REVIEW: Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Slow, overly respectful, and crushingly earnest, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is proof that fans should always be careful what they wish for. Development of a third Ghostbusters film staggered through development like a wounded gazelle from the early 1990s through to the death of co-writer and star Harold Ramis in 2010. A 2016 reboot under-performed due to a runaway production budget, and fell foul of many Ghostbusters enthusiasts for reasons both fair and sexist. While Paul Feig’s 2016 effort had problems with its screenplay and intrusive cameos, it at least remembered the film it was remaking was a comedy. From the way Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife dances around its source material you’d be forgiven for thinking Ivan Reitman’s original was as dramatic as The Godfather.

There is a genuinely good family film at the centre of Afterlife. Single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) hits stone broke right at the time when her estranged father dies, leaving her a rundown farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. With nowhere else to go Callie relocates there with her children Trevor (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace). Soon Phoebe begins investigating strange goings-on at a nearby abandoned mine and a family legacy she had not imagined.

Afterlife owes a partial debt to the Amblin Entertainment-inspired ‘kids go on an adventure’ films of the 1980s, as well as to recent iterations of that same formula – the presence of Wolfhard in the cast makes Stranger Things comparisons inevitable. It is a genuinely wonderful showcase for McKenna Grace, playing Phoebe as a funny, bookish, almost-certainly-on-the-autism-spectrum geek. What funny lines the screenplay has are almost entirely given to Phoebe. She is the film’s best asset, and the one element worth exploring in a potential sequel. Sadly she, and everything else in the film that’s good, is buried by an incessant and dispiriting need to honour the Ghostbusters legacy. The musical score is a jumble of leitmotifs. Every appearance of each object, character, and famous catchphrase from the 1984 film feels back-lit by a halo. The film plays heavily to Sony’s intentions: the corporate giant sees Ghostbusters as a Marvel or a Star Wars, a pop culture giant around which they can base a decade of spin-offs, sequels, and tentpole features. It is an attitude that drives Afterlife, and which is cripplingly wrong-headed. It turns the film into the most awkward and unfortunate artefacts imaginable: a tribute so misguided that it fails to understand the film to which it is paying tribute.

The original Ghostbusters is inseparable from the context in which it was released. It is a shameless expression of mid-1980s conservative exceptionalism. 1984 was an election year, which Republican President Ronald Reagan won by winning 49 out of 50 states. The American economy was booming after an early 1980s recession. NASA’s space program seemed revitalised with the successful launch of the space shuttles Challenger and Discovery. Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Games. While it would take another three years for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) to satirically claim ‘greed is good’, business was booming and yuppie culture was already in full swing.

Into this heightened environment comes Ghostbusters, a comedy in which a group of scientists conclusively prove the existence of the supernatural and immediately choose to monetise it. It is ostensibly a movie about chasing ghosts, but it is just as much a film about going into small business. Talk runs throughout about running costs, mortgages, and billing. One of the key supporting characters, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), is an accountant.

There is a tendency for Ghostbusters fans of a certain age to bristle at claims that their favourite film is a conservative fantasy, because they were simply too young at the time to notice. Note how the villain of the piece, EPA representative Walter Peck (William Atherton), is essentially demonised by the film for putting the environment ahead of the dollar. Peck represents “the man”; the Ghostbusters the ordinary Americans trying to make a living.

Much of the original Ghostbusters derives from the Reagan era. It is one of the reasons why the film is set in New York, financial capital of the world. That, in turn, is why Elmer Bernstein’s musical score references Gershwin’s New York anthem “Rhapsody in Blue” so heavily. It is the reason why, when business and booming, and the Ghostbusters need to expand, they bring in working class employee Winston Zeddimore (Ernie Hudson) to pick up the slack. Interestingly while Ghostbusters, the second-highest grossing film of its year, embraces the idea of getting rich the one film to gross more money, Martin Brest’s Beverly Hills Cop, actively skewers wealth culture.

The problem with capturing the zeitgeist is that the zeitgeist moves on. Critics and fans alike generally agree that 1989’s Ghostbusters II fails to match the original. What many fail to realise is that it is the context as much as the content that leads the sequel to struggle. The characters are designed to succeed. Once they do so by the end of the original film, their story has no worthwhile direction in which to go.

Afterlife is not helped by a narrative that forces events into a near-identical remake of the original’s plot. Same villain, same intentions, and inexplicably the same visual iconography. By the film’s end its strange, artificial set-up has forced the legacy characters – the original gang all turn up – to act entirely against character. The result is a curious spectacle in which a potentially good movie is twisted out of shape by deference to an earlier film, while simultaneously twisting that film’s characters out of shape in order to justify that deference.

Put it this way: everything in Ghostbusters was in it for a reason. Everything in Afterlife is there because it was in Ghostbusters. It is not that a slightly risque comedy horror cannot lead to a wistful teenage adventure, it is that one cannot lead to the other if it doesn’t shed the elements of the former to make room for the latter. What Jason Reitman has directed falls awkwardly between two stools.

One hopes Sony’s dreams of a Ghostbusters cinematic universe end here. Not every film needs a sequel. Ghostbusters was a remarkable film that captured a specific time and place. It remains of that time and place. Afterlife is misguided. It’s joyless. By the climax one element in particular feels actively unethical. Ghostbusters 2016 had its problems, but at least I had a good time. During Afterlife I was so, so bored.

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