**Major Spoiler Warning**
If there’s one thing major movie studios can’t resist at the moment, it’s a good old fashioned legacy sequel. As more media companies continue to weaponize nostalgia through their massive collections of intellectual property, it’s fair to speculate as to whether we’ve reached a saturation point. Eventually, this trend may exhaust itself, but it’s not happening anytime soon. So we might as well accept that some films will be good, some will be bad, and others we may just be ambivalent towards.
As hype was building for Ghostbusters Afterlife, I honestly didn’t know where I would fall on it. Clearly, Sony wanted a do-over given the 2016 reboot’s commercial underperformance. Hiring original director Ivan Reitman’s own son, Jason, to take the reins definitely felt like a transparent ploy to lure in the die-hard fans, especially the ones who cried like newborns fresh out of the womb about said reboot, before that film was even released. It felt painfully calculated in such a way as to trigger our attraction to the idea of “passing the torch”. As audience members, we’ll forgive a fair amount of shortcomings in execution, provided a concept is collectively enticing. This, of course, is not to ignore the wealth of good-natured Ghostbusters fans who wanted an honest-to-God sequel to the original films.
Finally sitting down to watch Ghostbusters Afterlife, I found myself enjoying enough of it to feel as though I hadn’t wasted my time. As much as I enjoyed the Paul Feig reboot, I will give points to Afterlife for feeling like a more visually tactile experience. The emphasis on practical effects and knowing when to utilize CGI is something that helps to ground the film immensely. When people are critical, if not outright hateful of CGI in movies, I don’t believe that critical of its fundamental existence, so much as they are how much it is relied upon within a given film. Sometimes the use of CGI in films can be so excruciatingly needless, that we project the idea of all CGI being “bad”, and I can definitely accept that as a genuine criticism of the 2016 film.
Obviously, Ghostbusters Afterlife was also meant to serve as a tribute to Harold Ramis, who passed away in 2014, and as such, the character of Egon Spengler has also passed on. Weaving this into the narrative of the film definitely makes for some touching moments, and yeah, who would have thought that Egon to be the only one of the four original Ghostbusters to have started a family? McKenna Grace is practically carrying the whole damn film on her tiny shoulders (even co-writing and performing a song for the end credits) as his granddaughter, Phoebe. Not to mention how nice it is to see her play a character who isn’t just the flashback version of a main character, even if the makers of this film try to make her as much of a “Young Egon” as possible. And as I’m sure many of us were probably dreading the appearance of a “Ghost Egon” with some CGI-ing of Harold Ramis, I was surprised by how much the effect actually worked. Given the context, they had some degree of leeway in terms of incorporating makeup and visual effects to pull this off, and the end result is undeniably heartwarming.
I even tolerated them bringing back Gozer as the main villain, as it made for some pretty inspired stunt casting; J.K. Simmons as Gozerian cult leader Ivo Shandor, who built the apartment building from the 1984 film, was delightful. I didn’t even mind how brief the appearance was, as the revival of Gozer reanimates Shandor’s preserved body just long enough for the ancient entity to rip him in half from head to crotch. The appearance of Gozer themself definitely made for a major high point in the film for me. As a lowkey Olivia Wilde stan, her playing the physical form of Gozer was already a stroke of genius, with dancer and movement performer Emma Portner as motion capture reference for the villain’s computer generated “spectral form”. However, the icing on the cake has to be casting actress Shohreh Agdashloo providing the voice of Gozer, and it is nothing short of brilliant. Actually, that’s an insult to her excellency, Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse, because her voicing Gozer is, in fact, a whole-ass other cake, WITH the icing! Her not being cast as Gauis Helen Mohiam in Dune now stings just a little bit less. . . but not too much!
All this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have some issues. As per the opening paragraph, the film weaponizes nostalgia to a fault in almost every conceivable aspect. In a film as heavily saturated with callbacks and Easter eggs as Ghostbusters Afterlife, it’s unfortunate how few and far between the opportunities are taken to do something different with a given trope or comedic gag. Even the genre pivot of making this a family-driven fantasy/adventure film is undercut by its own lack of originality within that specific genre. If you’ve seen one down and out single mother move her and her two kids from the big city to their grandfather’s house in a small town in the “Middle of Nowhere”, USA, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Carrie Coon has long since proven herself to be a commanding presence as an actress, but as the down and out mother in question, her character is just kind of there. This, I believe, is a major issue the film has with almost every other character except McKenna Grace’s Phoebe.
Ghostbusters Afterlife never feels like an ensemble film, the way the original or even the 2016 reboot did. No one character was ever the standout, and it was part of those films’ charm. By comparison, something feels off in Ghostbusters Afterlife when the focus is so tack sharp on Phoebe. Of course one must realize that these extra characters aren’t there to be as fleshed out or as engaging as her. We need every character to fulfil a role from the original 1984 film. Phoebe is Egon, her brother Trevor is Peter, her summer school friend Podcast is Ray. Even the girl Trevor has a crush on, Lucky, is Winston . . . you know, because she’s black. Phoebe’s mother even gets possessed by Zuul, referencing Sigourney Weaver’s “There is no Dana, only Zuul!” line, for maximum fan service. And of course the only other age-appropriate character in the film, Paul Rudd’s Mr. Grooberson is also possessed, becoming the keymaster to Carrie Coon’s gatekeeper!
Believe me, I understand why the makers of the film are doing this. But what’s missing from this oversaturation of nostalgia is balance and reinterpretation. Wanting to call back to moments from the original film is to be expected, but there’s a certain point where Ghostbusters Afterlife makes it painfully clear that it has zero desire to actually challenge its audience. Lord knows that in this era of tentpole films, pulling off a surprise for a film rooted in a pre-existing IP is next to impossible! **cough**Spider-Man: Now Way Home**cough** However, Sony couldn’t care less about keeping the fact that the remaining original Ghostbusters actors would be prominently featured in the film’s climax secret, teasing them in the film’s final trailer before release! I suppose this was already a foregone conclusion, but it’s sad that studios don’t believe in keeping their audiences guessing. I can only speculate that most fans, regardless of any property, don’t care if they’re not kept guessing. They don’t like surprises anymore, when many spend an inordinate amount of time feeding their own headcanon on social media, and hoping studios will simply give them only what they expect.
Don’t think that I’m someone who hates fan service in totality, because I’m not. However, I do think that there are clear lines as to where that fan service and nostalgia bait starts to congeal into outright laziness. There does reach a point when all the callbacks and references start to get in the way of the story and characters of a given film. And as much as there are legitimate merits to Ghostbusters Afterlife, I was put off, at times, by its inherent laziness. I will at least give them points for the multiple miniature Stay Puft marshmallow men with no concept of self-preservation. This is easily the funniest bit in the entire film.