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Every ‘Ghostbusters’ Movie, Ranked: From the Original to ‘Frozen Empire’

Since “Ghostbusters” first debuted in 1984, it has inspired an entire cottage industry, consisting of animated series spin-offs, theme park attractions and more merchandise than you could shake a proton pack at (and not just toys, but comic books, videogames, puzzles, board games and more). It is truly an international brand, with a logo that probably rests alongside Mickey Mouse in terms of being instantly identifiable.

But, incredibly, there have only been five feature films inspired by the franchise. This could speak to the difficulty in translating the concept to the big screen; it could also be because these movies are complicated to make and have many moving parts.

On the eve of the release of the latest “Ghostbusters” movie, “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” we’re looking back at the franchise and ranking every “Ghostbusters” film, from the worst to the very best.

Ghostbusters 2016
Sony

5. “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call” (2016)

We’ll give the 2016 all-female reboot of “Ghostbusters,” now more commonly referred to as “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call” this – it actually attempted to be funny. And there are some good jokes, along with some fine performances, in the Paul Feig-directed revamp. This is particularly true of Chris Hemsworth, who played the dim bulb Janine Melnitz stand-in, and Andy Garcia as the New York mayor unconcerned by supernatural threats. (Watch the director’s cut for a side-splitting moment when his assistant, played by Cecily Strong, explains skydiving to him.)

But all of the comedy – or attempted comedy – doesn’t matter much when the story is this convoluted and the plot mechanics this creaky. Why, for instance, do we need a seemingly endless series of scenes devoted to them trying out their gadgets? You know what movie had zero scenes of them trying out their gadgets? The original “Ghostbusters.” While not completely charmless, and certainly unworthy of the vitriol delivered towards the movie online, the 2016 “Ghostbusters” unfortunately gets lost in a sea of dicey CGI and a narrative so unnecessarily confusing that, for the theatrical version, they didn’t even bother to explain much. Oh well. It could have been really special. But we understand why you wouldn’t want to answer this call.

Ghostbusters_ Frozen Empire
Sony

4. “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” (2024)

The review embargo just broke for “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” and the response is chilly. Which is more than a little unfair. This direct follow-up to “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” smartly relocates the action to New York City and the iconic Ghostbusters firehouse, while divvying up the time between the classic Ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all make appearances) and our new heroes (Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace and Celeste O’Connor).

Oftentimes, the plot feels overstuffed to the point of breaking, with Emily Alyn Lind showing up as a ghostly friend, Kumail Nanjiani as the latest in a long line of proto-Ghostbusters and a lot of lore surrounding a new villain and an expansion of the Ghostbusters organization. At the same time, the climax feels weirdly small, missing some of the classic beats that made the first two “Ghostbusters” films so special in the first place. Still, it’s charming and bright and there are a few good jokes. Maybe a third movie could synthesize the best elements of the first two, and give us a little scope this time.

Sony
Sony

3. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (2021)

After 2016’s reboot failed to connect with audiences, filmmaker Jason Reitman (son of original “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman) took on the challenge of updating the series for a modern audience. He did that largely by staying true to the first “Ghostbusters” film, deepening the mythology and centering on Egon Spengler’s daughter (Carrie Coon) and granddaughter (McKenna Grace). They discover their lineage after Egon’s passing, a nod to Harold Ramis’ death in 2014.

And instead of an all-out comedy, it’s something closer to a domestic drama, with Spielbergian flourishes straight out of an Amblin movie from the 1980s. (It’s one of the few movies described as “Amblinesque” that makes you feel like you’re sitting on the floor watching a VHS copy of “Goonies.”) Occasionally, the movie feels too reverential; there are so many callbacks and Easter Eggs that even the most decorated “Ghostbusters” scholars would have a hard time noticing them all. And when the movie really gets humming, particularly in its third act (where, you guessed it, the original Ghostbusters make their return), it’s hard to resist its numerous charms.

Best of all, Reitman introduced a crop of new characters that were complicated and interesting, people you wouldn’t mind sitting through several sequels with. In terms of a fresh start, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” understood that it had to look back to move forward. And it proved that busting (still) makes people feel good.

Ghostbusters-II-1989
Sony

2. “Ghostbusters II” (1989)

Is “Ghostbusters II” the most inspired sequel of all time? Definitely not. But when making this list, it was hard not to think about a number of things that we warmly remember about Ivan Reitman’s follow-up – the New Jack Swing-indebted soundtrack; Bill Murray’s cable access show and his delivery of the line: “Hairless pets? Weird;” the darker flight suits that were heavily publicized and appeared on the poster but were only fleetingly scene during a montage; Cheech Marin’s cameo as a dockworker welcoming the return of the Titanic; whatever Peter MacNicol is doing; Rick Moranis in the opening court scene; the woman’s mink coat that comes to life.

While in many ways the movie is a carbon copy of the first movie, with some cut-and-pasted elements (Statue of Liberty for Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, for instance), the performers are so talented and the direction so lively that it doesn’t even matter that Murray seems barely present (notice how often he refuses to put on the flight suit and the proton pack) or that the movie’s plot about mood slime and an evil painting make precious little sense. (It also helps that “Ghostbusters II” was played endlessly on pay movie channels in the early 1990’s.) Rarely have cynical cash grabs been this much fun.

Ghostbusters
Sony

1. “Ghostbusters” (1984)

Who ya gonna call? In 1984 “Ghostbusters” was released and became an unexpected phenomenon. Looking back on the film now, it’s fascinating that it became a huge franchise given that it was basically a slobs-versus-snobs class comedy, with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson’s Ghostbusters as working-class underdogs who chafe against society and New York’s ruling class. (This set-up isn’t much different than, say, “Animal House” or “Caddyshack.”)

But what made the movie so special was the alchemy of the committed comedy performers, which also included a scene-stealing Rick Moranis, plus Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver and William Atherton, working at the top of their game; Ivan Reitman’s inventive direction that liberally mixed laughs and screams; Richard Edlund’s tactile, creepy visual effects; and Elmer Bernstein’s evocative score. (The switch to Randy Edelman for the sequel was a deeply felt downgrade.) Everything about “Ghostbusters” is both esoteric and iconic, from the dingy early-1980’s New York setting to the plot, which hangs together just well enough to keep your attention. And the density of the visuals means that you could still pick apart new gags that you might have missed, even 40 years later.

It says something about the elemental power of the first “Ghostbusters” that they are still trying to replicate what made that original film so special all these years later. And they’re still missing the mark by varying degrees. Few movies feel perfect and unique and timeless; “Ghostbusters” is one of those movies.

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