Look, I’ll say it – I don’t think the 2016 Ghostbusters is that bad. Sure, it’s not a classic on par with the 1984 original, and rebooting the whole universe rather than making it a sequel was an odd creative choice, but it was fairly entertaining and had a few funny moments. Director Paul Feig and his cast did an OK, not stellar job.
But to look at some of the reactions from certain fans, you’d think they’d desecrated a temple. The level of bile and hate directed at the film (much of it misogynistic and racist, and directed at star Leslie Jones) was genuinely head-spinning, and the film ended up debuting on a sour note.
Unfortunately, the lessons Sony learned from this debacle were all the wrong ones – at least based on their next attempt to break the franchise into modern cinemas. From the off, the newly-released Ghostbusters: Afterlife feels like a desperate, kneejerk sop to the sort of fans who hated the 2016 Ghostbusters, cravenly assuring them that yes, they were right – your experience watching that first film was special, and was important. They’re assuring us that Ghostbusters matters – and every character in this film believes that too.
Director Jason Reitman (son of the original’s Ivan Reitman) even said that this film would “hand the movie back to the fans,” a dig at Paul Feig’s movie which he later had to retract, even as his film (and all its press) essentially pretends the 2016 film never happened.
And the result? While it has some funny and entertaining moments (Paul Rudd is a highlight), Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a fan-baiting, mawkish production that (in my mind) fundamentally misunderstands what made the original Ghostbusters good in the first place. And be warned, we’ll be going into spoilers here.
The easiest way to describe Ghostbusters: Afterlife is that it’s The Force Awakens. Its first trailer has the same haunting, plink-plonk soundtrack as Star Wars Episode VII’s earlier teasers, it follows the next generation of heroes picking up the torch from some returning original cast and more or less repeats the beats of a classic film with some minor changes.
As a method for rebooting an old franchise, it makes sense. Unfortunately, for some reason the makers of this film also decided to ape The Force Awakens’ reverent tone, which is where Afterlife begins to run into problems.
That problem is, Ghostbusters is not Star Wars – it’s a wry comedy with sci-fi elements. A man is fellated by a ghost! That first film never takes itself that seriously, and that’s one of the reasons it’s such a classic. By contrast, Star Wars was always supposed to be a kind of sweeping, romantic space opera that had a sense of self-importance.
So it’s bizarre to see Ghostbusters: Afterlife treat the earlier film as a kind of sacred text, imbuing the whole reboot with a wide-eyed, awestruck earnestness that makes it far more of a departure from the franchise’s origins than anything Paul Feig did. People speak in hushed, reverent tones of the original Ghostbusters and what they did, ascribing them the status of legendary, mythic warriors (basically, like Jedi).
“You do realise, this means your grandfather…was a Ghostbuster?” one awestruck kid tells McKenna Grace’s Phoebe. I cringed.
This awkward effect only gets worse when Afterlife includes footage from the original film throughout, which juxtaposes terribly with the new version of the story. The quick-witted, baggy back-and-forth of the OG Ghostbusters clashes horribly with the Stranger Things-lite modern version of the story, and just shows up the flaws of this new approach.
(Notice also the arrival of the merch-friendly mini Stay-Puft Marshmallow men, whose appearance in the film makes no sense within the logic of the series or Afterlife’s story, but provide that little buzz of nostalgia).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only people in the film who do seem to know what makes Ghostbusters work are the Ghostbusters themselves. When Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray turn up it’s like their characters never left, and they play their roles for laughs with great success (because Ghostbusters is a comedy! It’s not an action-adventure!).
Unfortunately, this is soon undercut by the film’s worst and most baffling decision, whereby the late Harold Ramis (who played Dr Egon Spengler in the original films and passed away in 2014) is added to the film as an affectionate CGI ghost.
It’s clear why this was done – to have a full reunion of characters, and a scene where all four Ghostbusters cross the streams once more (this time, via Egon guiding his granddaughter). But in practice it’s pretty uncomfortable, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth as a silent Ramis gives hugs, smiles beatifically and silently flies off into the sky.
The scene is ghoulish in the one way Ghostbusters shouldn’t be, and made me feel genuinely uncomfortable in the cinema in a way other posthumous cameos haven’t. Egon’s back as a Force Ghost, and it feels exploitative and desperate.
I’m not claiming that the 2016 Ghostbusters was some great triumph for cinema, or even came close to approaching the original’s brilliance (though to be fair, neither did Ghostbusters 2). But I think on balance, it had a better idea of what this franchise should be – a comedy with sci-fi stylings – even if its execution wasn’t quite right.
Just saw Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Wow, what a ride! From the scene where they showed the prop I remembered to the part where the characters I love were now old, sad, and dead, it simply never stopped validating my exaggerated emotional connection to this intellectual property.
— Sean O’Neal (@seanoneal) November 16, 2021
In the end Afterlife is a slightly sad, disappointing film, well summed up by the above tweet. Nostalgia is one hell of drug – but this new old Ghostbusters fully overdoses on it.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is in UK cinemas now. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.