It’s an obvious and old joke, but the phrase “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” is also a pertinent question when concerning the glut of “legacy” sequels we’ve been getting lately.
The latest of these is Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Hollywood’s third try at flicking the on switch to get a workable franchise out of blue collar ghost catchers, but would Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan) manage to breathe life into a sequel that walks the fine line between fun call back and derivative retread – the very mixed reviews seem to claim both yes and no and if I’m being honest, I’m sorta inclined to agree (which isn’t being particularly helpful considering I’m supposed to be reviewing the thing).
So which is it? A towering return to form for a concept that’s admittedly been treading water since 1984 or – as one reviewer has brutally claimed – a soulless ode to nepotism?
Broke single parent mother, Callie and her two precocious teens Phoebe and Trevor, find out that not only Callie’s estranged father has died but they’re also getting evicted. However, in a classic bad news, worse news kind of scenario, they find out that the only things bequeathed to them is a moldly dirt farm in the remote town of Summerville, Oklahoma and a shit load of debt, but as they literally have no place to go, they trek over to the only real estate left to them. Trevor mourns the lack of entertainment and anything approaching a decent reception on his phone while the incredibly smart, yet painfully awkward Phoebe goes exploring around the house and starts finding some fairly strange equipment. Local geologist and summer school teacher Gary Grooberson helpfully identifies them for her and her excitable new friend “Podcast” as a ghost trap used by a group of spirit eliminators based in New York who apparently saved the world from a marshmallow tinged amarggedon back in the 80’s. Reeling from the fact that her “crazy” reclusive grandfather was the Ghostbuster Egon Spengler, Phoebe starts to realise that he may have had good reason to abandon his family and friends to live in the middle of nowhere and a closer inspection of the recent earthquakes in the area reveal that Egon was into some heavy shit before he died.
It seems that their old enemy, Gozer the Sumerian god of destruction is making another bid to make the world its personal stress ball by attempting to past through another gateway into our world and to do this, it’s going to need a Gatekeeper and a Keymaster – which means elevated ghost activity, terror dogs prowling the local Wal-mart and tiny Stay-Puft marshmallow men pulling mischievous Gremlins duty.
Can Phoebe, Trevor and some other kids from the neighbourhood resurrect ECTO-1, figure out the proton packs and actively be afraid of no ghost as they stand between us and the end of civilisation as we know it?
Ghostbusters was the second movie I ever saw in the cinema, so if fan service was ever going to work on anyone, it would be me; but up to this point I honestly feel that previous attempts to mine the franchise (awesome animated series The Real Ghostbusters aside) have fallen far short. Despite some legitimately fun moments, both direct sequel Ghostbusters II and the female led reboot both felt weirdly soulless for wildly different reasons, so Jason Reitman certainly had his work cut out for him but it’s hard to think of a sequel in recent memory that’s played fan service quite as much as Ghostbusters: Afterlife with the experience feeling not unlike that first viewing of The Force Awakens but with added particle accelerators and ectoplasm. However, instead of that sideways, sardonic look at the supernatural the original had, Afterlife feels much more like Spielbergian inspired stuff like Stranger Things (the presence of Finn Wolfhard isn’t helping), Super 8 and The Goonies.
It’s to be expected I suppose and the gradually unfurling plot goes big on wonder while dishing out subtle(ish) tips of the hat from a strategically placed Twinkie to Rob Simonsen’s impressive retooling of Elmer Bernstein’s original score – but at the halfway point the fan service kicks into overdrive when it’s revealed that the movie’s big bad is a returning Gozer complete with her Ziggy Stardust flattop. For a Ghostbuster fan it’s honestly fascinating to see more time and detail dedicated to the evil deity’s second rodeo and the sight of a full fledged, animatronic Terror Dog puppet caused quite the joy-gasm in my inner eight year old, but it also means that the climax closely mirrors that of the first film, right down to a complete reconstruction of certain shots.
It’s somewhat of a shame because up to this point the movie has worked hard to create some fairly likeable new characters. Coming from playing the infant version of 75% of every white american actress working today (or so it feels), McKenna Grace essentially carries the entire movie (Wolfhard barely makes a dent in comparison) with rock solid support from Carrie Coon and a typically goofy Paul Rudd and their Keymaster and Gatekeeper schtick is a genuine hoot.
The film is more chuckle funny than belly laugh funny, but still has a nice line in sarcastic one liners and running jokes (Grooberson’s style of summer school teaching is to just slap on hugely inappropriate 80’s horror movies), but it’s the ending that will final sell you on whether or not Afterlife is genuinely good or just playing to the crowd. I won’t spoil it even though it’s been widely publicised, but it’s essentially Avengers: Endgame with a trio of old dudes in jumpsuits (oh wait, that totally spoils it) and I have to be honest, my eyes went all big and shiny on numerous occasions thanks to an injection of fuel injected nostalgia direct to the feels, but some might find the resolution of the Egon Spengler subplot simply too much to stomach (actor Harold Ramis sadly passed in 2014).
So is Ghostbusters: Afterlife actually a good movie that can stand on it’s own two feet or is it shamelessly propped up by our undying love for the ’84 classic? Well, to quote Tony Stark: “Can’t it be both?”.
Yes, it panders to fans like no other movie recently released, but at no point was I bored and surely that what’s important, right
Playing heavily on nostalgia, Ghostbusters: Afterlife tries maybe a little too hard while trying to remind us why bustin’ made us feel good, but when all the spectral smoke clears its clear that the filmmakers have finally managed to bust out a sequel that finally works.