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Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Year: 2021
Studio: Sony
Director: Jason Reitman
Producer: Ivan Reitman
Writer: Jason Reitman/Gil Kenan
Cast: McKenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Logan Kim, Sigourney Weaver, J K Simmons, Bokeem Woodbine, Josh Gad, Tracy Letts, Olivia Wilde

More than most, Ghostbusters was the film that made me more than just a movie fan. Star Wars captured us all in its epic triumph over pop culture, but (probably owing to how young I was at the time), it didn't feel like any more than a movie to me.

Ghostbusters (and everything that came after it) felt like it was speaking directly to me – probably in part because it was the first movie I ever owned on VHS (something the streaming generation will never appreciate). The magic in owning a movie and being able to watch it whenever you wanted did something to your psyche, it changed your appreciation not just of that movie but the medium.

As such, and as disappointing as the 1989 sequel and Paul Feig's 2015 remake were, I still lined up for them eagerly. Now, as the officially sanctioned sequel to the series canon, I should have been more excited than I was.

The first teaser, with Elmer Bernstein's twinkling, ghostly riff and the camera zooming slowly into a barn in the middle of night to settle on the iconic logo on the side of the Ecto-1, was better than all the other trailers and to be honest better than the movie as a whole.

In the later trailer, when Grooberson (Paul Rudd) asks Phoebe who she is and you see hands searching through the Ghostbusters boiler suits in a wardrobe, I wasn't sure if the name 'Spengler' was supposed to be partly hidden, and I also realised how much Finn Wolfhard, with his curly mop, could pass for being related to Harold Ramis.

All of which got me a bit more interested because I thought I'd worked out that the story was going to be about Egon's family after he and Janine (Annie Potts) apparently got together and had kids of their own. But there was no excited chatter or debate online about it so I figured it was more obvious than I thought.

Apart from that reveal, one of the biggest problems with the movie was that for a story based on callbacks, homages and references it didn't deploy them with much finesse. The one frisson of excitement I felt was in the first scene, during Egon's desperate flight across a prairie landscape towards a mountain and passing beneath a sign reading 'Shandor Mining'.

Other allusions, like the mid credits clip of Peter (Bill Murray) and Dana (Sigourney Weaver) with the Zener card experiment that harks back to Peter's attempted seduction of Jennifer Runyon in the original, are just plonked in with no narrative reason to exist.

To the film's credit, it's at talking directly about the 1984 original. Shandor, Ghostbusters tragics like me immediately knew, was the architect and Gozer cultist who designed Central Park West, Dana Barrett's (Sigourney Weaver) apartment building.

The conceit is that Egon abandoned the gang not long after the events of the first sequel and apparently his family as well, including daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), who's on the skids, and grandkids Phoebe and Trevor (Wolfhard).

He left New York and moved to a remote farmhouse in Oklahoma where he apparently became a crazy, reclusive conspiracy theorist, painting warning signs on the rocks at the foot of the driveway and tinkering endlessly in his basement while the house and land fell apart around him.

I won't talk about why he was there because it's the job of the film to reveal that, but when Callie gets an eviction notice at the apartment, she has no choice but to go and live in the middle-of-nowhere dump her father has left her in order to get her family back on its feet.

The kids attend the local school and start to make their own friendships – Trevor with the gang a pretty diner waitress belongs to and Phoebe to a comic sidekick and the cool but quirky science teacher, Grooberson.

Having been investigating the mysterious seismic activity in the town, Grooberson knows what the equipment scattered around the farmhouse basement is, and when he excitedly tells Phoebe and the annoying sidekick it's a ghost trap and opens it, they release the ghost Egon had captured in the beginning.

It promptly returns to the mountain mine site and sets about raising the ghost apocalypse Egon was trying to prevent. Chaos ensues, and now that Trevor has fixed up the Ecto-1 after tinkering with it out of boredom, it's up to he, his sister, the annoying sidekick and the teacher to save the day.

Around that time, Phoebe, having watched a videotape of the original TV ad, calls the number. It still leads to Ray's Occult bookshop where Ray (Dan Aykroyd) becomes Basil Exposition and prompts the biggest callback of all, one that has the paradoxical effect of feeling like shoehorned-in fan service while being a legitimate part of the plot (and which leads to the lack of finesse I referred to before).

Overall, the whole thing is kind of an example of the Batman effect – how something light and kind of silly can take on a profound reverence given enough time. Ghostbusters is the same, so beloved after all these years director Jason Reitman (with his late father Ivan producing) makes the mistake of treating the props, characters and ideas like royalty when the entire appeal first time around was how shlubby, unkempt and comedically bumbling it all was.

It's all full of references to Bernstein's immortal theme music, but where it suited the freewheeling, Three Stooges aesthetic of the original, it's just not as at home here, doing little beyond providing a little familiarity. Like the traps, uniforms, car and characters, Reitman has the sense to include all the visual and sonic cues from the Ghostbusters universe, but completely forgets everything that made the first movie work so well.

And don't get me started on two of the tropes I'm growing to hate more in movies with every passing year. The first is the endless 'passing the torch' motif, where the original cast of a beloved movie have to school a new generation in their ways. The three most recent Star Wars sequels were built upon it, and we saw it again recently with The Matrix Resurrections.

Then there's the comic sidekick, in this case the gormless, overconfident Asian kid who befriends Phoebe and calls himself Podcast... because he has a podcast. He's exactly the same narrative foil as Ned from the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies (and another heavyset Asian, no less – in this socio-political climate it's a wonder there haven't been protests or boycotts) and a million other movies and it's incredibly hard to get right.

Fiction has been doing it since Enkidu in The Gilgamesh, through Jar Jar Binks, and it shows no sign of slowing down. It's seldom funny, usually infantile and gets worse with each film that thinks it's such an innovation.

Th story at the centre of it all is fine but not great. If it had been a bit better all those irritating elements – along with the lack of storytelling artistry in referencing the essential Ghostbusters milieu – might not have put me off so much. First-take acting (especially by an accomplished comic actor like Rudd) and individual lines in the script that are plain stupid when a bit more imagination would have gone so much further only detract from it further.

Like The Terminator, Jaws or Justice League, Ghostbusters is another franchise they just can't get right.

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