Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
—Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters
Okay, Egon, let’s imagine it. Everybody you’ve ever loved, gone. Everybody you’ve ever met, gone. All the cute girls you’ve ever had a crush on, vaporized. All the cute little babies, exploded. Say so long to your favorite celebrities: George Clooney, Barack Obama, Thom Yorke, all gone. And not just humans. You like pandas? Too bad.
Now tell me, is this an outcome any sane person would risk in order to run a small business?
Of course, it’s possible that Egon is lying about total protonic reversal. Maybe he has no idea what will happen if they cross the streams, so he’s playing it safe. Or maybe what will actually happen is that the proton packs will short out, necessitating a trip to Radio Shack and a long night of repairs. But Egon’s a gadget freak–he wants people to treat his creations with respect. So when Venkman snidely asks him to “define bad,” Egon thinks of the most over-the-top bad thing he can. Sort of like telling a kid that if she keeps making that face, it’ll stay that way.
I like this theory. But for purposes of this post, let’s assume that Egon’s telling the truth. In that case, it seems to me that capturing ghosts, no matter how careful you are, carries far too great a risk. The odds of accidentally crossing streams seems pretty high–the process basically requires the Ghostbusters to all be aiming at the same spot. If Venkman and Stanz were responsible adults, the second Egon told them how dangerous the proton packs are, they would have turned around, gone back to the station, and smashed their equipment to bits with a sledgehammer (although that might be dangerous too).
But what about the moment that they decide to cross the streams on purpose? It’s nothing short of a crime against humanity.
Yes, I realize they were doing it to stop Gozer. But Egon only gives them a “very slim chance” of survival. How small is “very slim,” anyway? 5%? 1%? Doesn’t matter. Even if the odds were flipped, and there was only a 1% chance all life would end, I’d still say the Ghostbusters had no goddamn right to roll the dice like that. They simply can’t gamble all life on Earth on some spur of the moment, back of the envelope hunch. Not unless they were certain that the consequences of not acting were every bit as dire.
It seems to me that it’s only morally permissible to cross the streams if you know, for a fact, that every living thing on earth is about to perish. In that case, your actions at best give people a chance at survival, and at worst offer them a painless death. So if, let’s say, the asteroid from Armageddon is heading towards Earth (“Not even plankton would survive”) and crossing the streams somehow gives you a “very slim” chance of preventing it, in that case it might be the ethical thing to do.
Is the Gozer situation that dire? Not even close.
First of all, we don’t know what kind of “end of the world” we’re dealing with here. “End of the world” could mean ending all life as we know it, in which case you might as well cross the streams and cross your fingers. But Gozer might also intend to only kill the humans, in which case a majority of life on earth would be just fine (maybe better off). “End of the world” could also mean killing only most of the humans, perhaps via armies of Marshmallow Men stomping through major metropolitan areas. Maybe leaving some shattered remnant of civilization around to worship Gozer and tell the story of her terrible wrath is a crucial part of the process. The Ghostbusters just don’t have a clue what Gozer’s long term plans are.
And the thing that makes them decide to cross the streams, Mr. Stay Puft, doesn’t seem like that big a threat. We have no evidence he kills anybody during his rampage; he’s just after the Ghostbusters. That makes it all the more infuriating that they take the obscene risk of crossing the streams; no one besides them is in immediate danger. And maybe Mr. Stay Puft is easy to kill. The thing may already be half dead after they light it on fire with their proton packs. If they can just survive for 30 more seconds, it’ll be nothing be carbonized goo. Honestly, crossing the streams to get rid of that thing seems like shooting yourself in the arm to kill a mosquito.
The ease with which they damage Stay Puft makes me wonder whether Gozer herself is a match for modern Earth technology. She was worshipped thousands of years ago, and back then I’m sure that she seemed completely unstoppable. But in 1984, the human race has a lot more tools at its disposal. In the second season of Buffy, there was bad guy called The Judge. He was repeatedly touted as being completely invincible.
“No weapon forged can stop me,” he snarls.
“That was then,” replies Buffy, picking up a rocket launcher. “This is now.” Kablowie.
There’s a good possibility that all the armies of the world couldn’t hurt Gozer. But I’d still like to hit her with some napalm, just to be sure.
But let’s assume that a) Gozer is completely impervious to conventional weapons, and b) she really is going to reduce the Earth to space gravel. I’m still not convinced the Ghostbusters had exhausted all their options. Egon has a theory that a certain type of energy will close the gate that Gozer came from. Now, he just needs a way to do that without risking total protonic reversal. So why not try to escape the Marshmallow Man and get back to the lab? If they had bolted for the stairwell, what was Mr. Stay Puft going to do? He’d have to wait outside the building, on fire, keeping an eye on all the exits. And the four Ghostbusters could have split up and gone in different directions. The Marshmallow Man, while terrifying, is not the speediest of monsters.
Then, all the scientific resources of the world would be at their disposal. Anyone who knows anything about particle physics could be trying to figure out a way to close that gate without crossing the streams. Sure, maybe the planet has only a matter of minutes, not enough time to design some sort of gate-closing particle accelerator. But Gozer obviously likes rituals – maybe she’s going to wait until the Ghostbusters are dead before ending the world, so as long as they continue to outrun the Marshmallow Man, everyone else is safe (albeit sticky).
My point is, they just don’t know what they’re dealing with. So considering the “cure is worse than the disease” nature of crossing the streams, the only rational decision is to try and escape and regroup for Round 2. But this kind of decision is seldom made rationally. If the Ghostbusters run, the Marshmallow Man is going to destroy the city. Every minute they spend tinkering with the proton packs, people could die. So there’s incredible altruistic pressure on them to act quickly, given the consequences of even a tiny delay.
But there’s also a darker, selfish reason why they would rather risk destroying the world than retreat. Their route to the building was lined with screaming fans. The entire city was cheering for them. Think about how the panicked crowd would react to the Ghostbusters stumbling out of 55 Central Park West and explaining they needed to get back to the lab and run some tests, and everybody should just hold tight. They’d probably be beaten to death with their own proton packs.
So what the Ghostbusters have on that roof is a choice between disappointing millions of people, or risking the lives of billions of people. The heroic choice is actually to run away. But the Ghostbusters are cowards. They hardly think twice about the consequences of their actions. They may not be afraid of no ghost… but they are afraid of failure.
Update (June 16, 2009): Growing up with this movie, I always assumed that crossing the streams destroyed the world. Clearly, the guy who made this YouTube video agrees.
But it did occur to me that “all life as you know it” is ambiguous–maybe only the stream-crosser has his protons reversed. (Although keep in mind that Venkman says crossing the streams would endanger “the nice lady, who paid us in advance, before she became a dog.” So it’s not just the people with the packs in jeopardy.)
Before I wrote this, I asked a bunch of friends for their opinions, and the large majority thought Egon was talking about all life as you know it. But maybe I just have morbid friends.
But even if you think the consequences aren’t apocalyptic, I still question the wisdom of Egon’s plan. The Ghostbusters may be the only people with any experience successfully fighting ghosts on the whole planet. That makes them the most important people on Earth at that moment. So do they all have to cross the streams? Maybe Venkman and Zeddemore can do it, while Egon and Ray keep a safe distance, protecting their valuable brains from what is likely to be a noble, desperate sacrifice. If that plan fails, as it almost certainly will, Egon and Ray try and escape and pass on the science of ghost-catching before they get stomped.
My point still stands: Was it really time to resort to the “we will almost certainly all die” plan?
Update (June 17, 2009): It seems that I owe the Ghostbusters an apology.
According to the poll above, most people feel that crossing the streams will only end the lives of the people doing it, not everyone on Earth. I still think that “try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously” implies something more dire than the deaths of one or two people. It’s certainly an over-the-top and misleading way to say “you die.”
On the other hand, the possibility of killing every living creature on Earth is so horrible that it’s hard to imagine these guys risking it. In a movie this silly, I hate to talk about something being “more plausible.” But the Ghostbusters’ actions are more plausible if you assume that crossing the streams is merely suicide, not genocide. Besides, as numerous commenters point out, how exactly would the proton packs manage to wipe out bacteria on the other side of the planet?
So I don’t know what crossing the streams does anymore. And until someone manages to ask Dan Ackroyd about this, I guess I can’t say for sure that the Ghostbusters are horrible people. Sorry boys.