The original 1984 Ghostbusters was one of the most iconic films of the 80’s, and it went on to produce one sequel, an Emmy-nominated animated series, and a hugely popular video game that filled in more of the franchise’s “universe.” Given this franchise’s stature in American culture, any attempt at rebooting it had always been seen as a huge gamble. The stakes of attempting such an endeavor has been painfully evident in the last decade or so as series such Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and most recently Masters of the Universe, have all endured intense fan backlash over their woke reboots that no one asked for but which the studios felt the fans needed. In the case of Ghostbusters, there is a persistent rumor that a “remake” was made in 2016, but since its storyline and characters were so radically divergent from both the spirit and the legend of the original films and is ruefully remembered (if at all), we shall speak no more of it in this article.
On the other hand, it can be just as risky making a film solely for the fans of the original film who desired (now or in the past) another sequel, either because they wish to to see the franchise expanded upon or be given a sense of closure. However, given that it has been nearly 40 years since the original films came out, any attempt to draw a direct line between the original film and a new one would be awkward at best, as was the case with Bladerunner 2049 as it tried to drag long since forgotten story elements into a new story.
In an effort to balance out all of these issues, the producers of Ghostbusters- Afterlife decided to have Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman (the director of the original films), to sit in the director’s chair. This generational passing of the torch, was seen as a perfect way to craft a film that had the look and feel of something old for the longtime fans and something new for new or younger viewers. Thus, after a year delay because of last year’s “unpleasantness” Ghostbusters- Afterlife was releases this past weekend in theaters across America where it surpassed its projected expectations.
The Past Revisits the Present
The film opens up some three decades after the events of the second film, with an elderly Egon Spengler living in a lonely farmhouse in a rural area. He attempts to lure a powerful but unseen entity into a trap laid out at his farmhouse, but fails and dies (or is killed by the entity) as a result. The film then cuts to Spengler’s daughter’s, Callie (played by Carrie Coon), who with her two children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) are broke and being evicted from their home, as they are packing up to go settle the affairs of Egon’s estate. The family has been estranged from Egon for many years and felt just as abandoned by him as Callie’s husband abandoned her and the kids. Eventually they arrive in Summerville, Oklahoma and decide to stay for the summer, to fix the place up, and get acquainted with local town who only knew Egon as a recluse they called the “dirt farmer.”
It is then that Phoebe, who is a scientific autodidact and all-around nerdy young lady, learns that the house is haunted by the ghost of her grandfather, who helps her discover his hidden labs and equipment. She also forms a bond with Gary (humorously played by Paul Rudd) a local school teacher, who is measuring seismic anomalies in the town, but who also teaches Phoebe of her grandfather’s fame and what he and the rest of the “Ghostbusters” did back in the 80’s. All which encourages Phoebe to repair Egon’s ghostbusting tools and get them up and running again, all the while going over his notes where she finally learns what he had been up to and why he had to be absent from their lives for all those years. At long last she discovers the event that Egon was prepping for, and together with Trevor, a local nerdy kid who calls himself “Podcast”, and Trevor’s coworker and love interest “Lucky”, they group sets off to finish the cosmic battle that Egon had started. All of which culminates in a climatic ending that I will not spoil, save only to say that the audience in the theater cheered out loud at that crucial moment!
A Well-Balanced Story of Nostalgia and New Story
The film critic The Critical Drinker once noted that the problem with modern remakes is that the moral pretentiousness of woke film makers causes them to ignore the interests and desires of fans, let alone their attachment to a particular I.P. (Intellectual Property). Thus they fail to see that,
“what fans want is continuation not revolution. They want to know that the characters they used to love are still awesome and the world that they were once invested in is still whole and intact. In short, they want you to respect the fact that you are playing with someone else's creation and not try to turn it into something it was never meant to be.”
Thus when it came to revisiting the Ghostbusters franchise, Jason Reitman’s task was take what his father had made and rework it into a film that was part sequel and part remake, but mostly a story that was that was all its own, where the nostalgic aspects of the film enriched the storyline rather than carried it. In this task, Reitman did a remarkably well job in balancing these aspects. For instance, in terms of nostalgia, unlike movies, like Ready Player One or Super 8, where pop culture references were shoved in as filler or to carry a weak storyline, the numerous Easter eggs and homages to the original films (look for the Twinkie!) are subtly, cleverly, and sometime comically written into the script.
So much so, that it would not hurt to either re-watch the two films before seeing Afterlife or at the very least to watch some of the videos that are now normally posted online that recap the original films or ones which breakdown the hidden details you might’ve missed after seeing the film. A good (and humorous) example of this is when, after Phoebe gets the proton packs up and running and makes her first attempt at capturing a ghost, she learns how powerful they are and how much collateral damage they can cause. When she, Trevor, and Podcast are later arrested for the damage they caused, Phoebe demands her requisite phone call to which the police chief scoffs, and says, “Oh really? Who you gonna call?” Not only should that reference ring a bell for all fans, but the number she ends up dialing was a clever nostalgic twist that had the audience laughing.
When it comes to creating an original story for new or younger viewers, Reitman deftly takes the standard Hollywood tropes and stock characters that most films follow, and tweaks them to subvert audiences’ expectations. Once again Phoebe provides a perfect example. From the moment we meet her, it is clear that she is the stereotypical insufferable know-it-all who has more knowledge and wisdom than most of the adults in the story- especially with her mom and Gary. Nevertheless, she changes and adapts to her new surroundings and her abrasive personality is smoothed out as she begins to take up her grandfather’s work and mission, not to mention forming a kind of Goonies-style friendship with Podcast. So when at the climatic battle, when Trevor tries to join the fray and his proton pack fizzles out, I thought, “Here we go again, another impotent male moment where the strong female lead will pick up the slack and triumph for the both of them.” And yet, that is not what happens, as Reitman upends that trope with a more realistic and (once again) nostalgically endearing scene- again no spoilers here but if you see it in the theaters, be ready for the cheers.
A Film Well Worth the Wait
In the end, the story is a wonderful mix of comedy, horror, and adventure. It is a story of disjointed figures coming into their own while dealing with the bonds between family and friends and how they are strained over time, but who nonetheless are open to understanding, love, and especially forgiveness. It is a story about how we pass on, not only the wisdom of the past, but a sense of mission and purpose in the objects, deeds, and reputations we leave behind to be carried on by those who come after us.
Furthermore, there is also something about the story that resonates with my Catholic sensibilities. To be sure, many may have been or will be put off by the franchise’s occult elements and pagan worldview, but there is an allegorical sense (as in the senses of Scripture) by which the film can be seen. After all it is a tale about fallen people who are fighting a lonely and thankless battle “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” or in the case of the Ghostbusters franchise, the infernal places in the earth. And if you have seen any of the more darker episodes of the animated series, you know that these are the guys who are ready to believe and fight for you when the shadows of the valley of...well...death and its minions start “acting strange in your neighborhood.” And finally, the plot of Afterlife offers a rather whimsical but engaging view of the “great crowd of witnesses” in heaven, as Phoebe becomes aware of the presence of her grandfather’s spirit helping her along. She, in true Maccabean fashion, not so much prays, but labors on behalf of the dead to finish the task of exorcising the evil in their midst, and so frees Egon from his purgatorial existence at the end of the movie.
So while the film was not as good as it could’ve been, it was much better than I was expecting, and in the end was well-worth the year delay in seeing it. Granted some of the acting was a little stale, some of the characters (such as Podcast) were predictable enough to be boring and a little irritating, and there are a few rather large plot holes, but all in all Ghostbusters Afterlife is perfect example of fan-service done right, while still leaving room for new viewers. Plus the appearances of the actors and actresses from the original film briefly reprising their roles during the movie or in the post-credit scenes, was a welcome bonus. So if you have some time this Thanksgiving weekend, please consider seeing it- and don't leave until after the credits!
Post Script- if you think my "Catholic take" on the film is a bit an of a stretch, then I highly encourage you to listen to the retelling and Catholic analysis of the ghost story The Wizard Clip in colonial America, where a Catholic man who was denied last rites before he died, managed to make himself known until a Catholic priest was summoned to pray for the deceased soul.
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