Whenever I think about nostalgia, I often think about Ryan Coogler’s Creed. A film that confidently rides off the back of the Rocky franchise, full of that underdog heroism and montage spirit to ask a fundamental question: what does its legacy mean for a new generation of fans?
The success of Creed shouldn’t be underestimated. Coogler metaphorically crafts a story about the weight of history and how its protagonist Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan), takes on the mantle. It’s defined by not fearing the past but embracing its empowering qualities to build your own legacy.
I bring this up because of Hollywood’s tendency for weaponising nostalgia (Jurassic World, for example). Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea in theory, but rather its application. It becomes comfort food, reminding us of ‘the good old days’ as it injects you with that serotonin kick of happiness. For fans, it may give you everything you want, but it won’t come as a surprise if it also leaves you feeling empty.
That’s the difficulty faced by Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the new film directed by Jason Reitman – son of Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters original director. Set 30 years after Ghostbusters II, Afterlife is remixed, moving from the bustling streets of New York to the rural backdrops of small-town America. It serves as a love letter to the original, with every scene glossed and sugar-coated with Easter eggs, from the reveal of Ecto-1 to Elmer Bernstein’s inspired score by Rob Simonson.
And without divulging spoilers, the plot is relatively straightforward. Evicted from their home and coming to terms with the death of her father, Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two kids Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), travel to a small town called Summerville in Oklahoma. Upon their arrival, the children discover the secrets left behind by their grandfather and his legacy to the Ghostbusters.
It’s a change of pace from Paul Feig’s 2016 version, no doubt a response to the fierce backlash that was undeserving, in my opinion. Comedy is subjective – whether you agreed with that iteration or not. But it did highlight that Ghostbusters can be for anyone – a euphoria I grew up with, pretending I had a proton pack on my back, busting “ghosts” in my living room with Bobby Brown’s ‘On Our Own’ blaring from my Hi-Fi speakers. It’s that spirit that’s carried into Afterlife, where charm and emotional sentiment is warmly embraced like a cosy blanket. And to its credit, bustin’ does feel good again – but it also comes at a cost.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife riffs off the 1984 film like The Force Awakens did for Star Wars, treating it like a greatest hits compilation album. The difference in its so-called ‘course correction’ (embodying that ‘made for the fans’ energy that’s ripe with custodial nepotism) is that it seeks validation and acceptance at every turn. This doesn’t make it a terrible film, but the story is therefore compromised, failing to tell its own adventure.
Battling two directorial visions between Jason Reitman’s indie drama essence and his father’s pop culture legacy, it opts for safety rather than risk. It indulges in an annoying habit of stopping the momentum dead whenever it entertains a nostalgic call back. And its overreliance is enough to make you cynical of the creative process – its lack of confidence defined by what Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan believe will make the fans happy instead of carving out a distinct story where its past glories act as a complement. But by returning to home comforts, it wilfully admits that it has nothing new to say that progressively moves the franchise forward.
It’s felt when it establishes its characters – left up in the air and undeveloped. Trevor, Podcast (Logan Kim), Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Phoebe are template avatars of the original cast. Trevor is Peter. Phoebe is Egon. Podcast is Ray, and Lucky is Winston. They go as far as matching their tone and quality, channelling that Stranger Things vibe where paranormal oddities within a small town see the kids going on an investigative adventure. But its nostalgic escapade is done without defining their personalities. A prime example is Podcast – named after his passion – the film’s comic relief, but he’s also depicted without a sense of his Asian roots, community, or parents, for that matter!
It should have been passing the mantle into their hands, letting them fully embrace Ghostbusters’ generational legacy. That’s where the real magic lies when Reitman occasionally reminds the audience of that power. But the characters are never entrusted to stamp their own authority, always walking in the shadow of the past with their progress sacrificed by whatever melancholic moment or cameo it decides to tick off next on the list (particularly in its third act). And the longer it goes on, the more Ghostbusters: Afterlife loses its identity and balance. And it’s not just restricted to the new generation. Carrie Coon’s Callie never grows beyond her ‘single parent’ status. Her complicated relationship with her father is brief but never emphasised enough to give her agency within the story.
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The only exception and standout that mostly escapes this issue is McKenna Grace. As the driving force of the film, she provides enough weight and emotion to be invested in. For a socially awkward young girl who’s smart beyond her years, discovering her grandfather’s legacy, it’s a showcase for how the past can inspire the present. So, when Phoebe’s carefully examining that famous proton pack for repairs, it’s that loving attention she brings where it’s genuinely moving.
When it is not pandering to excessive fan service, there are gems to behold. When you see Ecto-1 chasing Muncher through Summerville’s downtown streets, you can’t help but feel that wave of excitement. Paul Rudd – another highlight – gets a brilliant moment where he reacts to the emergence of the miniature Stay Puft Marshmallow men (who are devilishly cute yet masochistic by design). Any moment that features Paul Rudd threatens to be a scene-stealer.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife teases a new possibility, threatening to be a worthy entry into the franchise. But in the end, it could have been so much more.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is out now at Cinemas.