Tuesday, November 23, 2021

'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' is the latest round in a conversation we're tired of having

It's become a vicious cycle: we keep begging movie studios to do something original, and they keep refusing to learn from their bad choices

How to properly grapple with the fearsome cultural weight of the original Ghostbusters is a question that the franchise has acknowledged before. In 1997, the beloved cartoon The Real Ghostbusters was followed by an unexpected sequel: Extreme Ghostbusters, in which paranormal researcher Egon Spengler recruits a new team of young heroes to continue the fight against supernatural menaces. This show was darker and less goofy than the previous one, a necessary course correction given how The Real Ghostbusters had attempted, starting on its third season, an ill-advised shift toward a family-friendlier tone. Notably, the series finale of Extreme Ghostbusters is about Egon reconnecting with his old pals and going out to chase ghosts like they used to, annoying the new team with their obvious mid-life crisis and condescending attitude. Most of the humor in this two-part episode is done at the expense of the original team, portraying them as so self-absorbed and meddlesome that we can't wait to see them go. The villain is defeated by the collaboration of both teams, but not until the seniors acknowledge that the torch has been passed.

That degree of self-awareness is lost on Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the latest result of filmmakers' current state of utter terror of their own audiences. Just like Disney took the overblown hatred thrown at The Last Jedi seriously and gave us the insipid Rise of Skywalker, Sony Pictures let the vitriol about the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot scare it into delivering a safe, reassuring, bland, reverential, unimaginative, inoffensive-yet-fully-offensive pat on the head for all the entitled manchildren who couldn't accept women wearing a proton pack and spent the last half decade demanding that the studio go back and fix it.

This attitude of "go back and fix it" has done serious damage to the movie industry. When James Cameron returned to the Terminator franchise with the explicit intention of erasing everything after T2 (Cameron actually said the words "we’re pretending the other films were a bad dream," which by now ought to be taken as a prophecy of doom in Hollywood), hardcore fans cheered, only to be treated to the underwhelming Dark Fate. Even today, many fans still demand that George Lucas be brought back to supposedly save Star Wars, forgetting how the prequels are made entirely of bad choices. The same bizarre cult of personality forms the backbone of the #RestoretheSnyderverse movement.

Hidden beneath the rage and the hyperbole is an interesting discussion about the nature of authorship and canonicity. The fixation on canon stems from a misplaced need for veracity that belongs in historical studies, not in fiction. It actually matters if Nelson Mandela was freed and elected president of South Africa, and did not, as many misremember, die in prison. It does not matter if Superman gets married in one storyline and is back in high school in the next. To offer a not wholly unrelated example: each region of India has their own myths about the gods, and the Hindu attitude is to deem all of them valid. Conversely, in the Western world, there's only one official canon of Scripture, even though in the early Christian times there was an immense variety of gospels in circulation, and there were bitter disagreements about which selection of books were meant to belong to the One True Canon. The latter approach is the one taken by fans who demand that all pieces of a franchise fit together in a single, neat, agreeable lore. Viewed in this context, it's not surprising that genre canon is being treated with a reverence that crosses into dogmatic fanaticism. The Ghostbusters franchise repeats the fatal mistake of the Terminator franchise in adopting the position that only the Holy Word of Reitman is true.

Even worse, this disregards the franchise's own ethos. For all its flaws, the original Ghostbusters at least made the progressive statement that ordinary, working-class people could become heroes by dedication and effort (as bumbling and unprofessional such effort may be). Afterlife, instead, is an aristocracy where only the legitimate progeny of the heroes (and of the filmmaker) deserve to inherit the legacy. This feeds into a toxic possessiveness that shuts off possible avenues for innovative storytelling.

The many ways Ghostbusters: Afterlife fails to entertain have already been dissected in ample, gory detail. It's been called "a soulless ode to nepotism," "dead on arrival," "manipulative and ethically dubious," "nostalgia whack-a-mole at its worst," "a nightmare colored in shades of sepia," "an ouroboros of nostalgia cannibalizing itself," "a dungeon of necrophilia," "a slimy, stinking corpse of a sequel," and (my favorite) "a gloomy nostalgia trip through the ruins of American culture." There's no diplomatic way of putting it: a movie made this badly should be a career-ender.

But Ghostbusters isn't done with us. This is a conversation we cannot avoid, however much exhausting it is to have to tell angry Gen-Xers that the way they remember the 80s is very biased and that the rest of us shouldn't have to care about their hair-sprayed, mini-skirted, shoulder-padded, neon-lit, lead-fueled memories anyway.

So, time for a little bubble-bursting: the character of Peter Venkman in the original Ghostbusters is an insufferable narcissist, a parasitic excuse of a friend, and a serial sexual predator (and in the second movie, a xenophobic bigot) who would have been kicked out of academia (not to mention out of polite company) decades before we meet him in the first movie, and the fact that the actor who played him was brought into the 2016 reboot for the sole purpose of blasting him out a window was a fully deserved catharsis.

You need to do some serious work on your adulthood if your childhood is even capable of being retroactively "ruined." No movie, however much cherished, deserves to be treated as sacred and untouchable. The original Ghostbusters oozes with erotic subtext that is missing from devoted fans' starry-eyed recollection of their first viewing. The movie reaches its climax with the heroes smeared from head to toe in creamy white goo, and the second movie, even more overt in equating heroism with intercourse (see: Louis Tully), is obsessed with a different type of goo that is bluntly coded female (as in bright pink and highly emotional). When fans demand a sequel that respects Ghostbusters, it's hard to comprehend what exactly they find so respectable.

This phenomenon is not new. Haters of The Last Jedi protested that it didn't respect Star Wars, but what you get when you make a movie worried with respecting Star Wars is the nervous people-pleaser that is Rise of Skywalker. The same thing has happened with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It's embarrassing to see a studio agree to perform any humiliation demanded of it, and it's depressing to consider that this won't be the last time fan feedback will intimidate filmmakers into abandoning all self-respect (it's no wonder that "don't be yourself" is made into a motif in Afterlife).

Even if we try to be generous and analyze it apart from its connection to the franchise and (for the sake of argument) apart from the torrents of discussion surrounding it, Ghostbusters: Afterlife fails at the basics of storytelling. We begin by following the story of Callie, a single mother who moves with her two children to a rural town in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma because they're penniless and the only thing they have left is the badly kept farmhouse where her estranged father died. Her son Trevor barely has a role beyond being a hormonal creep, but Phoebe, her genius daughter, quickly discovers that there's something not quite right about this place. There are unexplained earthquakes, and ominous rock carvings, and self-moving chess pieces, and people who call themselves "Podcast." As it turns out, her mysterious grandfather was not a jerk, but a hero who died trying to capture an evil deity before it could consume the world.

Phoebe reconnects to her family's heritage with the help of literally the first acquaintance she meets in the town, a summer school teacher who happens to know some geology and who by the magic of plotting chance is a big adoring fan of her grandfather's exploits. But once he's provided the mandatory exposition (with the implied moral that today's adults do their children a grievous disservice by not telling them about the Ghostbusters), this character ceases to be any help at all. Despite being the only person in the state of Oklahoma who even knows what a ghost trap does, his first impulse upon finding one is to poke it with a stick and irresponsibly release an undead monster that immediately runs to the ominous rock carvings to help bring the end of the world. The next thing our heroic teacher proceeds to do is get possessed by a dog demon, engage in a sexual ritual that couldn't possibly have been consensual, and... that's it.

So let's check up on the kids. The role of Phoebe was given to a decent actress, but the way she's written makes her the least believable portrayal of neurodiversity since Sheldon Cooper. Her petulance gets boring very fast, and her relationship with her mother is adversarial to the point of emotional wounding. One might say, in Phoebe's defense, that she comes from a difficult family background. Not only did her grandfather leave with no explanation; her father is also to blame. It's completely understandable to break up because you don't like your partner anymore; it's monstrous to break up because you don't like your child. However, that doesn't suffice to build a defense of Phoebe, because the movie has no interest in exploring that angle. The massive amount of trauma in her backstory is glossed over in the service of ancestor worship.

On her brother Trevor's side, the seams of the story become even more strained. He's not so much a character per se; he's more of a recognizable face that's useful for selling tickets. He has an instant crush on a girl who only keeps him around to play mean pranks on him and who by the magic of plotting chance is related to the only other adult in the town. The rest of the characters are treated as background decoration, which makes it hard to believe in the stakes when an ancient horror crawls out of its pit.

Said horror takes the shape of an androgynous fashionista who doesn't seem much interested in conquering; she likes to sit and pet her demon dogs and look menacing until someone comes to tell her bad jokes and steal one of her dogs. In the final battle, in which a family that have only behaved in a mean and resentful manner to each other have suddenly learned to cooperate, the young heroes prove incapable of completing the job, and a team of retired Ghostbusters come out of nowhere to show the kids how it's done. We meet the disturbingly wordless specter of the dead grandfather, who seemingly gets forgiven for simply showing up, and...

Yes, and... this movie doesn't even bother having a proper ending.

Where does this leave us? Yay because the monster is gone, boo because the heroic family is still destitute. Yay because the kids uncovered their true place in the world, boo because their own effort had no part in building it. Yay because the lonely mother landed a hot boyfriend, boo because he's a terrible teacher who makes zero effort at his job and despises his students. Yay because we got a girl Ghostbuster, boo because the only way Afterlife could think of to make the concept of a girl Ghostbuster palatable to the rage mob that savaged the previous movie was to remove from her character design all physical and behavioral markers of femininity.

In sum: seen on its own merits, it has none. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not exciting, or scary, or funny, or interesting. It's just a very, very bad movie. But when we bring all the context back into the discussion, it becomes something worse. It's a capitulation to the rage mob and a validation of its abusive tactics. It's a vulgar stroking of the audience's nostalgia buttons. It's a set of manacles fastened around the creative potential of the franchise. It's a childish attempt to remove from memory the actually good 2016 reboot (and the actually good 1997 cartoon).

This movie pulls a back muscle with how hard it winks at the viewer. The repetition of the same villain with the same plan and the same methods as in the original movie is an appalling display of subservience to lore and plain unimaginativeness. The needless completion of Ivo Shandor's origin story is exemplary of the worst tendencies of explainer culture, which confuses mysteries with mistakes. The camera fetishizes every piece of merchandise prop with such awe that one expects the frame to include price tags. The ending includes a "go back and fix it" redo of dialogue from the original movie that was uncalled for and ultimately inconsequential to the fight. The post-credits scenes land with all the obnoxious box-ticking of Chewbacca's medal. And one can almost hear Phoebe say "I'm all the Jedi" when Harold Ramis is digitally dragged from the grave for a moment of cheap fanservice that is contemptible beyond words.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife has nothing valuable or memorable to add to the main continuity it so anxiously defends, shows no awareness of the raunchy tone that made the original a classic, and sets a disturbing new precedent for the dynamic between fans and filmmakers. That this was avoidable (they could simply have ignored the rabid manchildren and produced sequels to the 2016 reboot) makes the result even more lamentable. Instead of a loving homage to a generation of cinema, what we got is an era-definingly bad movie.

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.