Ghostbusters: Afterlife movie review — Paul Rudd, Mckenna Grace in a lazy, nostalgic follow-up to 1984 cult classic
Ghostbusters: Afterlife asks a profound question by merely existing. Why do we bring things back to hold on to cultural zeitgeist?
castCarrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Paul Rudd
Tell me, how little logic is too little logic? Is there a threshold of logic below which the stilts on which a film stands crumbles? By no means am I a logic purist, but when I am taken out of a movie, out of whatever immersive soup I was being curdled in, to ask my neighbour questions that I need answered — Wait, why did that happen? How does that work? — something breaks. When the film refuses to fasten the basic nuts and bolts, it loses a bit of me and my tenuous grip over its slowly retreating world. And this keeps happening till it just shreds the film into a skeletal joy that works only as long as it plays, and then, as I walk out of the theatre, it's ether. Writing about it is a concerted, forceful effort to remember it. Ghostbusters: Afterlife can be slotted thus.
While the first Ghostbusters in 1984 — imposing its cultish success onto video games, board games, comic books, and haunted houses, with reboots and rejigs for future generations — had four men, its commercially unsuccessful, but niche-ly celebrated reboot in 2016, had four women, here, we have four early to late teenagers taking up the ghostbusting mission. Given that this sequel is directed and co-written by Jason Reitma, the son of Ivan Reitman who directed Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, the idea of a younger, newer generation taking over and inhabiting a story is both in front and behind the screen. Jason Reitman, has in interviews, described Ghostbusters: Afterlife as a family movie, and in more ways than one, that is true.
The star of the movie is 12-year-old scientist Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who in her dungarees is androgynously styled, but this is never brought up, not even in a throwaway dialogue or a skittish bullying remark in school. The first time the pronoun "she" is used to refer to her is about ten minutes into the film, by which time her smarts, her snarks, and her piss poor humour is established. The rest of the film is her confident jousting with ghosts in a movie that is not willing to unsteady any of her established traits.
Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother, and her two kids, Phoebe, and the 15-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) have to move back to Summerville in Oklahoma, where the empty skies pockmarked with clouds announce the feeling of a perpetual summer. (The film takes place around June, it's summer in Summerville) Callie moved her kids back because she has no money, and her estranged father left her a house in the middle of nowhere. Known as a “dirt farmer” by the locals, her father was one of the ghostbusters, and was using this house to keep the ghosts from entering the human realm. Callie hasn’t told her kids of her father and what he used to do, and the emotional arc they chart across the film is that of knowing and holding their heritage.
Phoebe, with the help of her school friend Podcast (Logan Kim), her brother, and her teacher, Chad Grooberson (Paul Rudd — newly christened People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive) lassos the ghosts with proton packs into traps. Some of these ghosts are metal munchers, some marshmallows (in the theatre I was in, someone screamed “Pillsbury” — a cultural connection, right there), or just the cookie-cutter ghosts with strong eye shadows and silver body paint. The performances are pitched with uniform assertion — no one takes the cake, no one tries to, allowing a scene its fluid dynamics. Even Rudd, who needn’t allow himself a blurred character so crested in his career, lets himself be folded into the film. The problem is with the ghosts.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife asks a profound question by merely existing. Why do we bring things back? What is this urge to convince a new generation that an idea, an image, a fractal that was born before them can be relevant to them now?
What is the urge to convince an old generation that movies churned when they were young can still hold onto the cultural zeitgeist? It feels desperate, it looks lazy. Even with comical bursts, the sly sweetness of Phoebe and Podcast flirting around the permissible edges of their age, and the gooey visuals of marshmallow ghosts toasting themselves into chocolate spreads and crackers, the film never comes together, because the logic girding it is so fast and loose. A convenience that begins to chafe against the expectation of basic, compelling storytelling.
The central myth that was outlined in the 1984 film connects to an androgynous Sumerian deity, and that lazy invocation of a civilisation and a region for some foreign foraged fear is still used here. The androgynous aspect is amped up as “woke”, but little looks different from what we — well, you, I still wasn’t born — saw in 1984.
The iconic newness of Ghostbusters then was the usage of special effects in a film of the comedy genre. It unsteadied watertight notions of what comedy could look like, where special effects could be deployed. What does this film do? The generational insertion isn't new. It is how Coming To America became Coming 2 America — another sequel where the kid has no idea of his origin and is confronted by it. And neither is the usage of kids in jousts new. If not newness, then perhaps a lightness? If not freshness than an exhuming of what was considered fresh three decades ago? For that is how the churning churns.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a critic and journalist, who writes a weekly newsletter on culture, literature, and cinema at prathyush.substack.com.
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