Today, of all days, is a perfect day to reflect on just how much fun it was to experience the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day back when it first came out. Some of us have already made our love for it well known, which got us thinking about the other science fiction movies we’ve seen him in. What resulted was an extensive and varied list of films we all overwhelmingly enjoy and which wouldn’t have reached the heights they did without the presence of Bill Murray.
Seems like science fiction needs Bill Murray. And for a period of his career, Bill Murray really needed science fiction.
For ten years, from 1984 to 1994, Bill Murray’s most memorable vehicles were science fiction comedies. And it all began with Ghostbusters.
As Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984)
The idea of blue-collar paranormal investigators is so appealing there are now reality shows where people pretend to scientifically study paranormal phenomena. (Pro tip: Every time you go “What is that?!” it always turns out to be a commercial break.) And it’s all because of a quartet of New Yorkers that invented a laser pack to shoot at ghosts because they weren’t good at anything else.
Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman arguably plays the Kirk of this bunch (With Egon as a very suitable Spock.) and we are all too happy to follow him as he flirts and cons his way through being a ghostbuster. He’s so entertaining that when his girlfriend turns into a dog and a huge marshmallow man insists on being taken seriously, you want him to really pull through it all.
Raise your hand if you jokingly quote this movie to your especially nerdy friends. Raise it higher if you’re pretty sure you’re going to do it after reading this article.
“Get her!” That was your whole plan, huh? “Get her.” Very scientific.
As Arthur Denton in Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
This film adaptation of the cheeringly dark science fiction musical features Bill Murray in only a bit role, but it’s a good one. It’s so good that you forgot he’s even in the movie, didn’t you? It’s so good that when we remind you of what he did, you’ll remember it all instantly and vividly, won’t you?
Re-introduce yourself to dental patient and wormy masochist Arthur Denton.
The dentist I went to had the greatest car. He had a Corvette and I thought, “My gosh. Everybody calls him ‘doctor’ even though he’s not really a doctor!”
As Frank Cross in Scrooged (1988)
Bill Murray takes his first jaunts through time in this modern remake of A Christmas Carol. He starts out cartoonishly evil in this one, so it’s a lot of fun to see him gleefully tortured. Scrooge at least earned a sort of dignity from his ghosts. Murray as Frank Cross mostly gets smacked with toasters.
I never liked a girl well enough to give her twelve sharp knives.
As Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters 2 (1989)
It was less than a year later that Bill Murray donned the jumpsuit and proton pack once more for the long-awaited Ghostbusters sequel. Although it doesn’t reach the heights that the first film did, Murray remains in top form, providing another magnetic performance. One of our favorite sequences:
The importance of Murray to Ghostbusters movies is so apparent that Ghostbusters 3 has been stalled by something as inane as Murray not looking through his mail.
[About Dana’s baby, Oscar] Well, he’s ugly. I mean, he’s not Elephant Man ugly, but he’s not attractive. Was his father ugly?
As Phil in Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray stuck with Harold Ramis for a bit after Ghostbusters 2, starring in this film about a man stuck in a small Pennsylvania town, doomed to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right. The time travel concept was so immediately appealing that the film made back five times its budget and resulted in Bill Murray and Harold Ramis becoming honorary grand marshals of the Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsatawney, PA. Nearly 20 years later, we still love this movie.
Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.
As Bunny Breckinridge in Ed Wood (1994)
Although not really a science fiction film, Ed Wood was directed by Tim Burton, so it’s hard not to think of it like an SF film. Murray plays the unbelievably dramatic Bunny Breckinridge. In a movie where everyone is just weird, he still manages to top them all. It makes one wonder how Murray would have shaken out as a Tim Burton player instead of a go-to actor in Wes Anderson films.
What about glitter? When I was a headliner in Paris, audiences always liked it when I sparkled.
As Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Originally ommitted from this list (shame on us!) was Bill Murray’s cameo during the final act of Zombieland. Our intrepid heroes finally find some respite in a luxurious Hollywood mansion, only to find its original inhabitant still there. Thankfully, it’s just a non-zombie Bill Murray. Things seem to be going well for him post-apocalypse, so everyone takes some time out to rest, relax, and re-enact scenes from Ghostbusters.
Bill’s presence in the film comes to a note-perfect end, as well. (Don’t worry, if you still haven’t seen Zombieland, we haven’t entirely spoiled it for you.)
“Zombies don’t mess with other zombies. Buddy of mine, makeup guy, he showed me how to do this. Corn starch. You know, some berries, a little licorice for the ladies. Suits my lifestyle, you know. I like to get out and do stuff. Just played nine holes on the Riviera. Just walked on. Nobody there.”
These aren’t the only SFF films Murray has appeared in. He has a scattering of spy movies in his resume, along with a more visible role as the mayor of, well, humanity, in the 2008 film adaptation of City of Ember. One could also argue that Murray’s character from The Life Aquatic is a borderline science fiction filmmaker.
Although he kicked off his career in sketch comedy at SNL and has most recently been the MVP of the Wes Anderson brigade (Well, aside from Angelica Huston.) Bill Murray is just as often remembered for his science fiction roles. His style of comedy tends to undercut the fantastical concepts of his movies in such a way that it makes you take them all the more seriously. After all, if this guy is in the movie pointing out its ridiculousness then you don’t have to.
Curiously, Murray was best in a style of sci-fi comedy film that you don’t really see on screen these days. One could even argue that Robert Downey, Jr. is the only current actor that comes closest to mimicking that style, hence the highly entertaining Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes movies.
Bottom line? Science fiction is a lot more fun with Bill Murray in it. And we could stand to re-learn a thing or two from the sci-fi comedies he was in. It wouldn’t hurt to see a resurgence of sci-fi comedy films starring charismatic comic actors. Not all of our sci-fi has to be so serious!
Stubby the Rocket is the mascot of Tor.com and takes space as seriously as its emotion chip will let it.