There’s a certain advantage to seeing a film like Ghostbusters: Afterlife among the cosplaying faithful at its New York Comic-Con premiere. Crowd response in the cavernous convention hall had a way of clearing up any lingering confusion over why the original Ghostbusters, a crude-ish comedy featuring Saturday Night Live alumni doing sci-fi-flavored shtick, would be revived as a played-straight action spectacle in which children learn that science rules and nothing’s more important than the love of family. The appeal of a sequel systematically stripped of everything that made its predecessor into enough of a hit to merit this treatment quickly grew evident as the attendees voiced their high-decibel approval for what they saw as the true draw of this misbegotten project. An attendee couldn’t help but hear the instantaneous focus-grouping.
Every time another anti-spectral doohickey first appeared on screen, it was met with orgasmic roars of excitement from the audience. Same goes for the awestruck glimpses of the old car, the old costumes, some of the old dialogue, and the rest of the myriad nods to Ivan Reitman’s canonized blockbuster. His son Jason, the director who announced a desire to see his installment launch a whole universe of Ghostbusters content during his pre-screening panel, aspires to little more than this deadened rat-pulls-lever pleasure of recognition. His approach banks on a sycophancy proved reliable in real time at the Javits Center, that the automatic delight of knowing what things are will supersede the need for the humor or smart-ass charm that initially made Ghostbusters worth watching. At the box office, this underhanded tack may very well pay dividends. This is for the fans, after all, but a peculiar breed of fan more interested in identifying objects than what’s done with them.
There’s no other explanation for an approach trading the ironic quippiness embodied by Bill Murray for a guileless, earnest Amblin knockoff in line with the on-trend Stranger Things. In case we couldn’t make this connection for ourselves, shared cast member Finn Wolfhard stars here as Trevor, teenaged son to the hard-luck Spengler family. He, beleaguered mom Callie (Carrie Coon), and stem-disciplined sister Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) relocate to the abandoned farmhouse left to them by the kids’ recently deceased deadbeat granddad, which just so happens to be situated on a hotbed of ecto-activity. Alongside new pals including a kid with a podcast named “Podcast” (Logan Kim) so no one forgets what his defining thing is, and sarcastic schoolteacher Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd, forced into a comic relief role with Coon that only underscores the brutal unfunniness of everything else), they’ve got to defeat another one of the CGI energy-cyclones apparently mandated to close out today’s tentpoles.
It’s pandering all the way down, the shocking part being the variety of Reitman’s ploys. It’s not all groaners like a cop offering a jailed-for-the-night Trevor the phone and asking, “Who you gonna call?” There’s the set piece with cutesy, nattering mini-Stay-Pufts scratching the itch for cloying mischief-makers planted by the Minions. Consider the casual cowardice of a script that uses its own mythology to subtly erase 2016’s all-gals reboot from the canon, giving the rage-choked trolls carpet-bombing IMDb with zero-star ratings the vindication they’ve always craved. Even the championing of scientific expertise comes off as overreaching and aggrieved, from Grooberson’s declaration that science is “punk” to the smug superiority of the pint-sized Phoebe. The message is clear, as are its intended recipients: there’s nothing more powerful, important or cool than being a nerd.
It’s impossible to fully appraise this film without getting into spoiler territory the PR team has wrapped in yellow “DO NOT CROSS” tape, but the howling obviousness of the third act’s surprise appearances may enable talking around its specifics. To speak in broad terms, a crucial ethical line is crossed whenever computer technology starts marching around the ghostly form of a dead person, doubly so when that person was famous for their smirking irreverence and their digitally reanimated corpse instead arrives just in time for a movie’s most nauseating cornball moment.
There’s a disturbing sense of ownership over the past in Reitman’s continuity-building, as if he’s the heir apparent entrusted with sacred texts rather than a guy running roughshod over the memory of a movie still a staple of middle-school sleepovers for its laugh quotient. Perhaps it’s appropriate and telling that the 2021 incarnation of an 80s artifact would be imbued with all the issues most endemic to the current studio release. Here, we can find a damning summary of modern Hollywood’s default mode – a nostalgia object, drained of personality and fitted into a dully palatable mold, custom-made for a fandom that worships everything and respects nothing.
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