Who You Gonna Call? Balancing Expectations, Nostalgia, And Lessons Learned In Ghostbusters: Afterlife – By Ben Clemmer.
SPOILER ALERT for Ghostbusters: Afterlife
I should preface this by saying I had not been inside a movie theater since before the pandemic. And as the release date for Ghostbusters: Afterlife was pushed back, I knew I wanted to see it within a week of its initial release.
Expectations were high.
My intention here is not to write a review, but rather to explore some of the elements that made up Ghostbusters: Afterlife and how it stacks up as a sequel to a work released decades earlier.
I’ve had a lot of time to consider when these movies work and where they fall apart thanks to films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Blade Runner 2049, and the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Obviously, these stories are intended to be a return to a world familiar to the audience. We come in not just with knowledge of these characters and what came before, but likely a love for the original works and what they represent for us. There’s also two things we likely want to see, a new and interesting story that introduces new characters and places to the universe we know, and we also want to see the return of familiar characters (often with the original cast), and see a continuation of their story in a way that makes sense and honors what came before.
A lot of people have all sorts of problems with the Star Wars sequel trilogy, but most of its issues come down to missing the boat on these last two ideas. If the characters you introduce to the universe aren’t interesting and developed enough, you can’t build a chapter in your story on them the way you could with the old characters. You also take time and the interest of the audience away from those new characters if your progression of the timeline is disorienting and includes different characterizations compared to the expectations your audience has coming in. If your new installment feels like a weaker retelling of the first film in a franchise and these other elements are already out of whack, the creative team might be using that first film as a bible, instead of using the most recent installment as a guide for where the universe could or should be after the time jump.
There was a recent interview that Jason Reitman did with Adam Savage, and they talked about a lot of great stuff, including staging a fight scene on the floor of an office using action figures. Jason also mentioned how as they were writing the movie, they were also looking outside at a parked Ecto-1 and watching tours of fans go by, knowing that’s who they were making the movie for and that intention guided the process.
To bring back my comparison movies, let’s look at three films and the concepts that were improved upon by Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
1). Setting the majority of your story in new locations and focusing on new characters
My reference here is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While the aesthetic, era, and return to South America (where we hadn’t seen Indiana Jones since Raiders of the Lost Ark) works on paper, it falls apart in execution. A heartfelt story that brings a family back into Indy’s life gets lost in the mess of cartoony Russians, CGI ants, and the dreaded refrigerator scene.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife takes Callie, Trevor, and Phoebe and dumps them in new surroundings in Summerville, Oklahoma. While the audience has seen the introduction and knows Ghostbusters artifacts and easter eggs when we see them, the slow buildup gives us time to follow the family and meet Mr. Grooberson and Podcast. Paul Rudd is fantastic as this humorous, slacking summer school teacher, who proves to be a bridge to some information about the original Ghostbusters, and perhaps more importantly how they are perceived in the universe now. His enjoyment of eighties horror films tracks with pretty much all of the information he has for Phoebe. Phoebe also gets to bounce off of Podcast. While it might seem like the trio within the family will drive the narrative forward, it actually proves to be Phoebe, Podcast, and Mr. Grooberson who gives us much of our exploration in the first act.
Trevor and Lucky don’t get as much to do and by the third act, the family dynamics that drove a chunk of the earlier narrative take a backseat to the incoming threat. The development that moves alongside this however, makes for a satisfying ending.
2). Progressing the timeline in a way that makes sense, stays true to the characters, and honors what came before
This was where the Star Wars sequels fundamentally failed. They left too many questions unanswered or when they were answered, the answers were either unsatisfying, conflicting with established characterization, or conflicting with other films in the same trilogy. It didn’t help that the story and legacy of three of the most iconic characters in the history of pop culture were handled poorly.
That said, let’s focus on what Ghostbusters: Afterlife does right here rather than what Star Wars did wrong. The more I think about it, the more I like the introduction to this film. There’s enough familiarity with ghost traps and weapons, plus the shadowy presence of a Ghostbuster, who some of us might have honestly thought wouldn’t be in the movie at all. The surroundings are new. The nature of the threat is shrouded in darkness and fog. The encounter doesn’t end well for Egon as we find out soon after that he’s dead, but what we did see is so in character, everything else that’s new feels right.
Details trickle out slowly and we realize that it is likely Egon himself now haunting his old farmhouse. It becomes clear that the threat coming to Summerville is Gozer. For some, maybe this feels like the First Order coming back as essentially the Empire all over again, but the choice to use Gozer again really doesn’t cheapen the original film or make it an empty victory. Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives us Egon sacrificing everything to stop Gozer. The film takes opportunities to make it clear that the traps and weapons rigged throughout the movie are Egon’s handiwork and it’s badass, and well within his character. Did he grow old? Yes. Did he pass away? Yes, but the movie makes him more of a hero, not less of one.
Everyone in the original cast gets two scenes. I’ll get to the biggest surprise later, but let’s consider the original cast and how they fit into this story. The others are where we would generally expect them. After seeing Egon in the intro, the next original cast member we meet is Janine. She is keeping the books, supporting the team, and still lets the sarcasm out, “you mean apart from the sentimental value?”
It had to take getting arrested and the one phone call to get us the iconic Ghostbusters tagline in a world with the Internet and smart devices. Phoebe calls the number from the original Ghostbusters commercial and reaches Ray’s Occult Bookstore, speaking to the proprietor. Again, I loved everything about this. Ray is where we’d expect to find him and has also apparently branched into podcasts as we find out later. Given the proliferation of true crime and paranormal podcasts, this is a perfect landing spot for Podcast’s entire persona. Anyway, though the tone of bitterness is unmistakable, Ray misses his friends. He does know where everyone went and while some of it felt a little ridiculous, you can see the emotions bubble up when Phoebe tells him about Egon. Aykroyd usually has a few hundred pages to express his thoughts (recalling the length of the original scripts for Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers), so it makes sense his first scene would be a bit of an exposition dump. In all seriousness, if the Ghostbusters have been out of commission for so long, when was the last time Ray got to vent?
This also addresses the biggest problem we run into with reintroducing old characters. As soon as they appear on screen, we want to know everything that’s happened to them, especially if the story has disoriented us in some way. Instead of mysteries and questions, Ray provides answers. We get perspective from someone who knew Egon and it serves as a perfect parallel to where Phoebe is at this point in the film. She feels as isolated and alone as she can assume her grandfather once did, and the level of danger is now even greater.
Next up we have Peter Venkman and Dana, who are still together. Venkman remains the everyman and the easiest thread to pull for anyone trying to accuse the Ghostbusters of being frauds. The improvisation and putting his body on the line are still very much a part of Venkman’s and Murray’s story. Murray was hit in the head by a proton pack during production. Everything we see and the reference to him now teaching advertising tracks with the Peter we know to this point.
Winston has gotten way past, “if there’s a steady paycheck in it.” Winston building wealth, buying the firehouse, supporting the others, and preserving the legacy of the team is a respectful path forward for a character whose contributions were often minimized in the original films. This does ring somewhat hollow as Ghostbusters: Afterlife arguably does underutilize its own black team member as Lucky doesn’t get much to do. I’ll have more on that in a moment. Ernie Hudson has been quoted as saying he’d like to be the Nick Fury of the Ghostbusters universe and if future projects are developed, I would love to see that.
I’ve watched a lot of Nando v Movies on YouTube, so this is where I’ll borrow from him and suggest filling in for a missing moment or giving a character more to do, especially one who feels like they should have more to do. I feel like I need to see the film again to make a good suggestion for Lucky. I get why Lucky ends up being the second terror dog. They need Callie available for what’s coming at the end. This also puts the romantic interest of one of the Ghostbusters in the terror dogs’ possession as Dana was in the original film.
In the final fight, seeing who has been guiding Phoebe this whole time is incredible. She’s been setup so well as the isolated, science nerd and Trevor has been setup well as the dumb, car guy, especially when they interact with each other. As I thought about it, I realized it would be cool to have some kind of proton pack upgrade that Egon figured out and maybe even applied to the trap in the mines that needs to be used in the final fight. This especially makes sense with how easily Gozer shrugs off the crossed streams. To this point, we’ve seen Phoebe fixing a proton pack and Trevor fixing Ecto-1, but we’ve also seen Phoebe have to explain things as simply as possible for Trevor to be on board with a plan. After the mini Stay Pufts have damaged Trevor’s proton pack and the original three have tried and failed to blast Gozer, it would be cool if Phoebe is not only still firing but has done something to her proton pack that a car guy could replicate with clear instructions. This gives the siblings one more key moment of collaboration. It gives Trevor more to do as he helps upgrade the original Ghostbusters while Phoebe, Callie and Podcast hold off Gozer. We pick up with the same scenario from there once the original team is ready and we see who’s been helping Phoebe this whole time.
And I will get to that…
Someone pointed out that the four kids and teens that we follow in the film have clear equivalents to the original Ghostbusters. You pair up Phoebe and Egon, Podcast and Ray, Trevor and Peter, and Lucky and Winston. I agree with the first and the last, but the line gets a little blurry with the middle pairings. I would argue that Podcast could also be an equivalent to Venkman given the amount of screentime he has and the humor his character brings to the movie and Phoebe’s life. He gets a line that feels like a callback to Ghostbusters II. His wondering why Gozer is attacking Summerville and not Florida feels like Peter’s “beautiful San Fernando valley” line. Trevor is also the car guy, which matches up with the real life Dan Aykroyd.
While Slimer may be absent and there’s very little slime for a Ghostbusters film, perhaps criticism of Ghostbusters II was still being considered all these years later, let’s consider how Ghostbuster’s Afterlife brings everything together.
3). The best posthumous CGI I’ve seen to this point (and let’s talk about that third act)
There was a moment that the narrative started to change for me and that was when the first of the terror dogs attacks Grooberson. Until this point, we don’t know exactly what Gozer related badness is coming, but once similar beats start playing out, the roadmap from the first film proves to be a pretty dependable guide. The audience can turn their brain off a bit. What happens in the original Ghostbusters is wild and weird, especially if you’re seeing it for the first time. The keymaster and gatekeeper, the pyramid, and other elements make it clear that we’re getting another crossrip with roughly the same cause and dangers. Some might view this as lazy writing. From a logistics perspective, I get why they did it. Trying to set up more new goals and origins for Gozer would eat up time dedicated to what is ultimately a story about family and dealing with grief and loss.
We do get some new wrinkles to Gozer lore. The dress that Zuul wears apparently didn’t come from Dana’s closet in the first movie, as Callie transforms into the look in this movie. Apparently anyone can be the terror dogs once the ritual has begun as Lucky’s transformation shows us. It doesn’t always have to be the original keymaster and gatekeeper that opened the gate. The “choose the form of your destructor” is absent, perhaps prevented by getting the “are you a god?” question right, It seemed a little odd that Ray wouldn’t immediately answer “yes,” but then it has been 37 years. Also, apparently crossing the streams only works when you have four Ghostbusters.
And don’t you also have to shoot the gate Gozer came through?
Anyway, there’s always a twist in the final fights that’s usually foreshadowed in the early action. We see the Stay Puft marshmallows in Dana’s apartment before the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacks at the end of the first film. We see Vigo latch onto Ray’s mind at the museum before possessing him briefly in the final battle of Ghostbusters II.
One writer pointed out that some might have thought that the shadowy intro with Egon was the extent of what we’d get, but as soon as the movie is set up in this way, it puts what we get in the third act on the table. Egon’s ghost has been acting as an invisible force throughout the film and when it comes to posthumous CGI as we finally see him in the third act, it’s maybe the best CGI of a character we’ve gotten so far.
This is oddly almost in a category on its own. It’s not posthumous CGI like what we had with Peter Cushing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, trying to match his appearance in Star Wars. It’s not bringing back a younger likeness or version of the same characters, with Carrie Fisher also in Rogue One, Mark Hamill in The Mandalorian, Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy, or Sean Young’s Rachael in Blade Runner 2049. The CGI here is working to go in the other direction on the timeline. Egon is older than Harold Ramis ever got to be. In an interview, Ramis’s daughter described how the filmmakers kept her involved and she said her dad would have approved of the CGI look for Egon.
Every moment, from appearing with Phoebe holding the proton pack, to standing lined up with the other original team members, to hugging his family and fading into the stars, it all looks amazing. It holds up thanks I think in part to one key decision. They didn’t have Egon speak. I believe Rachael doesn’t speak either in Blade Runner 2049. Doing this was absolutely the right call. Trying to match up dialogue is where these CGI likenesses go to die. Egon is so present in the final act despite the silence. This also tracks with the original films. With the exception of the big bads of Gozer and Vigo and the growling “Zuul,” I don’t recall a ghost speaking in a Ghostbusters film unless it was possessing someone else. The filmmakers had time. In seeing the trailers and then the final results in this film, the CGI looks so good pretty much everywhere.
I know I felt like a kid watching my heroes again during the final act of this movie. Charles Cameron from Screen Rant might have summed up what Ghostbusters: Afterlife accomplishes better than anyone to this point, so I’ll end here by quoting him. “It (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) successfully celebrates Harold Ramis’ genius, the continuation of the Spengler legacy, and the reintegration of the original Ghostbusters team into the franchise all in one fell swoop.”
Thank you for reading. Our newest episode dropped today.
*Thank you to Brittany Smith for the awesome picture.