There’s something bland and tedious in this neighbourhood: an empty reboot haunted by easy nostalgia.
December 30, 2021
Spraying reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels across cinema screens like a spirit supposedly sprays ectoplasm — gushing reimaginings, spinoffs and seemingly never-ending franchises, too — Hollywood ain't afraid of no ghosts. It loves them in horror movies, obviously, but it adores the spectre of popular intellectual property even more. These phantoms of hits gone by can be resurrected again and again, all to make a profit. They haunt both cinemas and box-office blockbuster lists, making film-goers and the industry itself constantly feel like they're being spooked by the past. With 14 of Australia's 15 top cash-earning flicks of 2021 all falling into the been-there-done-that category in one way or another, looking backwards in the name of apparently going forwards is now mainstream filmmaking 101, and the big end of town rarely likes bustin' a money-making formula.
After more than a few pandemic delays, that's the world that Ghostbusters: Afterlife floats into — a world that's made worshipping previous glories one of the biggest cash-spinners show business could've ever dreamed up. The fourth feature to bear the Ghostbusters name, but a new legacy sequel to the original 1984 film, this reanimated franchise entry certainly sports a fitting subtitle; treating its source material like it's nirvana is firmly filmmaker Jason Reitman's approach. To him, it might've been. Although he established his career with indie comedies such as Thank You for Smoking and Juno, he's the son of director Ivan Reitman, who helmed the OG Ghostbusters and its 1989 follow-up Ghostbusters II. To plenty of fans, those two initial comedy-horror flicks were something special as well; however, acknowledging that fact — and trying to recreate the feeling of being a kid or teen watching the first Ghostbusters nearly four decades ago — isn't enough to fuel a new film.
To be fair, the younger Reitman isn't particularly interested in making a new movie; Be Kind Rewind's "sweded" Ghostbusters clips are more original than Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Instead, he directs a homage that sprinkles in links to its predecessor so heartily that it's probably easier to name the scenes and details that don't scream "hey, this is Ghostbusters!" as loudly as possible. And, even when Reitman and co-screenwriter Gil Kenan (Poltergeist) appear to shake things up ever so slightly, it all still ties back to that kid-in-the-80s sensation. Sure, Ghostbusters: Afterlife's protagonists aren't adult New Yorkers, but they're small-town adolescents who might as well have ambled out of one of the era's other hot properties: Steven Spielberg-helmed or -produced coming-of-age adventure-comedies about life-changing, Americana-dripping, personality-shaping escapades.
Phoebe (Mckenna Grace, Malignant) is one such child, and a new inhabitant of the cringingly titled Summerville, Oklahoma at that. With her mother Callie (Carrie Coon, The Nest) and brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, The Goldfinch), she's made the move because the granddad she never knew just passed away, leaving a dilapidated rural property to his estranged family. The townsfolk speak his nickname, "dirt farmer", with mocking and intrigue, but his actual moniker — and all that equipment he's left behind — brings big changes Phoebe's way. While being Dr Egon Spengler's granddaughter doesn't initially mean too much to her, other than giving her love for science a genetic basis, she's soon segueing from testing out ghost traps with local teacher Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd, The Shrink Next Door) to cracking Egon's secret efforts to stop a world-shattering supernatural event.
Who ya gonna call? Reitman and Kenan's teen fantasies, presumably. The pair haven't taxed themselves with their screenplay, which reads like backyard cosplay. That said, when they're not getting characters to utter the obvious — including "who ya gonna call?", of course — or trotting out mini marshmallow men for no good narrative reason, Reitman and Kenan do expend ample energy differentiating Ghostbusters: Afterlife from 2016's Ghostbusters. Wrongly maligned by manchildren who claimed that women bustin' ghosts somehow ruined their childhoods despite the fact they're now ostensibly grown, the latter is a comic gem that's far nearer in tone to the 1984 flick than this new nostalgia dump. But the female-fronted film didn't linger on every Ghostbusters nod it could shoehorn in every 30 seconds or so, and definitely didn't regard all those winks as the sole reason it existed, so Ghostbusters: Afterlife is here to redress that (and, continuity-wise, to flat-out ignore that the last movie was ever made).
It seems that Hollywood does want to blast away some spirits after all: the remnants of prior franchise entries that didn't thrill their diehard fans. There's no point asking if this is what blockbuster filmmaking is now, because we've all seen the proof countless times — but even Spider-Man: No Way Home's theme park-esque references to past web-slinging iterations still recognised the movies that weren't universally loved. The Matrix Resurrections plugged into its chequered history even deeper, defiantly making its two worst predecessors indispensable to the latest movie. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn't dare challenge, surprise, or do anything other than pander to and try to evoke claps and cheers from viewers easily pleased by loving what they've always loved. Bringing back familiar faces, blatantly ripping off the original Ghostbusters' ending, tastelessly resurrecting (via CGI) the late Harold Ramis as Egon: there is no inspiration here, only bland, tedious, sentiment-coddling cinematic gruel.
If only Reitman approached Ghostbusters: Afterlife less like inevitably inheriting the family business, and more like the smart, sharp and very funny comedies already on his resume. If only he'd brought over just a single proton-pack blast of Young Adult and Tully's disdain for idolising the past. If only he'd given the engaging Grace something more to do than act out his own path — learning to follow in her grandfather's footsteps, just as Reitman does with his dad. There's more where these laments came from, too. If only there really was something strange, unusual, wacky and silly in this movie's neighbourhood, other than Rudd never ageing. If only Ghostbusters: Afterlife wasn't just empty and easy fan service: the movie. If only it wasn't bloated, shot like a parody of an 80s all-ages adventure, far too influenced by Wolfhard's Stranger Things, wasteful of its cast, and determined to remind its audience over and over that better Ghostbusters films exist. This fourquel only has eyes for one movie, it ain't afraid to show it, and it isn't itself — and that's what it leaves you wishing you'd watched again instead.