Ghostbusters and the enduring appeal of 1980s sci-fi

21 Jul 2016 BY Kirsten Geekie in Film Features

7 mins
Ghostbusters 2016
Ghostbusters 2016

Much anticipated, this year's reboot of classic 1980s sci-fi comedy Ghostbusters is as fun, feisty and freaky as you could have hoped for. Turning the four-man ghost-busting team into a group of spirited women who come together to save New York from ectoplasmic disaster, the film is an affectionate nod to the original as well as a cleverly written, female-led action adventure in its own right, perfect for inspiring a new generation of Ghostbusters fans. But where does this nostalgia for 1980s science fiction come from? Looking through the lens of this year's Ghostbusters we can identify the hallmarks of a defining era of science fiction filmmaking.

Counteracting the silliness of sci-fi with even more absurdity, the 1980s hit upon a successful formula of blending science fiction with comedy, often featuring popular male American comedians, for example Steve Martin as a nutty brain surgeon in The Man With Two Brains. Ghostbusters went even further, with a script written by comedian Harold Ramis, who starred alongside fellow comedians Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray. The film was also directed by Ivan Reitman, who shot to fame with 1978 comedy National Lampoon's Animal House.

This year's Ghostbusters also lives and dies by its comedic script and performances. Much like the original, it's spearheaded by comedy, being co-written by comedy actor, writer and director Paul Feig and American TV sketch writer Katie Dippold. The film is also directed by Feig, but is this time lead by a cast of funny female performers. Much like Feig's previous successes with Bridesmaids and Spy, the film riffs off the timing, body language and chemistry between his comedy muse Melissa McCarthy and the other cast-members, played here by popular comedians Kristin Wigg, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.

As well as comedy, much of the science-fiction of the 1980s had a hefty dose of family-friendly appeal. With Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back kicking off the decade in 1980 - and Return of the Jedi a few years later - there was an obvious hunger for science-fiction storytelling with universal themes. This paved the way for the release of one of the most influential sci-fi family films of all time - Steven Speilberg's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Set in a suburban town and featuring a young boy meeting a loveable home-sick alien, it gave an innocent, exciting and ultimately human edge to science-fiction for a younger generation, and set in motion a sub-genre of suburban-boy-meets-otherworld adventures, including D.A.R.Y.L.Explorers and Flight of the Navigator.

Encapsulating this 80s trend and now synonymous with the genre is actor Michael J. Fox. 1985 was his defining year, with both Teen Wolf and the first Back To The Future film released. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future was the highest grossing film of the year, and became one of the most successful franchises for its distributor Universal. Like with Ghostbusters, its witty script and charming lead - along with vibrant special effects and a great soundtrack - proved a recipe for sci-fi success, leading the pair to become two of the culturally defining films of the era.

The suburbs took centre stage in many of these films, playing on the irony of a sedate, old-fashioned town being taken over by something exciting or dangerous - something exemplified in Joe Dante's Gremlins. However, New York City was also a regular fixture of the era, suggesting that no one - not even the most modern city in the world - is safe from the supernatural. With its instantly recognisable city-scape, wide boulevards for chase sequences, town houses filled with hiding places, and a plethora of historic buildings for aliens and ghosts to wreak havoc in, films like Ghostbusters, Escape From New York and The Brother From Another Planet turned the Big Apple into a key member of the cast.

In light of the slick, modern technology of recent science fiction (GravityInterstellarThe Martian), the nostalgia towards many of the 1980s sci-fis is born out of their more hand-crafted approach to special effects. Although all of the films were pioneers of early CGI, there is something wonderfully DIY about, say, the Ghostbusters' proton packs, or the way Back to the Future's time machine is simply a modified DeLorean.

A distinct wariness of technology and the future is explored in much of the science fiction from this decade. Films like TronWargames and The Last Starfighter centre around the threat of video games, while films like Short Circuit explored the limits of artificial intelligence with plots about robots on the loose.

It is these ideas and fears of the future that make the films so defining, and yet so charming to watch. And there will always be a sphere of belief that the fantastic sci-fi concepts could still become reality. Many like to believe that time-travel, the existence of aliens, and friendly A.I. robots could still occur, and thus films about them are enduringly popular. By packaging all of these 80s conventions up for a new generation, this year's Ghostbusters hits on its own successful recipe - nostalgia for the past apprised in a way that is both forward thinking and fresh.

Kirsten Geekie, Film Programming Manager

Kirsten Geekie, Film Curation Manager

MA (Hons) in English Literature & Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow with a background in Film Festivals having worked for Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest and BFI London Film Festival.

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