A month ago, I wrote an article in praise of The Sixth Sense, a movie from the 1990s which covers the ghost myth perfectly, with just the right amounts of ambiguity and consistency so that the viewers’ credulity is not strained. The gimmicks are kept to a minimum and the actors, including the child actor at the film’s center, put in nuanced and subtle performances. In contrast, the winner of the 1990 Oscar for best original screenplay, Ghost, also puts its best foot forward as a ghost-centric drama, but gets pretty much all of those same details graphically wrong.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Ghost, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Ghost is a movie that boasts two things working in its favor: the memorable romantic pottery scene, and most of the performance by Whoopi Goldberg. Every other aspect of this movie is as forgettable as it is hackneyed. Taken as a 90s comedy, Ghost is intermittently passable; but taken as the romantic fantasy “thriller” or “drama” it is billed as, Ghost is abysmal.
The Few Positive Aspects of Ghost:
Patrick Swayze plays the eponymous ghost of protagonist Sam Wheat, whose love for Molly Jensen, played by Demi Moore, is rivalled only by his mastery of banking software. Their love is shown, in addition to being explained in dialogue, through a much-beloved sequence wherein the pair play with a pottery wheel and make out, set to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” (both the soundtrack and the score of the movie are additional strengths).
The pottery sequence is rightly remembered as the best in the movie. It beautifully encapsulates the romance between the characters, and does so in the desirable show-don’t-tell manner of good, satisfying writing while foreshadowing the interplay of forms and influence in the subsequent ghost-based portion of the story. But this wonderful and memorable sequence is emblematic of Ghost‘s larger project of distracting viewers from the film’s many flaws by using its romantic elements. Swayze and Moore are fine actors, and they put in fine performances, but their primary role is as people who kiss each other with sincerity.
While Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore put in unremarkable performances as bland eye candy, Whoopi Goldberg truly shines. Her facility at portraying the one interesting character in the movie is good enough to make the whole project watchable. That she put in such a strong supporting performance in a movie so in need of support makes me completely understand the accolades she has received for the role. As Oda Mae Brown, Goldberg gets pretty much everything right, even though her character is compelled by the script to deliver some distractingly stupid dialogue at times. Part of the success of this character, who provides most of the film’s comic relief, can be credited to the directing of Jerry Zucker, a highly qualified comedic director whose prior projects include Airplane! and Top Secret!
The Many Negative Aspects of Ghost:
Now, all of that said, on to the bad stuff. One unintended negative consequence of Ghost‘s functional sense of humor is a tonal disconnect. This is a film that includes three brutal death scenes, all of which are more than sufficiently bloody and sudden. And this is a film which tells the story of a man, Carl Bruner, driven by desperation (most likely; the phone calls revealing his motivations are vague) to have his close friend, Sam Wheat, killed in cold blood. Yet this is also a film that has Swayze’s character pester Goldberg’s character into helping him by singing “I’m Henry the eighth I am” in the round, and that has Goldberg’s character struggle over a check with a nun. The tone of the movie is all over the place.
This discordance is not helped by the weaknesses of the filmmaking and plot throughout. Some of these are listed hereafter, in no particular order.
Everything about the plot of Ghost is completely predictable because it is insultingly simple. The reveal that Carl Bruner is the treacherous architect of Wheat’s demise is the most obvious example, but there are others. One other obvious instance occurs when the spiritual exhaustion of possessing a human being is explained in the most blatant possible set-up for reincorporation. Any viewer who watches that scene, which beats you over the head with the concept—without knowing immediately that an exhausting possession will happen at a crucial moment later on—must be able to count Ghost as one of the very first works of fiction they ever encountered.
The special effects, while relatively minimal, are nevertheless quite poorly implemented. The effect for Wheat passing through a wall is always accompanied by a subsequent shot of him wobbling in place as he ‘regains his balance.’ Another example is how, after Wheat forces his murderer, Willie Lopez, into traffic, where he is struck by a vehicle and killed, a comical gaggle of animated shadow-demons swarms around his body and drags him to hell. The same fate is met by the film’s primary antagonist, Bruner. The inclusion of this distractingly humorous effect in ostensibly serious scenes is totally unaccountable, especially when it would have been perfectly serviceable to parallel Wheat’s walk into the light with some kind of fall into the dark.
The scenes from the beginning of Ghost‘s climax onward are particularly messy. Suspecting that the rage-filled antagonist will shortly arrive, Wheat takes the opportunity to perform the possession trick on Brown’s body in order to kiss and dance with Jensen. Yes, that’s correct, in the scene directly preceding the final bout with Bruner, Wheat knowingly drains all of his ‘ghost power’ just so that there can be a tense climactic fight. And yes, that’s also correct, Whoopi Goldberg’s character is possessed and shares an intimate moment with Demi Moore’s character. But for no other reason than because the movie seemed aware of the fact that audiences would not take the scene seriously with Goldberg and Moore, the scene is instead shot as though Goldberg’s body has simply transformed into Swayze’s temporarily (in contrast to the earlier possession scene). As throughout, the movie hides its flaws behind the sincerity of its romantic moments.
Shortly after using his ghostly antics to drive a second man to his death, Sam Wheat is pulled away into the white light of heaven. The lesson, ostensibly, is to only cause the deaths of people you think are bad. But before he is pulled away, Wheat, who can now conveniently and inexplicably be heard by Jensen, tells her that he has loved her all along, implying that the reason he had not wanted to say it at the beginning of the movie was that the writer needed a contrived set-up for the two schmaltzy ‘ditto’ call-backs, and to pretend that there is some tension between these otherwise flawless caricatures.
The above complaints, centering on the discordant tone and the poor writing, are not nitpicks. If I wanted to nitpick Ghost, I would point out that the movie explicitly tells us that ghosts have to focus their energy with considerable effort in order to make contact with physical objects, and then hopes we won’t notice the giant oversight of the fact that the ghosts in this world do not float. As mentioned above, Sam repeatedly jumps through walls, only to land shakily on the ground on the other side. Apparently horizontal planes of physical material are impenetrable to the recently deceased, unlike all other matter in the world. Even horizontal surfaces in vehicles like the subway cars are always rock-solid under Wheat’s ethereal feet.
Or I would point out that the editing of the sculpting scenes makes it painfully obvious that Demi Moore did not learn, even cursorily, how to throw pots on a pottery wheel for her role. Or I would point out that Oda Mae Brown unbelievably lived her entire life until the events of the movie without encountering—or even coming within earshot of—any other ghosts, despite her line of work. But details like these, and the aforementioned demons’ visual effects, are not what makes this movie bad. They do not help its case, and they are telling of the writer’s (and others’) instincts, but the failings of the movie explored above are much more widespread and problematic.
Much like almost all of the many bad film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo, the ending of Ghost implies that successfully pursuing bloody revenge against those who have wronged you will allow you to live (or die) happily ever after. Ghost is a movie that deliberately and transparently tries to manipulate the emotions of its viewers, and whose lasting acclaim is a testament to the vulnerability of critics and general viewers alike to such obvious manipulation.
In this way, the movie is not so bad that its failings are a source of joy; it is merely mediocre, with some positives that make it entertaining enough for most. Ghost‘s academy-award-winning writer, Bruce Joel Rubin, has gone on to write such classics as Stuart Little 2, Deep Impact, and The Last Mimzy. That this quality of writing should be worthy of an Oscar for best original screenplay should give hope to writers everywhere.
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