Saturday 20 November 2021

Running on empty: "Ghostbusters: Afterlife"

They cannot leave it alone. Like a child picking at a scab on their knee, or a teenage boy with his penis (so I'm told), Sony keeps reaching for the remnants of the
Ghostbusters franchise in the hope of recapturing whatever magic Ivan Reitman's original movie brought into the world back in 1984. Modern Hollywood, as we've seen, has a funny idea of magic: that first film was a famously fraught, seat-of-the-pants production, yielding a scrappy, often tonally awkward picture (ghost blowjobs!) that succeeded in part because it was so unlike the slicker entertainments being pushed with maximum sincerity in the first years of the Spielberg-Lucas-Reagan regime. (Its heroes were schlubs, bozos and nerds, not Rocky or Rambo-style musclemen.) It was nothing more than a goof-off, in short, but in the intervening years Ghostbusters has been reclaimed as a potential site of feminist reinvention (2016's gender-flipped reboot); since that movie failed to do the numbers that occasion sequels - hampered by heightened levels of fanboy awfulness - the franchise now heads into its Muppet Babies stage. The thinking behind this weekend's Ghostbusters: Afterlife: let's do it all over again for the benefit of those kids who represent the multiplex's last demographic standing. So Carrie Coon's single mom relocates her teenage offspring (Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace) to her late father's spooky mid-Western farmhouse, sparking a two-hour Easter egg hunt for the old car, traps and paranormal activity. The underlying idea is that the Ghostbusters bug must have skipped a generation - that's why the 2016 film couldn't find an audience - and that what this franchise now needs is fresh blood, both onscreen and in the audience. Show these pups a few YouTube clips of the original, give one of them a podcast (indeed, make his very name Podcast), tease Elmer Bernstein's playful original score as a kind of musical madeleine, and lo and behold, Afterlife will save first Hollywood from its rotten run of non-event movies, then the Christmas box office, and possibly the world entire. Well.

Some measure of retroactive redressing is going here. Afterlife proceeds on the assumption that the Ghostbusters franchise was always somehow Spielbergian: good-natured adventures for all the family. The new film is unarguably Spielbergian, and may in fact be the most outwardly Spielbergian event movie since 2011's Super 8: it's kids on bikes, a small town with a 50s-style diner (clearly a pointlessly expensive set, to which we have to return despite the fact nothing of narrative import happens there), overlooked by a vast promontory apparently modelled on the mashed-potato mountain of Close Encounters. Fine, but it's also very un-Ghostbusters, which was East Coast urban rather than all-American - the most profitable of the movies bearing the wayward influence of Saturday Night Live - and generally grimy, horny (ghost blowjobs!), cynical and scrappily funny with that. Afterlife is not funny, really; it's aiming for heartwarming, if anything, though it doesn't come within a country mile of that. There's a reason the main characters this time round are a single mom and her mixed-up teens; Paul Rudd has a vaguely amusing introduction as a teacher who blithely subjects his students to Cujo on VHS, but he's deployed thereafter as love interest and fall guy, set upon by mini-Marshmallow Men in a sequence that's already been snarked off the Internet. Actual ghostbusting proves far less crucial to the overall design than the rebalancing of a wobbly family unit (which the finale invites us to read as analogous with the franchise itself). This is a film that would have benefitted greatly from Seinfeld's "no hugs" rule; and it reminded me of one of the original's most fruitful gags, namely that its protagonists were so maladroit around the opposite sex that they had to get on with ghostbusting. The proton blasters that were bursting with almost certainly unintended symbolism there ("don't cross the streams") are here just tired and dusty bits of movie kit, means to a moderately spectacular end.

Given that it's a family affair, there's a dull sort of logic behind recruiting Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman to oversee events. I liked some of Reitman's earlier films, worldly human comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult) which felt like they belonged to a longstanding Hollywood tradition. Whether he has his eye on a pension fund, I can't say, but he's become the model of an MOR plodder over the past decade. Afterlife gabbles excitedly towards its effectsathon finale - J.K. Simmons' contribution as the town's undead founder would appear to have been left almost entirely on the cutting room floor - but it's mostly been staged with a bland proficiency, Reitman imposing himself only via slaphappy soundtrack selections: soul cuts to establish a small-town ambiance, interrupted by the Buzzcocks' "Boredom", an incongruous blast of rude energy that will mean even less to the target audience. Beyond that, he's limited to ticking off the callbacks ("Who you gonna call?") and monitoring the offscreen negotiations to get what remains of the original gang back together. The job title "director" feels less accurate than IP manager, nostalgia facilitator or some other corporate conjunction: reviving Harold Ramis as a hologram is certainly a choice - doubtless prompted by New Star Wars' digital resuscitation of its fallen combatants - but it's a creepy and charmless one. (Let him rest in peace, and for God's sake stop digging up the past.) If you want another imitation of that PG-rated screenfiller Hollywood's been churning out for 40 years now, then Afterlife is currently playing on hundreds of thousands of screens near you. Yet the truth is it's a pretty nondescript one of those, hashed together from half-remembered plot points and dimly familiar images. What's truly admirable about the Spielberg filmography - what's actually worth looking back at and learning from - is that Spielberg himself soon moved past this kind of fare: he grew up, challenged himself (and his audience), and left childish things behind. Afterlife is a product of an industry that - for whatever reason, commercial, psychological, whatever - simply cannot do that right now. Are we sure that daddy Ivan, embarrassed by the ghost blowjobs, didn't just show young Jason The Goonies at a formative age, and tell him that's what Ghostbusters is?

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now showing in cinemas worldwide.


  1. Did we need to see Bill Murray crying? I mean, really.

    It was harmless enough, but as you say, the first one was a hit because it felt subversive, these misfits proving their worth. It's no coincidence it was released the same day as Gremlins, with which it shares that cheerfully bad taste, getting away with something sensibility. Nothing like that here, though Paul Rudd does his best (and is sidelined for his trouble).

    This is mostly distinguished by having the most important character as a little girl Ghostbuster, which despite the 2016 one's reaction was completely accepted by the fans. Not sure why, but I can't say I'm upset she wasn't criticised.

    They seem to be aiming for a Ghostbusters Cinematic Universe. Sigh. And Spielberg's next (last?) is a return to his nostalgic 80s style.

    1. Exactly. Ain't nothing new under the sun, but do we have to keep digging up stuff that feels this old and tired?