and turn it against itself. This all led up to New Year’s Eve, which was Ramis’ masterstroke: It was the one day he could think of that a whole city of cynics would be able to come together and unite in good cheer. They were able to move on from all the slights and frustrations of the previous year and trust in a hopeful future. Thus, the whole Ghostbusters II plot becomes the story of New Year’s: Truly believing that things are going to get better.

That the movie itself, delayed for so long and seemingly so unlikely to happen, existed at all, well, that was just more proof right there.

What was the impact? That family-friendliness that the studio wanted? Fans noticed that immediately and quite clearly did not like it. First off, while the plot leads up to a New Year’s Eve battle for the soul of the universe, a whole lot of the movie involves a cute baby. And people did not love the first Ghostbusters out of a deep and abiding love for cute little babies in movies. The movie also felt, on the whole, more corporate than the SNL not-ready-for-primetime-players vibe of the first film: There was a dopey Bobby Brown soundtrack, advertising tie-ins, and a big important summer release date — the week before Batman, no less. The movie felt more bloated and impersonal than the first. It felt like a film built solely to make money.

Which is probably why it didn’t make nearly as much of it as everyone thought it would. It finished No. 1 its first weekend, but then was blown off the charts by Batman (fine), Honey I Shrunk the Kids (umm...) and The Karate Kid Part III (what??) in the coming weeks. The reviews were rough, largely because of how corporate and all-four-quadrants the movie felt, and while it did end up making a profit, it also ended up grossing less than the first film, a major no-no for sequels. And the film was such a disappointment that there wouldn’t be any more Ghostbusters films for nearly 30 years, and that one had an entirely different cast. (And, toxic cultural controversies aside, it was something of a disappointment itself.) The rivers of slime were very negative. There was no good feeling.

Has it held up? The family-friendly complaints seem less relevant today considering every big blockbuster is appealing to the widest possible range of people. (And all told, it is kind of funny to watch Bill Murray insult a toddler.) And attempts to soften some of the characters, even Peter Venkman himself, play a little better than you might have thought, especially considering how, well, problematic some of the Ghostbusters’ actions are in the first film. (Watch that movie again through the lens of 2020: Huge swaths of it would be gone today.)

But the main reason the movie has aged better than many might have suspected is that big New Year’s Eve scene at the end. The whole point of the season is that the Ghostbusters, in an attempt to turn those frowns of the angry New York City citizens upside down, commandeer the Statue of Liberty and start playing Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” on New Year’s Eve. And it works! People smile and laugh and are moved to be kinder and warmer to each other. They are eager to gather. And what is otherwise a rather middling, somewhat pleasant, but not particularly inspired sequel becomes, very briefly, undeniably joyous.

People love to bag on Ghostbusters II, and there are definitely parts of it that do not work. But the ending, on New Year’s Eve, taps into a well of good feeling that the first film never does and the 2016 reboot didn’t come close to. There’s another sequel coming next year, from Jason Reitman, Ivan’s son, that will feature Murray and Aykroyd. It will do well to have any moment as uplifting and funny as that one. Ghostbusters II tapped into the one night a year everyone at least tries to harness good feelings. We needed it then, and we need it even more now.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.