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Ghostbusters: Afterlife is one of the worst films of the year

I’m not sure people remember the original Ghostbusters. They seem to remember how it felt to like the concept of it, but not the picture itself. I say this, because that film, a disjointed gag about schlubby con artists starting a pest removal business for ghosts, continues to garner a bizarre reverence to this day. That blind devotion came to a head in 2016, when Sony dared to allow women to play in the same sandbox as men. The internet reacted as you’d expect, with death threats, hacked nude pictures, and racism.

I hoped Sony would have learned something from this. Mainly that you should never give fans what they want. Ever. But, instead, it seems their takeaway is the opposite. Like the depressing Rise of Skywalker, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a film designed to placate a generation of manchildren who refuse to give up their toys.

Set in the present, 38 years after the events of Ghostbusters, Afterlife immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Egon Spengler has abandoned his friend, family, and career to living out in the middle of nowhere, ranting to anyone who’ll listen about the end of the world. He clearly knows something we don’t, but why he doesn’t tell anyone, or why his friends (especially Dan Aykroyd’s true believer Ray Stantz) don’t believe him is a mystery. So, he dies alone, remembered as a failure and deadbeat.

This is how we’re going about things?

It’s not long before Egon’s estranged daughter, Callie, played by the always reliable Carrie Coon, arrives to sift through the detritus of his life. Her offspring, the sullen Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and precocious genius Phoebe (McKenna Grace) seem to have a bead on how lost their mother is.

This isn’t hard, as Callie is the closest the film comes to a villain that isn’t a Sumerian god. In one of the numerous baffling missteps, Afterlife settles on demonizing Callie as a dismissive alcoholic who barely tolerates her children. She’s traumatized by her father abandoning the family, but instead of empathizing with her, writer-director Jason Reitman treats her as a burden who just doesn’t understand how important her father was.

Reitman’s father, Ivan, directed the original Ghostbusters and produces this one. What this says about their family dynamics is a can of worms I refuse to open.

Elsewhere, Afterlife is so deeply cynical it feels suffocating. It has no identity or life of its own, so it resorts to building a personality from references to a film nearly four decades old. These range from the obvious, like proton packs and the Ecto-1 making an appearance, to the baffling. Books are piled in perfect pillars because that’s what happened in the first film. Phoebe finds a rumpled Crunch bar in Egon’s old jumpsuit, which itself was a throwaway gag made by Bill Murray in 1983. Neither serves the plot in any way, but they’re there to make a very specific subset of viewers feel special. It’s smug gatekeeping masquerading as fanservice.

Only Grace, playing Phoebe, feels like a breath of fresh air. Even though her character is coded as autistic, the film, in a stunningly cowardly move, refuses to acknowledge this beyond the tacky “magically gifted” trope. Well, that, and an equally off-putting insinuation that her intellect comes from her grandfather, as if that’s something to receive and not hers to accomplish.

Even worse is the third act, which I won’t spoil, that is so deeply distasteful it borders on immoral. What happens won’t be a surprise to anyone as it’s so clumsily telegraphed from the beginning, but it doesn’t lessen the sting in any way.

Afterlife is a film directed by a talented filmmaker. I’m on record for loving Reitman’s two films, Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air, both of which I’d call some of the best American films ever made. But the promise of those two films is nowhere to be seen here. Instead, Afterlife replaces the wit and insight with crass sycophancy and a foul investment in the importance of patriarchal lineage. Everything must flow from a source, and that source extends no further than a point in childhood where our fathers were our heroes.

It deeply, desperately craves for that approval. But even more disturbingly provides that same unearned catharsis for the audience that felt betrayed when Luke Skywalker grew up to not be the hero they remembered. Those who throw an ungodly fit when anyone, anywhere dares to suggest that collective nostalgia isn’t a defining character trait.

It’s a film that unwittingly says so much about where we are as consumers of pop culture, and that portrait is painfully depressing.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is one of the worst films of the year
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4 Comments

  1. Hatboy Hatboy November 26, 2021

    I knew it. I knew it’d be like this. I like the younger actors involved in this but I knew they wouldn’t get a chance to do much here. The whole movie sounds like if Rey burying the lightsaber and renaming herself Skywalker had gotten to be an entire movie.

    I saw the Red Letter Media video on this (which you absolutely nailed at several points) so the third act was also spoiled for me, but I don’t care. If they had just made a feature-length Stranger Things with Wolfhard that would have been fine. That was classic horror over a chickenwire frame of ’80s nostalgia, that was the point of it, to get us all to groan and go “oh yeah, that fucking pop culture thing happened.”

    Now I’ve also heard reports from people who watched this movie (usually with their kids) in a completely uncritical and (I say this as a member of said group) shallow way, who really enjoyed it and thought it was sweet. And the ghoulish trend of CGI-resurrecting dead actors is coming to a middle. Who knows, I may sit down with Wump and Toop and enjoy this movie on some level. As one of the apparently few people who enjoyed the 2016 remake, I can generally find something to like.

    The commoditisation of nostalgia is fascinating and low-key scary to me. Firstly, because the old movies are still there! If you want to re-live them, watch the damn things. Go “oh yeah, that fucking pop culture thing happened.” You don’t need a new thing that constantly pays homage to the old thing when the old thing is still there. If your childhood is ruined by a remake (talking to the manchildren here, obviously), then I hate to tell you but it probably wasn’t the remake. Your childhood was probably already fucked and the fact that you were holding your adulthood together using a movie as glue was definitely a symptom of that.

    But secondly, once the old things stop being available (thank you, streaming), then repackaged homage and nostalgia vessels are going to be the only way we have of looking back at the past. Then we really will have a problem, especially given the relative dearth of new original things being made for us to get nostalgic about in the future. Soon it will just be limited-lifespan echoes of echoes all the way down.

    I exaggerate, but at least I didn’t say “Department of Truth.”

    Fuck.

    • Joonatan Itkonen Joonatan Itkonen Post author | November 26, 2021

      I’m honestly really happy if someone can get enjoyment out of this, I really am. I like parts of it. Specifically McKenna Grace’s character, and I think she’ll be a standout for younger audiences. Paul Rudd is always, always good as well.

      But like you said, I wish this was closer to Stranger Things, even as that show is heavy on the “remember how good things used to be?” train. At least it has a personality and mythology of its own that’s just peppered with things from the past like a treat on the side.

      I’m with you on the commodification of nostalgia, and it’s something I’ve ranted about in the past a lot. Both here and to you in person. It scares the hell out of me, because it’s not about the actual product anymore, it’s about capturing what it felt like to enjoy it as a kid – and that kind of stuff is really unhealthy. They made a great film about that desperation called La Belle Epoque. https://toisto.net/2020/03/12/la-belle-epoque-review-a-melancholy-beauty/

      As for Ghostbusters, I wasn’t a fan of the 2016 version, but I didn’t hate it, either. It was just another comedy that didn’t make me laugh most of the time, and that’s completely OK. It’s not like Ghostbusters 2 was a masterpiece in any way.

  2. Hatboy Hatboy November 26, 2021

    Exactly!

    I’ve enjoyed watching Stranger Things with my kids, particularly just because of the way things have changed. The kids go rushing out of the house shouting about Russian spies, and the parents are like “okay.”

    Wump was really confused about how little the kids’ parents seemed to give a shit, and I had to explain that for whatever reason, life was just like that. As long as you were where you were meant to be at the time you were meant to be there, and didn’t embarrass the family, it didn’t matter where you were or what you were doing in between.

    • Hatboy Hatboy November 26, 2021

      (but of course even that is exaggerated in the show)

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