What should a movie be is a particularly fraught question, and likely not one you’d think might come up during a Ghostbusters reboot. But it’s a question that perseveres with each new release of another IP-based major studio blockbuster. Hollywood is “out of ideas” and rehashing anything once deemed profitable, and there are also the demands of increasingly vociferous audiences that treat their fandoms like religion and its films and television shows as sacred texts. They want more out of their fictional worlds but not in a way that might challenge or dramatically alter them; they want only a continuation in all the rhythms and beats they already know—more of the same but BIGGER, LOUDER, and with a few little gems to congratulate them for paying such strict attention. Major studio blockbusters are essentially fast-food chains for hungry consumers, pumping out tidy treats to tie them over with assembly-line efficiency.
Next on this menu: Ghostbusters: Afterlife—the latest installment of the Ghostbusters film series that began in 1984—arrives this weekend. That original movie, directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver, became a massive hit because of its blend of comedy, horror, action, and the performances of its central cast. It spawned an entire industry and fandom that included an animated series, merchandise, video games, comic books, and a popular sequel in 1989. While there were plans for a third film, a combination of bad timing and Murray’s open reluctance prevented it from ever happening, and the death of Harold Ramis in 2014 seemingly put a pin on the endeavor. After a poorly received female-centered remake in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise announced a new reboot in 2019, with Ivan producing and his son Jason Reitman (director of films like Juno, Up in the Air, and Tully) taking on the mantle and bringing the series into the new century of mainstream moviemaking.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife takes place 37 years after the events of the first film and follows Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), the dejected daughter of Ramis’s Egon Spengler, and her two children—Phoebe, an introverted science whiz kid (played by Mckenna Grace), and Trevor, the most seemingly well-adjusted member of the family (played by Stranger Things’s Finn Wolfhard). In the intervening gap since the 1984 attack on New York from the first film (the movie seems to treat Ghostbusters II like it never happened), the four Ghostbusters slowly drifted apart without any ghosts to fight, and Egon eventually became obsessed with a prophecy about an eventual supernatural apocalyptic event set to happen in 2021 around a mostly abandoned town in Oklahoma. Egon abandoned his life, friends, and family, including his daughter, and set off for a dirt farm near the site where he lives out the rest of his life. This brings us to the present day, when Callie, a hopeless, struggling mother, takes her children to her father’s “worthless” farm in this Oklahoma ghost town after running out of money to cover her own rent in the hopes of getting a new start for the family.
Much of the rest of the plot of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is carried out through Phoebe’s story as the family gets adjusted in its new home. Phoebe is the smart, antisocial science lover in the family, and she slowly discovers the haunted aspects of the farm while also getting in touch with all the gadgets and devices Egon left behind. When she’s not at home, she spends her days at a summer school program apparently for kids who need somewhere to be in the mornings while their parents are gone. It’s here she meets her first friend Podcast (played by Logan Kim)—named as such because he’s a one-man podcast about ghosts and the supernatural (this is not a movie exactly full of originality)—and a nerdy, excitable science teacher named Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd doing his Paul Rudd thing). With the assistance of Podcast, Gary, and eventually Trevor and a girl named Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) who Trevor meets while working at a drive-through diner, Phoebe discovers the secrets undergirding this literal ghost town and come to find out what their grandfather Egon was actually planning there this whole time. High jinks inevitably ensue: They discover ghosts through the P.K.E. Meter, test out the proton pack, get behind the wheel of the old Ghostbusters car, and accidentally kick-start an evil spiritual prophecy that creates some kind of a hell portal happening in an abandoned mine shaft. You know, all the typical kid stuff.
That sounds like a lot when written out, but that’s largely because the modern blockbuster tends to be an engine of constant plot mechanics. The majority of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is meant to resemble a classic coming-of-age film. Despite it being 2021, the location of this very small town away from large swaths of society allows the filmmakers to eschew modernist designs and apparently computers, technology, or culture—there’s very little cellular coverage, which makes phone use conveniently minimal, and the soundtrack is nostalgic for ’70s teenage Americana. In a sense, Reitman is doing a pastiche of J.J. Abrams pastiche of Steven Spielberg’s ’80s films that captured the wonder, terror, and possibility of the supernatural magic of the universe through the eyes of the youth. In place of any actual imagination or originality, there’s a lot of references and homage, which doesn’t feel like a problem specific to Jason Reitman as much as it’s what is expected of this kind of movie now. Of course, after all of that, the last 30 to 40 minutes of the film devolves into the typical, jumbling action movie featuring the reunited remaining Ghostbusters. It shouldn’t really be a spoiler to say that they show up to help the Spengler family and friends undo this apocalyptic supernatural gobbledygook that involves an ancient demon bent on destroying the world and her giant ghost-alien-dog creatures that are somehow always the bad guys in all of these movies—you should expect it because they’ve been part of the press run and also it’s a Ghostbusters reboot, so of course they’re gonna show up.
If this is delving too much off topic by addressing the larger problems and politics of studio moviemaking instead of assessing this specific movie more deeply, it’s only because there’s not that much to say about Ghostbusters: Afterlife that doesn’t involve getting into all the varying threads of the confusing, over-the-top plot. It’s a perfectly fine time, but beyond the fan service for all longtime supporters of the franchise, the movie has neither any real highs nor any low lows. It is fun in parts, with a few decent jump scares. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson are still as funny as they’ve always been. It is mostly efficient and sturdy, though certainly baggy, and it backdoors the promise of a Ghostbusters sequel by the end of it. In other words, it plays the hits and bangs all the notes of what a studio movie looks like now. Some might call it a Marvelization of the movies, or even allude to the ways television has come to influence how movies are made; franchises like Fast & Furious or Mission: Impossible also helped create a blueprint for an unending cinematic universe that an audience could consume year in and year out. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is highly indebted to Marvel in its machinations: It’s full of extensive CGI, Easter eggs, callbacks, quips instead of actual jokes, and thinly drawn characters who simply exist to move the story forward. None of it ever amounts to anything great and seemingly no one—from the filmmakers and actors participating to the ravenous fans or even the casual audience that enjoys these movies—actually cares very much about that part.
It’s a very cynical, deflating way of going to the movies. I’m not pretentious or precious about the standards of cinema—every movie doesn’t need to be a challenging, thought-provoking achievement or an artistic, boundary-pushing contribution to the form. Movies are allowed to be fun—they’re even allowed to be kind of dumb—but when movies aren’t trying, it feels like a waste of time. It is obvious when things are in second gear, when the visuals are stale and the jokes are recycled, and there are no new ideas in place. Everything about this movie is comfortable with giving you nothing more than what you’ve been clamoring for, and any criticism of it makes it seem as though the critics are the ones against everyone’s enjoyment of their favorite things.
The 1984 Ghostbusters was an original story full of comic geniuses, great actors, inventive ideas that expertly combine varying genres, and a sense of a real version of our world to help react to the dangers posed in that movie. It’s easy to see how it could become the phenomenon it is now in retrospect, but before it could reach those heights, it was simply a fun summer comedy made by talented people. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is just troth for a fan base to consume so they can keep buying the toys and merchandise. And while incorporating actors like Wolfhard and Grace is meant to bring in a new generation of fans, it’s hard to not look at this whole endeavor as a mea culpa to the most ardent of supporters, the kinds of people that rejected the 2016 remake as a bastardization of their memories of the original film—much in the same way Star Wars fans rejected The Last Jedi and were meant to be pacified with The Rise of Skywalker. Sure, Jason Reitman got to make his Spielberg imitation, but only under the promise of servicing fans by working in the remaining Ghostbusters crew and not-so-subtly hinting at the possibility of another sequel where they’re back at the forefront through a series of post-credit scenes (there are always post-credit scenes now). I’m not saying this movie shouldn’t exist, but what I am asking is: When did we all decide this is the best we can do?
The prospect of needing to do right by the fans has required these movies to be contained in an ever-shrinking box. Everyone has an idea of what they think these characters and these movies should do, and the only way to anger the least amount of people is to make sure they keep doing the same things they’ve done in all the other movies that came before. The fans get pandered to and given a nice pat on the back with a bunch of Easter eggs as they wait with anticipation for the next movie that looks a lot like the last movie. There’s nothing wrong with fandom, and it’s an understandable business decision for studios to listen to them when making these movies. But movies can’t function on a “the customer is always right” mentality; audiences don’t actually know what they want from any sort of art until after they’ve experienced it. In 1977, no one knew they wanted a highly technical space opera about a boy who becomes the ultimate hero. In 1981, no one knew they wanted an action odyssey about an archeologist collecting artifacts around the world. And in 1984, no one knew they wanted a movie about a group of men who fight ghosts in New York City. Sequels and reboots may be a reality of Hollywood, but there was a time when they’d be considered bad for simply rehashing what came before. Now it seems to be all that’s asked of them.
There is a scene that comes at the end of this movie involving a hologram of a past character that is meant to act as a nice crowd-pleasing surprise when it happens, but it was hard not to feel kinda gross watching it. It’s easy to understand why they chose to do it (particularly in a movie about ghosts), but it was more proof of the growing cynicism around these kinds of movies and—at a period when holograms of dead artists are going on tour—it just further represents how trapped we all are to keep living out the same cycle of nostalgia. The stars of these movies may be paid handsomely, but they are also trapped in the minds of fans as these characters, always expected and needed to make a cameo or participate in a reunion or whatever next installment comes, and it doesn’t seem as though even death can stop that anymore. They are trapped in amber, forever acting out their roles in these fictional snow globes designed for them, and for the foreseeable future we’re stuck right along with them. I don’t know how well Ghostbusters: Afterlife will do at the box office, but it’s hard to imagine that we won’t get another one at some point in the future, and for now, it’s hard to imagine that audiences will ask for a movie that’s any better than this.
Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.