Ghostbusters: Afterlife has become a box office hit, and suggests Ghostbusters 5 is in the offing: a few spoiler-heavy thoughts on the film here.
Huge, huge spoilers lie ahead for Ghostbusters: Afterlife
At the screening I attended of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, there was something of a celebratory air amongst some as I walked in. Several were there in Ghostbusters outfits, the Ecto-1 vehicle had been doing the rounds, and there was the promise that this would be a sequel of sorts to a film that had come out over 35 years ago. There was genuine anticipation and excitement for the movie, and it’s a pleasure to be in a crowd like that.
I must admit I did ponder as I waited for it to start that the gap from this film to the original was akin to something like Some Like It Hot 2 coming out the year of the release of the original Ghostbusters. But still, the original Ghostbusters was a blockbuster sensation. Queues around the block, a cultural phenomenon, and for those of us around at the time it was release, it felt really quite special.
Does it stack up today? I’ve been reading a lot of debate about this, and I’m not that eager to wade into it. I would say that I’ve introduced my kids to a lot of the films I was watching and hugely enjoying in the 1980s, and this is the one that none of them have really locked into. But also, I remember having the ZX Spectrum game and the Ray Parker Jr record. I gladly paid my Ghostbusters dues at the time.
This has been a franchise though that’s had trouble with its sequels. 1989’s Ghostbusters II took far longer to come together than planned, due primarily to issues with the-then studio head of Columbia Pictures (Lord Puttnam, no less). With his departure, in came the late Dawn Steel to run the studio, and she urgently brought the project together. She needed to as well: Columbia had fallen to become the least successful studio at the time, and she needed quick hits. She thus rushed Ghostbusters II and The Karate Kid Part III through to help – with some success – to address problems with the studio’s bottom line.
It took a long, long time to get a third film made, and it came close a few times. That said, there was unease amongst many filmmakers about taking the franchise on, until Paul Feig finally took the plunge. 2016’s Ghostbusters: Answer The Call was moderately successful, but wasn’t the catalyst for the franchise Sony was looking for. It’s also, I’d suggest, the reason we’ve ended up with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, edging far closer to the original rather than branching out more. I was moderating comments boards in 2016 when Feig’s take on the franchise was released, and it was a miserable time to do so. Some people liked the film, some people didn’t. Lots of Ghostbusters fans acted constructively. It’d be fair to say some really, really let the side down, and the dashings of poison of that era are hard to forget. I’ve seen them still lingering too, sadly, just thankfully to not such a concentrated degree.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife, then, presented Sony with a choice. Do you try and service the fanbase of a movie that’s closer to its 40th birthday than its 30th? Or do you try something different?
The end result for me was a film that wanted it all, and tried its damnedest to make everybody happy. But also, I can’t help feeling, the further I am away from the film, that its determination to tie itself close to the first movie is its Achilles heel.
I get it and I don’t. I can see that somewhere in Sony that it might have thought it has to win fans back over. Films two and three had underperformed commercially against expectations to varying degrees, so go back to the absolute core of it.
But then, that much-loved original film still exists. It’s always there for the people who love it.
The other part of me wonders why, so many decades later, it’s important to tie so overtly to it. For all that the phrase ‘destroyed my childhood’ is banded around when a sequel to an older film doesn’t satiate someone, I don’t really buy that many people actually believe it.
I think it’s worth noting too that when it comes to the ghost busting part of the story, nothing has really moved on. At the heart of the plots of the three Ghostbusters films that have followed the original, they all require pretty much the same mechanic to resolve the actual ghosts and the busting bit. No matter what ghosts and ghoulies appear, fire up the proton packs, aim some special effects at them, and job pretty much done. Stream crossing optional.
That in itself isn’t a problem. I do think finding ways to bring the original cast back is proving more of a challenge – it certainly took me out of Answer The Call when they were shoehorned in – not least when they then become the thrust of the story. The fact that in Ghostbusters: Afterlife the character of Callie was related to Egon was a core decision at the heart of the film, and again, I get why. I just wonder what the film would have looked like without the family line involved. Might it just have been a little bit bolder?
Which inevitably brings me to the film’s contentious moment. The part where it jumps heavily towards offering as much as it can for core fans. Let’s call it the Egon hug.
Because the ghostly Harold Ramis at the end of the film I have all sorts of problems with. I remember reading in the official making of book to Back To The Future Part II its director Robert Zemeckis arguing you don’t want people thinking about how things were done while they’re watching the film. If you’ve done the film right, they’re not questioning that until they’re on the way. With Ghostbusters: Afterlife, I wasn’t just thinking of the ‘how’, I was very much taken out of the film as I queried the ‘why’ of it all.
I felt uncomfortable when – and let’s call it what it is – reanimating those who have passed was a thing in the Star Wars saga (that’s a necessarily spoiler-free line). Doubly so here given it’s the emotional endpoint of the movie. I found the elongated digital performance of a man tragically taken from us way too soon – I hate to say this – creepy, and ill-judged. I’m absolutely sure it was done with all good intentions, and with the consent of his loved ones. But it wasn’t done with the consent of Harold Ramis, and I’m old fashioned enough to think that if someone has passed on, it’s not up to those left behind to turn them into an animation to make fans happy.
To then squeeze that into the emotion fulcrum of the film? I really struggled. The sobs from some around me instantly made me appreciate that mine was not the only view here.
As such, I do appreciate some were very moved by this moment (and I’ve read some lovely responses). Had Ramis been with us to take part in it, maybe I would have been too. But I shuddered. It felt really odd to me, and it took me right the way out of the film.
It cemented for me my thought that for Ghostbusters to move forward now, a decision has to be made. Is Ghostbusters 5 a film about making fans of the 1984 original happy? If so, commit to that. Bring them back again, as one of the post-credits stings hints, and just go for that. I think it’s a smaller church in the long run, but a more honest film.
Or: be genuinely bold, and cut the cord.
For a good 40 minutes, I thought that’s where Ghostbusters: Afterlife was going. I’d avoided every trailer so I could come to it cold, and was really taken by the character of Phoebe, and the struggle of her mother, Callie. I found myself rooting for them, and then despairing as their narrative was tossed aside so Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd could be drafted back in.
At heart, I agree with the argument that these are character films. That’s where the fun lies, the light interaction between an ensemble caught in the midst of a huge special effects blockbuster. There are only so many ghosts you can cook up – and the mini-Marshmallow Men were very much testament to that – and the joy is in the comedy, the humans, the fact that it’s a blockbuster series that demands three or four good leading characters at least.
Those are ingredients enough I think for Ghostbusters 5, that by the box office of Afterlife looks likely to happen. My wish here is that Sony makes its mind up, and that if it’s going to spend a whole lot more on special effects, root its ghosts in fiction rather than stretching to make fans happy.
I’m treading so carefully with this piece, as you might tell. But then the discourse around Ghostbusters means that a flame suit is almost compulsory in conversations around the films, at least online. Offline? Well the warmth in the room at that Afterlife screening was a keen reminder – that wasn’t needed – that the core of the fandom is pure and good, no matter what the fringes of it have become.
I just think all sides deserve a slightly bolder film next time around. And, respectfully, don’t go cooking up performances in a computer hard drive that people weren’t alive to give themselves.
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