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Non-Review Review: Ghostbusters – Afterlife

In the final act of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, young Phoebe has a sudden realisation about the farm that her family has inherited from her eccentric grandfather. “This isn’t a farm,” she boasts. “It’s a trap.”

She could just as easily be talking about the film itself. Afterlife is a belated sequel to the original Ghostbusters, consigning Ghostbusters II to a weird continuity limbo where Ray still owns an occult bookstore but there’s no way that that the film’s climax could have happened. The film follows the family of Egon Spengler, his estranged daughter and her two grandchildren, who take ownership of his farm shortly after his death. Inevitably, the family unit learns that the eccentric patriarch who abandoned them in the middle of the night with no explanation really did love them all along.

Blast from the past.

Afterlife is suffocated in a reverential nostalgia that treats the original Ghostbusters as a fetish object. Sure, a casual audience member might watch Ghostbusters as an irreverent mid-eighties comedy that was cleverly skewing Reagan era values, but Afterlife instead sees an earnest classic of American cinema that deserves to be venerated and celebrated as a monument of popular culture. Much like Ivo Shandor erected the skyscraper at 55 Central Park West as a tribute to the Cult of Gozer, Afterlife has been erected as a monument to the cult of Ghostbusters.

It’s telling that the movie’s subtitle is “Afterlife” rather than “Resurrection.” This is not a movie about breathing new life into an existing property. It’s not about finding anything new or interesting to do with these characters or concepts. Instead, it’s about finding a way to tap into the audience’s desire for Ghostbusters nostlagia as a way to wring a few more dollars. In its own way, Afterlife is as cynical as Peter Venkeman in the original Ghostbusters, but at least Venkeman had the decency not to disguise his ruthless pragmatism as earnest sentiment.

Kidding around.

Afterlife is a nightmare coloured in shades of sepia-tinted nostalgia. It is a story about how the best that children can ever hope to accomplish is to emulate their forebearers, foresaking any identity of their own as they grapple with problems that their grandparents singularly failed to resolve. It is a story about how even death is not enough to remove a respected actor and writer from his obligations to a piece of intellectual property, and a reminder of how easily the dead can be animated to serve the demands of the living.

In the world of Afterlife, the dead exist to satisfy the living. This isn’t nostalgia, it is necrophilia.

Before diving into Afterlife, it’s worth reflecting a little bit on what Ghostbusters actually was. Not how the film is remembered, but how it actually existed. The film was set and shot in eighties New York City. Despite the fantastical premise of a team of ghost hunters, the movie largely reflected the reality of the city at that moment in time. It is a story about three academics fired from Columbia University in the middle of a recession, and a fourth team member who is so desperate for a job that he will believe anything that they pay him to believe.

The original Ghostbusters is among those rare films that captures the spirit of a particular time and place on film. It reflects the New York of the era in the same way that films like Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, After Hours, The Warriors, Streets of Fire, Panic in Needle Park and even Escape from New York do. It’s a film that doesn’t couch its portrayal of its time and place in trite sentimentality or easy nostalgia. Egon himself is candid that the team are working in a “demilitarised zone.”

Mining nostalgia.

Afterlife doesn’t unfold in any real place. Nominally, the film takes place in a small town in rural Oklahoma, but it never feels like anywhere tangible. It feels like an image of rural America conjured from the paintings of Norman Rockwell or the dreamscapes of Terrence Malick. It’s all golden fields, American flags, old barns filled with treasure. “I didn’t know places like this still existed,” Callie tells her two children on their first night in town. She’s half right. Places like this never existed. It’s revealing that director Jason Reitman had to take his cast and crew to Alberta, Canada to create the illusion of this pasteral United States.

To be clear, there is something to be said for depicting rural America on screen. However, it should be depicted as it is, not as the nostalgic fantasy of those with no real attachment to it. There is something to be said for a version of Afterlife that treats rural Oklahoma in the same way that Ghostbusters treated New York City, perhaps evoking Winter’s Bone or Mickey and the Bear. Instead, the version of Oklahoma featured in Afterlife is the version of America conjured into being in “Main Street, U.S.A.” in Disneyland. It’s a fantasy.

Dead and Egon.

Then again, Afterlife trades in fantasy. Afterlife demonstrates the siren call and the dangers of nostalgia. It demonstrates the crucial difference between nostalgia and history. Nostalgia presents the past as the audience wishes it was. It offers them a comforting illusion over the messy reality. It throws a warm blanket around its audience, and it assures them that there was a time and place when everything was right, and that this can be recaptured if they close their eyes and they wish hard enough. It’s a fiction, but it’s a comforting one.

Afterlife essentially reduces the familiar Ghostbuster mythos down to a cheap knock-off of an Amblin picture. This is part of the film’s nostalgic drive. The casting of Finn Wolfhard tips the movie’s hand, evoking the way in which Stranger Things plays with the nostalgia for eighties children’s movies like The Goonies. Of course, this suggests at least two levels of refraction from the original Ghostbusters, both in transposing the wry and irreverent original to the logic of an Amblin film, and then filtering that already misplaced juxtaposition through the lens of Stranger Things nostalgia. There’s little of the essence of Ghostbusters left.

A nostalgia trap.

Afterlife reduces anything potentially interesting to a set of familiar iconography, expecting the audience to gasp and clap in recognition as some Pavlovian response. Reitman’s camera glides over proton packs and lingers on ghost traps like it is taking in the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This isn’t just awe, it is religious worship. At one point, the young characters discover a body perfectly preserved in a glass sarcophagus. It would be an easy metaphor for what Afterlife is attempting, but Afterlife is more interested in puppetting that corpse for its own ends.

There’s a ruthless cynicism to the nostalgia lurking beneath the colour-corrected fields of gold in Afterlife. The bulk of the movie is built around the legacy of the character of Egon Spengler. Spengler was played by Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. Ramis also co-wrote those films, and was a guiding creative light on the films. The actor was unfortunately the first member of the original cast to past away, and there’s something deeply depressing in the way that Afterlife treats Ramis’ passing as an opportunity.

“Egon is my co-pilot.”

Not only does Ramis’ death give the movie cheap emotional leverage, it also turns Ramis himself into a prop that the movie can manipulate to serve its own ends. The opening sequence of Afterlife features the death of Ego Spengler, played by a barely-glimpsed body double. Spengler’s ghost quite literally haunts the rest of the film, communicating with his family through ambiguous actions. He plays chess with his granddaughter Phoebe. He seems to guide his grandson Trevor to the old car in the barn.

Watching Afterlife, it’s perhaps easier to imagine Ray or Peter in the Egon role. Ray was always the character most obsessed with mythology and ghostbusting, and it’s easy to imagine Ray giving up everything in his life to go live on a farm in the middle of nowhere because some occult prophecy told him to. Peter was the most sexually active and most commitment-phobic of the four, making it easier to believe that he could father a daughter and abandon that daughter when times got tough. (It’s interesting to imagine Afterlife as something closer to Broken Flowers.)

“This place is really dead.”

In contrast, Egon is a much harder fit for what Afterlife requires of the character. In the original Ghostbusters, the idea that Egon would be sexually or romantically interested in anyone was treated as a joke. In Ghostbusters II, Egon was – aside from Peter – the member of the team least bothered by the fact the team was out of business, because it let him run his other experiments. In Afterlife, the biggest piece of the puzzle isn’t that Egon mysteriously abandoned his family, it’s that he had a family in the first place and that he would move to Oklahoma.

Of course, it feels like Afterlife settled on Egon because Harold Ramis was dead. His passing meant that Ramis was both less likely to object to the characterisation of Egon as a terrible father and less likely to object to having to show up on set for more than a day of filming at the climax. With Ramis gone, Egon can be rendered easily within a computer and cast with a body double, making him easier to manipulate as a piece of hollow intellectual property.

Nothing under the hood.

At the heart of Afterlife is the same theme of generational failure that defines so many of these nostalgic sequels, both good and bad. It’s there in Han Solo’s failure with Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. It’s there in Danny working through his own father issues in Doctor Sleep. It’s even present in something as light and inconsequential as Coming 2 America. At the heart of Afterlife is the idea that the older generation have failed their children.

This is most obvious with Egon, who abandoned his wife and daughter without even saying goodbye and turned his back on his friends without any warning. (“Egon Spengler can rot in hell,” muses Ray at one point in Afterlife, and it seems like a reasonable way to talk about a close personal friend who steals property and leaves without saying goodbye.) Callie never knew her father. Phoebe and Trever never knew their grandfather. That was entirely his choice, particularly in an era of mobile phones and internet access. Egon failed the people who were relying on him.

Proto-proton pack.

Indeed, Afterlife underscores the point more directly. Whereas Ghostbusters II imagined the team dealing with a new threat and a new enemy threatening New York, Afterlife resurrects the threat of Gozer and Zuul from the original Ghostbusters. Part of this is just simple nostalgia – a reminder of the audience of that thing they liked from the original film, to tickle the nostalgia receptors. However, it’s also a compelling argument that the main characters of the original Ghostbusters were failures. They had one simple job, to defeat Zuul and Gozer. They failed at it, as Zuul and Gozer still threaten the world.

There is a potentially interesting story in here. It would be interesting to interrogate the idea that this elder generation fundamentally failed in their responsibility to make the world a better place for those who would follow, that they failed to deal with their own messes, and that their failures will return to haunt their children and grandchildren. Phoebe and Trevor are kids. They did not ask to be embroiled in an epic existential struggle to save the world. If Egon and his friends had actually done what they set out to do, maybe their kids wouldn’t have to risk their lives to “finish what they started in 1984.”

“Oh, this is the best bit.”

Unfortunately, Afterlife lacks any real introspection. It doesn’t see this story as a tragedy. In the world of Afterlife, it’s made clear that the only possible function of children and grandchildren is to affirm the older generation, to inflate the egoes of those who came before and to validate their life choices. Of course these descendents become empty recepticles for the hopes and dreams of those who came before, what more could children hope to be? What could children want other than to reflect their forebearers’ glory back at them? Why would these people have any hopes or dreams of their own?

Early in Afterlife, young Phoebe is established as effectively a clone of Egon Spengler, rewiring the house’s electricity in her spare time. However, Phoebe has the arrogance of youth. She has her own interests, and she doesn’t believe in ghosts. Luckily, there’s a middle-aged superfan nearby to helpfully explain to her how she is wrong, and that she needs to reconnect with her heritage. The kids in Afterlife are not characters, but functions. Phoebe’s closest friend is a young kid named “Podcast”, a choice that handily saves the film the effort of investing in characterisation.

Fields of gold.

Afterlife has a great cast. McKenna Grace is a wonderful child actor. Carrie Coon is one of the finest actors of her generation. Paul Rudd is charismatic and charming. However, none of these actors are given anything to play beyond veneration for what came before. In a moment that feels lifted from Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, Callie completes her emotional arc by acknowledging, “I’m Callie Spengler.” Paul Rudd’s Greg Grooberson is the film’s requisite fan boy. It’s revealing that Ghostbusters II cast Rick Moranis in the role, while while Afterlife flatters fans by casting the sexiest man alive.

There is, of course, a none-too-subtle reality subtext at play in all of this. Afterlife is directed by Jason Reitman, the son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. It appears that even behind the camera, children exist primary as extensions of their parents’ dreams. The press circuit for Afterlife has largely consisted of the younger Reitman talking about Ghostbusters the way that Afterlife expects Phoebe to think about Egon, something of a homecoming to a part of his life with which he had a “complicated” relationship. Even the meta-narrative of Afterlife is couched in cynical and trite sentimentality.

Off the record.

Of course, Jason Reitman is only returning to Ghostbusters because of the commercial failure of his own more recent projects like Tully and Young Adult. Had those projects found an audience, it seems likely that Reitman would still be making his own films quite apart from the legacy of his father. In some ways, Reitman’s return to the Ghostbusters franchise feels like that millennial tragedy, the sad story of more and more young people forced to move back home with their parents.

Of course, Afterlife never actually deals with any of the interesting subtext underpinning this generational saga. Egon is never really held to account for leaving his wife and child behind. The Ghostbusters are never called out for failing to properly tidy up after themselves when they confronted Gozer. Instead, Afterlife is a nostalgic fantasy about how the kids will never have to take the training wheels off the bike, because daddy always loved them and will always be their for them.

Talk about needing to mellow out.

Despite all the hard work that Phoebe and Trevor do to clean up the mess they inherited, Afterlife still insists that the grown-ups should swoop in at the last minute to claim all the glory. (It’s also a pragmatic production choice, as it allows the film to indulge in nostalgic fan service, while also acknowledging that none of the original actors – with the exception of Dan Ackroyd – seem particularly excited to be back on set for longer than a day.) It’s very similar to Lando Calrissian swooping in on the Millennium Falcon at the climax of The Rise of Skywalker, a reassurance that the older generation is still virile and hip and cool.

It’s crass and cynical and vulgar, particularly in its treatment of Ramis. Afterlife naturally ends by arguing that Egon really wasn’t a terrible father after all, but the logic is hardly convincing. Then again, Afterlife understands that the logic doesn’t have to be convincing. It is just telling the audience what it thinks they want to hear, what they are primed to process without any critical insight or consideration. It’s easier to believe that these sorts of absent and failed fathers were really great people than it is to engage with the actual consequences of their actions.

Like The Rise of Skywalker, Afterlife wraps a warm blanket around its audience, and promises them a return to a time when things were better. It lets them travel in a way a child travels. Round and round, and then back home again – to a place where busting made them feel good. If the goal of nostalgia is to make the past look so much better than the present, Afterlife succeeds in that alone. After all, anything has to be better than this.

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