Some Thoughts on Ghostbusters 3: Plot

Ghostbusters SymbolWhile I’m still of the opinion that Ghostbusters III should probably never come to light, the odds are that it’s going to happen sooner or later. With that in mind, the question then becomes what can be done to ensure that it isn’t a travesty and a blemish on the franchise. The Ghostbusters franchise has withstood a surprisingly high number of sub-par spin-offs. Ghostbusters II was okay, but nowhere near as good as a sequel to Ghostbusters should have been. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon was great until it was retooled into Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters and taught an entire generation of children what it was like to watch a series go off the rails. It also had to endure a competing cartoon, Filmation’s Ghostbusters, made possible by Filmation being the original rights-holders to the name. (Filmation had a live-action series in the 1970s by the name; Columbia Pictures licensed the name from them, and when the movie was successful, and Columbia moved forward with a cartoon, Filmation revisited their own series in animation form. Filmation head Lou Scheimer later acknowledged they should have just made a grab for producing the series for Columbia.) Later, in the late 90s, a new spin-off cartoon was created, Extreme Ghostbusters, which rapidly flopped.

And yet, despite none of these spin-offs being unqualified successes, and some being outright failures, nothing has tarnished the legacy of the original Ghostbusters film. People seemingly can’t think of Star Wars without thinking of The Phantom Menace nowadays. The Matrix will automatically bring up complaints about the sequels. Ask fans about Highlander, and you’ll immediately hear “there should have been only one.” But mention Ghostbusters, and all the sub-par follow-ups simply slide away. This, more than anything, is why people are concerned about Ghostbusters III. How lucky can one franchise get? How many bad follow-ups can be forgiven? If the third film is terrible, it’s possible it might finally put a tarnish on the franchise, and make it that little bit harder to enjoy the original film. It’s probably best if the film never happens. But since it’s likely to happen anyway, what needs to be done to ensure that it is, against current expectations, a good film? Last week I shared my thoughts on the characters; this week, I’m taking a look at the plot.

In some ways, the question of plot is more difficult to address, since there are any number of conceivable plots that the movie could take. And though I’ve already stated that I don’t think the film should be a “passing the torch” movie, I have no interest in saying precisely what the film should have as a plot. Anything I come up with is just going to be another fan’s personal piece of fan-fiction, and the internet has enough of those already. Rather, I’m more interested in how Ghostbusters III will go about its plot.

First, it’s absolutely vital that the film doesn’t rehash elements from the first two films… particularly since the second film rehashed quite a bit of the first. The Ghostbusters start out broke, Dana Barrett is threatened by supernatural forces, Peter tries to woo Dana, the supernatural force escalates into a city wide threat, they have to convince the Mayor after being locked up thanks to an obstructive bureaucrat… I’m glossing over a lot, but there’s a lot that’s essentially the same as before. If Ghostbusters III isn’t going to redundant, it has to avoid another rehash. The Ghostbusters have to start off established and firmly entrenched, the way they ought to be after saving New York City twice. I’m not saying there can’t be a threat to their status, just that their status needs to start off strong, and not rock-bottom for a third time. And as I mentioned last time, Dana can’t be the target of the supernatural threat again; it already stretches believability to the breaking point as it is. (One possible exception that just sprung to mind is if Dana’s kid isn’t the target of the threat, but is the cause of the threat himself, having been affected by all the supernatural shenanigans of the past. But that’s still pretty unlikely to be good in my opinion; although it would provide a nice bookend to things, it would make it difficult to pull off other elements that I think are important for the plot.)

Another thing that is important is that the plot needs to unfold slowly. The threat needs to escalate over time, and we need to find out about it along with the characters. The original film did this perfectly; supernatural activity starts to rise, we see the terror dogs take form, Dana and Louis get possessed, and only at the end does Gozer arrive. And then Mr. Stay-Puft starts stepping on churches. It builds. It starts off slowly, and the curiosity of the audience is gradually rewarded as the suspense ratchets up. Even watching the film again and again this plot structure serves the film. Ghostbusters II drops the ball on this one. Vigo the Carpathian is introduced very early on, and the audience is quickly told, through his instructions to Janosz, exactly what Vigo the Cruel is planning. Even though Egon has to look up Vigo the Torturer later on in the movie, by that point the audience has already known about him for quite some time. And the net result is that there is no ratcheting up of suspense. The revelations about Vigo the Despised are uninteresting because we’ve already seen them. There aren’t even any real supernatural minions for Vigo the Unholy, and as a result it’s essentially straight to the final battle, which ends up feeling rather anticlimactic. Sure, there’s the pink slime, but does that really hold up to Zuul and Vinz Clortho? Having interesting subordinates makes for a more interesting villain, and a more intimidating villain. Gradually revealing what’s going on leads to the final battle feeling like a more satisfying payoff. By the end of their respective movies, the battle against Gozer is a lot more exciting than the battle against Vigo the Butch. Ghostbusters III needs to be more like Ghostbusters than Ghostbusters II in plot structure — while avoiding repeating the plot elements.

Speaking of Vigo the Butch, there’s another element that the third film has to get right as well. The villain must be intimidating. The Ghostbusters were scared of Gozer as soon as they figured out that Gozer was coming. Even in marshmallow form, as hilarious as that was, it still managed to be scary by virtue of being around a hundred stories tall. Vigo… he’s just a guy. An evil undead ghost guy, but that doesn’t separate him much from the usual run-of-the-mill ghosts they deal with. As soon as they figure out Vigo is coming… Peter mocks it. Egon and Ray seem curious and almost excited. Even while acknowledging his power, they don’t seem to be afraid of him. He never seems larger than life. The villain must seem larger than life. You tell me this is apocalyptic, end of the world stuff, you’d better show me a villain who seems capable of bringing on an apocalypse. Further, the other ghosts need to be scary as well. The terror dogs, the librarian ghost, hell even Slimer is more than a little eerie. Pink slime, not so much. The Ghostbusters films are comedies, but they’re comedies that draw from horror movies. They need to be just a bit scary. It has to be believable that there’s a real threat here. One of the scripts that Dan Aykroyd has discussed in the past has the Ghostbusters travelling to the netherworld equivalent of New York, “Manhellton”. Awful punny name aside, this isn’t a terrible idea, in that it should provide plenty of opportunities to show truly frightening ghosts and ghouls. But it’ll still need to be tied to a villain that poses a major threat.

Incidentally, as far as setting is concerned, I approve of keeping the third film in New York City. The city is almost a character in the films itself, with its mixture of modern and Gothic architecture, its mix of cynical and hopeful citizens, and its size providing a large showcase for the supernatural. It’s not for nothing that the first film ends with Winston shouting “I love this town!” The threat in Ghostbusters III can be global, as Gozer was, but the majority of the film should still be centered New York.

To sum up, the writers of Ghostbusters III should learn from the previous two films on what worked and what didn’t. It needs to have a similar escalation of emotions as Ghostbusters, but it can’t follow a too-similar plot. And the villain must be a credible match for the Ghostbusters. And, of course, it should maintain that balanced blend between comedy and action. A third Ghostbusters film doesn’t need to be made… but if it is made, then they need to try and make it the best it can possibly be.

What are your thoughts? If it has to be made, what does it have to do in order to be a worthy sequel?

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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