When nerds get into verbal (and occasionally physical) slap fights about Ghostbusters films, a point often forgotten by either combatant is that the original brain trust for the phenomenon that ruled screens in the summer of ’84 couldn’t put the gooey pieces of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man back together when they themselves attempted to continue it. We’re far enough removed from 1989 to allow nostalgia and lukewarm takes about how Ghostbusters II is actually a subversive masterpiece or something to remember just how disliked that film was in its day, and it’s also telling how reticent any of them — Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and director Ivan Reitman — were to revisit the material. Rumors of a third installment, potentially titled Ghostbusters in Hell, made their way around the internet, but most parties seemed to just want to let sleeping Devil Dogs lie. They’d already said everything that they had to say, and after Ramis, who was a major creative force on the previous films, died, it looked like any real hopes for a sequel were dead. But, perhaps, a reboot was still possible, and sure enough, it was. 2016 rolled around and Sony released Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, a pretty lame (and occasionally terrible) embodiment of the modern non-Lonely IslandSNL movie, that wasn’t worth one iota of the grief that it caused for its cast and crew, and equally undeserving of as the petty rages and surprising anger that it stoked in the hearts of internet commenters. If Gamergate established the new rules of engagement for the type of online campaigning that has poisoned almost every aspect of our strife-ridden discourse, Ghostbusters was its second real battlefield.
And what exactly did its combat-fatigued veterans win, for what immense glory did they pay “immeasurable” prices? Well, they got Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which is probably exactly what would have resulted had an angry YouTuber, who made his living shitting on “woke” nerd properties, acquired a Monkey’s Paw and then wished with all of his heart for a “Good Ghostbusters Sequel.” You can, for all intents and purposes, hear the shriveled finger bend and come to rest in the browned palm by the time the “Ghost Corps” logo arrives in the standard production credits before the film begins. This is a film motivated by franchise protectionism at all costs, meant to both rescue the series from Feig’s interpretation — an ignoble pursuit if an understandable one from a financial perspective — and to reinforce that what little iconography has been accumulated by the original ’84 film in the decades since its release has true and honest-to-Christ meaning. For someone well-versed in the stuff of proton packs and the operating procedure of the Ecto-1, this might have great significance to them, worthy of Reitman limiting the capabilities of a talented and charismatic actor like Paul Rudd so that he can be the stand-in for over-40 audience members and stare at various relics with open-mouthed awe and reverence. To quote Tyler Perry, Ghostbusters: Afterlife can do bad all by itself — its flaws are myriad independent of its franchise associations, thanks to Reitman’s poor Amblin-by-way-of-Stranger-Things approach — but it’s his honey-soaked interpretation of whatever the hell this stupid series is supposed to mean at this point in the game that makes shit so much worse.
You’ve had a year or two to soak in the basic plotline of Ghostbusters 4 now (I’m sure there will be at least one email pointing out that this is actually Ghostbusters 3, but, again, who cares): So I’m going to go All-Star Superman here and try to give the synopsis in as few words as I can. Troubled family (Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, McKenna Grace) inherits farm. Farm belongs to dead and mysterious grandfather. Children discover hidden purpose of farm. Ghosts stalk former mining town. Nerd summer school teacher (Rudd) hits on mom. Maybe grandpa was good? Kids bust ghosts. Keymaster. Gatekeeper. Bigger and familiar bad guy shows up. Cameos. Treacle. Roll credits. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s now cram in some quick technical discussion — sorry to rush you through this, but I really want to get to my most important point, and I only have so much space to metaphorically go down a mental checklist of “bad shit” for a film like this without boring you to tears. It looks pretty bad, with Reitman falling to juggle the practical effects with the digital, and play so, with the director contorting his cast members into bizarre caricatures of themselves, free of energy or wit. The new setting, a rural and pastoral Oklahoma town, is an interesting proposition until you realize what exactly it means for the content of the film itself: You see, the best thing about a city like New York is that it’s positively crammed full of the kind of ghosts that won’t scare off audiences — try going a city block without finding some bad shit swept under a rug or a presumed haunting in at least one of the buildings — whereas the frontier only contains the ghosts of our nation’s worst possible deeds, perhaps with the exception of a single house where the resident “creepy shit” happens. This has a weird way of limiting how many ghosts there are in the film itself, as there are only two main bustin’ scenes: One where the kids try to stop Muncher (Josh Gad), the not-Slimer invented by Reitman so that Slimer wouldn’t appear here, and the film’s finale, the beats of which you probably can guess.
If they’re not bustin’ ghosts and cracking jokes and dealing with small-town life, you might ask, then what the hell are they doing for the whole movie? It’s two hours long! And I hear you there because it’s quite long and aimless and I had no idea what they’d be doing the whole time either. The truth is that Reitman and company have fashioned this as a kind of Force Awakens-lite, but instead of doing emotional inversion as a form of innovation as J.J. Abrams did there, Reitman is only concerned with aesthetics, with the presentation of meaningless talismans as true iconography in the absence of anything else. See, Star Wars, like or not, has accumulated a culture-wide recognition, and you can see the legacy of it all around us, even before Disney attempted to transform a date that happens to sound like a phrase uttered in one of the films into a Corporate Feasting Day each year. There is not a single phrase in any of these films that has accumulated the kind of cachet that even the most minor Yoda utterance will in conversation, and these things have meaning and power. When we’re presented with a minor shot of a Twinkie or a Crunch wrapper (a lot of this film relies on product placement in order to land its beats) inserted into a sequence, Reitman intends for us to have warm fuzzies, akin to us seeing the Millenium Falcon sitting in a junk heap or a lightsaber blade wielded in combat by unsteady arms for the first time in Force Awakens. The sentiment is not just misplaced but absent, because it’s particularly hard to be sentimental about Ghostbusters, perhaps aside from seeing Bill Murray’s aged face on screen and reflecting on just how old you are at present — was he always that wrinkled? You don’t remember him looking like that in Life Aquatic, but then it hits you: That was nearly 17 years ago. Jesus.
This is the fundamental issue with Ghostbusters: Afterlife: it so desperately wants you to care about these things that it forgets that the true innovation of that original film, cited like a passage from a holy book, was its irreverence: Placing two nerds, a dickhead, and a working man in a conflict with a demonic entity from beyond time itself. It was, to say the least, funny, a flippant alteration of the traditional science-fiction/horror tale that managed to be earnest and amusing through the sheer reliability and bemusement of its cast. Perhaps if Aykroyd’s original draft had been filmed — a semi-serious journey through Haunted New York, complete with indecipherable Lucas-like jargon — it might have had those moments, one day, but we forget when we look at the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man as he wanders between the skyscrapers that this is the punchline to a joke. It’s only somewhat meant to inspire awe, at least as far as its realization is concerned, but the laugh one gets when Aykroyd’s character tries to clear his mind and think of the most harmless thing he possibly could be and winds up unleashing a mascot the size of Godzilla on the streets is what Reitman and company worked to achieve. Back to the Star Wars comparison: Based on the influences that Lucas was drawing from — Kurosawa, Flash Gordon, World War II-era air combat — awe and thrill were always the goals from the start, a realization that even he had to come to through the filmmaking process itself. Ghostbusters, however, is a comedy. And that is perfectly ok until someone starts insisting that it is the stuff legends are made of.
Perhaps that kind of spark, the unelicited giggle at the unexpected, can only be preserved for one film, and that’s why no subsequent Ghostbusters have come even close to equalling that high. When the Stay-Puft Man makes his appearance here, it’s in the form of tiny little gremlins popping out of marshmallow bags to surprise Rudd on a Wal-Mart trip, where, for a glimmer of a second, it looks like these little goofballs might actually have some fun. They toast each other on Trager grills, melt Hershey bars on top of each other, and smear one another across the floor after hijacking a Roomba, a brief and chaotic respite from the blandness of company logos and aimless over-and-under stimulation of the colors of the Supermarket aisle, where product placement is, sadly, the point. Soon enough, however, we return to the Land of Meaning, so that we may receive absolution from the dearly departed in a hideous CGI recreation that should, perhaps, eventually be the cause for actual legislation preventing digitally-resurrected actors from being present in films that they can’t be a part of, due to reasons of… their deaths.
One could go into gauche psychological interpretations for why the film is this way, given that Reitman’s taking over the reins from his father, and perhaps wants to return Dad’s Benz the way he found it and even cleaner than it was before, despite smashing head-first into a tree in the process. But, again, what’s the point of all of this if it isn’t fun or, god forbid, funny? Because, as we discovered in Ghostbusters II, Ghostbusters (2016), and now Afterlife, if it ain’t either of those two things, it isn’t worth doing, much less seeing.