PlotFive years later. The Ghostbusters have closed their doors. After saving New York City from Gozer, they got sued by everyone and found themselves barred from hunting ghosts. Each of the Ghostbusters has found a new job. But things are about to change.
Soon enough, Vigo takes an interest in Dana and her newborn son Oscar. This brings the Ghostbusters back together and leads to them reopening their business for their inevitable showdown with Vigo.
Why This Film WorksAlthough Ghostbusters II made a ton of money ($215 million on a budget of $37 million) and it has demonstrated strong staying power, it was critically despised when it came out. Some claimed it “slimed everyone’s fond memories of the original.” Gene Siskel complained that the film “didn’t try to do anything special.” Ebert said that nobody around him laughed.
But frankly, they mis-remembered the first film. Ghostbusters was never the laugh-a-minute riot they seem to think. To the contrary, it was the type of film where the payoff came in the storyline and the relationships of the characters. And while there were moments where you laughed out loud, most of the jokes really were just “warm glow moments” or snort/chuckles. And in that regard, Ghostbusters II does something incredibly difficult: it perfectly maintains the feel of the original.
Ghostbusters II is the second type and it follows the formula perfectly. It begins by wiping out their business by having them sued by everyone and discredited again. They are spread to the four winds. It also begins with Dana and Venkman being broken up as couple. This allows the writers to rebuild each achievement from the first film – the successful creation of the business, the successful construction of the friendship/team, and the successful completion of the relationship between Dana and Venkman. That allows them to completely repeat the emotional journey of the first film.
More importantly, the choice of Vigo avoids two of the biggest sins sequels commit when they pick their villain. If Gozer had just come back for a second round, then all the satisfaction people felt at the resolution of the first film would be undone because the ending wouldn’t be meaningful. Alternatively, if Gozer’s bigger brother shows up, then you have this problem that the challenge of Gozer is diminished and all the time spent showing the heroes just barely beating Gozer suddenly seems false. This is the problem between Alien and Aliens actually. By having Ripley face a hundred aliens in Aliens and making them more or less disposable, it diminishes her accomplishment in Alien, where she only kills the one, and it calls into question how she could be so inept in Alien but suddenly so kick-ass in Aliens. There’s no such problem here. In fact, in picking Vigo, who is equally menacing but presents a different problem, Ghostbusters skillfully avoids the whole problem.
Each of those choices demonstrates excellent writing and I dare these critics to find a better way to handle the story. But there’s something more to consider. Where sequels really need to be judged is in the execution. And in that regard, the real question to be asked is: “Does the sequel feel like the original?”
If you watch Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II back to back, you will see similar pacing, similar characterizations, similar emotional content, and similar humor. The sequel doesn’t suddenly focus on a character who happened to become a hit with audiences at the expense of the characters focused on in the original. It doesn’t try to change the nature of the story by becoming more or less dramatic, more or less “zany” or slapstick, or more or less grandiose; it maintains the balance between the horror and comedy. And it carefully maintains the tone of the relationship between the characters. This is actually quite an achievement, especially for a film that was produced five years after the original.
Ghostbusters II truly is a top notch sequel. Is it as original as Ghostbusters? No, but then it couldn’t be. Indeed, if it had been, people would have been upset that this wasn’t what they expected. But it was every bit the equal of the original in terms of laughs, in terms of depth of story, in terms of emotional content and the emotional ride, and in terms of feel. And if Ghostbusters II had been the original, I suspect it would have been just as big a hit as the original.