Nostalgia is a powerful drug, far more powerful than cocaine or heroin. We all partake of it. All of us. And there is no better provider out there than popular culture. Doesn’t matter what form it takes: reruns of old episodes of Perry Mason, Matlock, Walker Texas Ranger or M*A*S*H on Me-TV, Cozi, Antenna and their ilk, ’70s and ’80s movies, or the release of ABBA’s first album in decades and Genesis’ U.S. tour. Nostalgia provides us with a refuge from the chaos and the bad news; it feeds our wishes to go back to a much simpler time (if there was indeed such a thing). And woe to those who dare tamper with our memories of the TV shows and movies we grew up with, for the full force of social media will be unleashed upon them.
Just look at how the most vociferous and vile Star Wars fans sexually and racially attacked Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran on social media for her role as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a movie that dared to do something different with the franchise (director Rian Johnson received some vitriol himself, but not to the vicious and hateful extent experienced by Tran). The vitriol was such that both Lucasfilm and Disney backtracked on whatever original plans they had for the third movie in the latest trilogy and delivered the fan-pleasing, mediocre, and forgettable Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (One of the most interesting aspects of 21st-century pop culture is how beholden its fans are to corporate entities and products, be they Marvel, DC, or Pixar.)
And therein lies the problem with nostalgia: it stops progress and evolution dead in its tracks. Nostalgia also tinges our view of history, masking over the inequities, the crises, the prejudices that were part and parcel of the world that created those bits and pieces of popular culture we hold so dear. We may pine for the ’80s, but we forget that the ’80s brought us Reagan—whose presidency was the first chapter in the complete devolution of American politics—AIDS, and so much more.
Which brings me to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a film that, like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, was made to wipe away the bitter taste that its predecessor, the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters reboot, left in the mouths of the franchise’s most misogynist fans.
Now, truth be told, that Ghostbusters reboot was not exactly a masterpiece, but it had its moments. Yet just the idea that four women—Melissa McCarthy, Kirsten Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Holmes—would play the female equivalents of the roles once played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson, left many of these fans apoplectic. The first trailer became one of the most despised videos on YouTube during the week of its launch. Jones, like Tran after her, became the subject of racist and sexist attacks on social media, though she came out swinging against her detractors.
It’s impossible, then, not to think of Ghostbusters: Afterlife as a course correction, an attempt to give fans what they want. For it is no longer enough to watch the original film and its sequel over and over again on cable; audiences want the same story told in a different way, but with the exact narrative beats of the original, plus dozens of Easter eggs.
In a pre-recorded message that screens prior to the film, director and co-writer Jason Reitman, taking over the reins from his father Ivan who directed the original films, jokes about the challenges of having him monitor every move he made. And while his message may nicely set up the family-driven plot, it also explains how creatively stifling it must have been for the younger Reitman, his cast and crew to deliver a product—yes, a product—that would satisfy its target audience.
Reitman amps up the nostalgia even more by moving the family unit of unemployed single mom Callie (Carrie Coon), 15-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhound), and younger daughter and science geek Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) from the big city to small-town America, in this case the mostly white town of Summerville, Oklahoma: full of dirt roads, token minority characters, an old-school diner where food is still served on roller skates in the parking lot, and a Walmart on the outskirts… and that’s really about it, since the town is never fully explored. The film could have taken place in the middle of the Sonorna Desert for all we care, given the setting takes a backseat to the plot and massive CGI effects—whereas the original Ghostbuster, in all its manifestations including the J. Michael Straczynski-penned cartoon series, was a New York story through and through.
The trio moves into the old, dusty, dilapidated farm they’ve inherited from Callie’s father, who, from both the trailer, the film’s opening scene and even Phoebe’s glasses, hairdo and demeanor, is so obviously Egon Spengler, the character once played by the late Harold Ramis. Callie’s hopes to sell the house and cash in her father’s inheritance collapse when she finds out he left behind a ton of debt. The house is known as the “Dust Farm” by the townsfolk, who are surprised to learn that its eccentric owner actually had a family.
Callie has no choice but to stay put with her kids. Smitten with waitress Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), Trevor applies for a job at the diner, while Phoebe is enrolled in summer school where frustrated teacher and seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd channeling both Bill Murray and Rick Moranis in his performance) has his students spend the day watching VHS tapes of old horror movies. Phoebe befriends Grooberson, who tells her about the seismic activity that has been rattling Summerville, even though there are no tectonic plates nearby. She also befriends an Asian-American kid who calls himself Podcast (Logan Kim playing the film’s version of Data, the tech-savvy Chinese kid from 1986’s The Goonies), who produces, you guessed it, a podcast about the supernatural that has only one subscriber.
Meanwhile, back at the house, a friendly spirit engages Phoebe in a game of chess and guides her through the house’s every nook and cranny, where she finds an old, still functional ghost trap and her grandfather’s secret lair, as well as his proton pack and uniforms. Trevor has been doing some digging of his own and in the garage finds, covered underneath a tarp, the Ghostbusters’ old Ecto-1 station wagon, which he proceeds to repair.
Soon, Phoebe, Trevor, and Podcast are seen chasing the one ghost they spot after having set another one loose: Muncher, a metal-chewing, shard-spewing entity who looks like Slimer’s distant cousin. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man makes an appearance as well, this time as hundreds of cute tiny Gremlin-like beings happily wreaking havoc at that local Walmart. Turns out all of these ectoplasmic shenanigans are a sign that Gozer, the Ghostbusters’ androgynous Sumerian nemesis, is staging an apocalyptic comeback out in the middle of nowhere. The stage is set for a beat-by-beat remake of the original’s climax, with better effects and not a skyscraper in sight.
Spielberg’s name popped into my head continuously during Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s first hour. The set-up pretty much follows the formula established by Stranger Things, Netflix’s loving tribute to all things ’80s and Spielberg (the casting of Wolfhound, a series regular, is a dead giveaway). Yet, I liked this hour far more than its franchise-worshipping second half, in great part thanks to its cast, the easy chemistry between them, the natural way they delivered their dialogues, and for its celebration of the power of curiosity and knowledge.
Mckenna Grace captures the droll humor of the original film while delivering an engaging, sympathetic, and even refreshing performance as a know-it-all who just happens to be a girl—and in the process, shoving a middle finger at all those incels who objected to the idea of an all-women ghostbusting team. And as her mother, Coon elevates the role from the traditional one-dimensional parental unit of most ’80s films; you can feel the resentment and anger towards her absentee father in every word, in her tone of voice, but Coon is also delightfully coy in her scenes with Rudd.
But then the film succumbs to the need to please the lowest common denominator among its fan base, to the point that it does something that erased whatever goodwill I had for it. The way digital effects are deployed in this one key moment reminded me a lot of how documentarian Morgan Neville deepfaked Anthony Bourdain’s voice for one scene in his documentary Roadrunner. I won’t say more other than, as far as I am concerned, and regardless of the good intentions behind it, the huge dissonance created by the use of this technology.
That, and the inevitable return of the surviving members of the original team, are nothing more and nothing less than another example of how egregious and detrimental appeasing the fans has been to movies.
Featured image: Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Podcast (Logan Kim, left) fire a proton pack for the first time in Columbia Pictures’ ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’