Ghostbusters: Afterlife — A Ghost of Busting’s Past

An early, formative memory of mine is receiving a Ghostbusters (1984) skateboard. It was from some family friends we were visiting, they had it in their garden and my brother and I played around with it. I wouldn’t say play on it — we were never quite able to skateboard on it — but we were certainly infatuated by it. The family friends let us take it home, seemingly the child it once belonged to was now an adult and felt beyond childish things. I cherished that skateboard, as much as a piece of iconography as as a toy. The Ghostbusters logo on it became a tantalising thing. I was born in 1992, too late for the first movie and, when I actually received the skateboard, I was too young to have got round to watching it. So, Ghostbusters became a fascination, meaning that when I finally watched it, it was already somewhat of a sacred text. I was already in love with the idea of it and the film merely sidled on into a pre-established slot. It did continue to be a fascination, though, a film I would pick to watch with others (whose mileage with it varied) and, on the last day of high school — where tradition was that leaving students come in in fancy dress — I recruited three other friends and we got Ghostbusters costumes (with inflatable proton packs). I was Venkman, of course, and I even strapped some iPod speakers to my belt, the attached iPod playing the Ghostbusters theme on loop for when we did some busting. A real highlight was bursting into classrooms, music blaring, to pretend to bust some ghosts. A history teacher found me later to tell me that we entered at a ‘very importune time’ to bust ghosts… I didn’t ask what they were studying, it was funnier not to know.

I guess what I’m trying to convey is that I love Ghostbusters. Despite not being even a child in the ’80s, I still feel the nostalgic pull. I am, arguably, the exact target audience for this film: a film fan familiar with the actors in it and one with a strong connection to the franchise. I’m ready and waiting to feel the same way again, to fall back in love with the franchise. The premise of the film is seemingly built around manufacturing this feeling. It is what has become a modern trend: the reboot/sequel. A film that revitalises the franchise but also works as a years later continuation of the original film, ignoring anything that came in between. Here, the time distance between the original film and now is kept, we focus on the lives of Egon Spengler’s (the late Harold Ramis’ character from the original film) family — namely his estranged daughter and her two children (aged 12 and 15 respectively). It turns out Spengler went mad, or so it seems, becoming obsessed with doom prophecies and running off to a middle of nowhere town to, so the locals say, ‘farm dirt’. In doing so, he left his family behind. His daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon) has grown up resenting him. The inciting incident of the film is his death, in the farmhouse he ran away to. Of course, Ramis is no longer with us, so this sequence is creatively lit so as to mask his face. It’s a bold opening, an action packed scene (the action itself being clumsy and not very legible), and is framed in a classic Spielbergian way, a mode that dominates the whole film. It’s a strange decision, as the original Ghostbusters does not feel like this; this film feels rooted in the past, and rooted in the ’80s, but in a fundamentally different style to the original film. This referential style, which runs through the film, is distracting — and does clash with the myriad, and overt, allusions (and direct connections) to the original film. It is a weird case where it is something new — fine, we already have Ghostbusters, no need to revivify it — but also, at the same time, something old. Which is where it gets the nostalgia pull wrong. It is a film clearly finely designed to pull at an emotional connection, to feed off an established history with the franchise, that just doesn’t get it right. At all.

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Look, it’s that thing, from that previous movie!

It is with actual sadness, then, that I can reveal there are only really three good things in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. One of these good things is just footage of the original film. Though, this exists within a criticism. This film takes place in a world where Ghostbusters (but not its sequels) happened. They refer to the events as actual events: the Manhattan incident. And, if you remember Ghostbusters, those events were pretty world changing and would enact a metaphysical shift in our reality: ghosts are real and they are out to get us (and mythological gods are, I guess, also real — as could be a whole host of folklore and myth). But the 2021 of Afterlife has forgotten the Ghostbusters — and not in a tongue in cheek way like in Ghostbusters II (1989). The event, in which a marshmallow kaiju scaled a skyscraper, has become an urban myth, the titular Ghostbusters — if they are even believed in — are seen as a joke. It is a leap of logic that the film insists you take, and one that allows it to be a reawakening story that deals with generations. We’ve had the all male Ghostbusters, and the female Ghostbusters, realistically this is just the children Ghostbusters, and the plot contrivances are a way of letting this happen. The film wants to be a bit meta, placing its nature as a reboot in the film’s world. This film is resurrecting a franchise it wants to present as dormant since 1984; the film’s world follows the same logic. The positive part of this is that we get to watch some clips from the movie Ghostbusters in this movie. Namely, the advert scene and the in fiction news footage from the end of the film. These clips are funny and a joy to watch. Though it is very telling that one of three key positives is getting to watch a small amount of footage from a different movie. It’s harsh to say, but it is also made better by its weak surroundings.

The second positive point is that the Ghostbusters theme tune plays over the end credits. Of course it does. I sat there, in an IMAX theatre (worth noting only because the sound quality helped to sell the moment), and I had a real emotional reaction to the film. A reaction that made me realise, even more keenly, how numbed I was by the two hours before this. Sitting there, in a cinema, and hearing the theme of a film I love resonated. Yet, this resonance left a bitter aftertaste: a realisation that the kids that will find this Ghostbusters, like I found the first one, won’t have anything like the same experience. That there is nothing special about this film. That it could never be anything iconic. A lot of this is because of how inexorably tied it is to the original. The plot of this feels the need to echo, or just directly include, direct moments from the first film — even if they make no sense. We have (admittedly mini) Stay Puft Marshmallow Men causing chaos: why? Well, because he was from the first film. We have a monster that is a surrogate for Slimer. We follow so many direct plot points that you will be able to say lines of dialogue before they happen. One moment really sticks out, where a character was greeted and, before they could reply, I mumbled ‘there is no [insert character here], only Zuul’. The line echoed back at me an instant later, and was then repeated again in a scary Zuul voice. For a fan like me, this is just hollow repetition: a thing I’ve seen before done worse in a lesser framework. For a new viewer, I can’t imagine the film working. So much must feel random and the Spielbergian approach pulls it away from being a comedy. There are some jokes here, but they are incidental. This is not a comedy film, the first being an adventure-comedy through and through, this is an adventure film with moments of levity. Therefore these hollow repetitions don’t even hit as self-aware gags, there’s no postmodern cleverness. They are just clunky beats in an empty feeling film.

Mckenna Grace’s Phoebe, the best part of the film.

The final positive point is, actually, rather a big deal. The film’s main character, twelve-year-old Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), is wonderful. She acts circles round everybody else and is the beating heart of the film. She, alas, is a victim of the same soporific script that everybody is. She is a science fascinated kid, but to the extent where her faculties are basically a superpower. She is hyperbolically and intuitively gifted in a way that divorces her from reality, and stings a bit when considered with the way the character is coded (something that will be clear if you watch the film). Outside of science as superpower, she’s brilliant, and — this time — the way she is coded is a big part of this. She is an atypical and unbelievably endearing lead, a real fresh perspective that becomes the only thing that keeps the film going. When the film is at all good, it is because of her, due to her brilliant performance which gives such life to lifeless surroundings. Alas, she is a bright spot that reveals how everything else is in the shade. The rest of the cast are either phoning it in, falling back on type or just being, well, bad. Everybody is written in a really shallow way and the film’s plotting is similarly flimsy. Not much happens, nothing that isn’t overly clichéd or is just an echo of a film from 1984. The film reaches its real nadir at the overly manufactured climax. We have some cameos and, it feels a touch pathetic. Afterlife should be a real revitalising of the franchise but it is so stuck in the past, and so clunkily so. It’s sad to see beloved characters return in such a tacked on and clunky way, and one returning figure is actually quite distastefully handled.

At the end, nothing really means anything. Some improvised logic will wrap things up, character arcs will resolve out of nowhere and the speedy resolutions make for a film that is too forgiving to neglectful figures. It does feel like it is bored of itself, and there is the revelation to the audience that there is hardly anything to tie up. Our new characters, Phoebe aside, made no impact (their specific plotlines repurposed as brief jokes or ignored) and, we are left with only an iconic theme tune. There’s no choice but to reflect back on the nothingness you’ve just watched while remembering the something that was.

4/10

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