Last month, a photo of a girl sitting in front of a Nintendo 64 went viral on Twitter when someone posted it with the proclamation, “i want to live in this era.” It looked like it was taken somewhere around the turn of the millennium, judging from the Guns N’ Roses poster, the pinup shot of Leonardo DiCaprio circa The Basketball Diaries, and other cultural detritus crowding the frame. There was an impressive amount of agreement in the replies, alongside bemusement from those unprepared to discover the mundane stuff of their particular youth being romanticized by people who hadn’t been born at the time. And then someone pointed out that there was album art on the wall from 2013. The image, it turns out, was the work of a blogger and Instagrammer who takes faux-vintage pictures of herself and was likely from 2020, not 1998. This revelation didn’t dispel its nostalgic pull — if anything, it just explained its potency. What does the actual past have on the past as an aesthetic, as a generic shared memory rather than something specific?
I thought about that photo a lot during Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which is an homage to and continuation of the 1984 Ghostbusters that painstakingly mines that movie for props, lines, and characters while giving no indication of being aware of what it was like to actually watch. It’s loving in the way that having an obsessive crush on someone you’ve never spoken to could be called loving. It’s one of the most ghoulish things I’ve ever seen, and, in a nefarious way, ingenious, because it understands that when people insist they want something true to a beloved original work of entertainment, what they actually mean is that they want to be returned to how they felt at the time. It’s why Ghostbusters is a dirtbag comedy set in Manhattan and Afterlife is an utterly unengaging Amblin-esque coming-of-age story that takes place in the small town of Summerville, which may have a haunted mine but also has an honest-to-God roller hop with a neon sign glowing in the midst of a landscape dotted with cornfields.
Technically, Summerville is in Oklahoma, but it might as well be an outpost in the kingdom of Americana for how often it’s shown bathed in golden mid-afternoon light. Afterlife is assiduously apolitical in its content, yet it also instinctively understands that the pop-culture nostalgia it’s peddling is of a kind with that desire to restore some fabled idyllic period that haunts national discourse. They both reach yearningly back toward something that was never really there, whether it’s Mayberry or the idea of Ghostbusters as a children’s classic, as opposed to a movie that people watched as children while the adults in the room winced through the ghost blow-job sequence and attempted to explain what the EPA did. Tellingly, the kids in Afterlife — Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), the grandchildren of the late Harold Ramis’s Egon Spengler, and pals Podcast (Logan Kim, whose character, yes, has a podcast) and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) — don’t inherit their roles of new ghostbusters so much as they seize them from under the noses of unappreciative or oblivious adults.
Chief among those adults is Carrie Coon, who’s too good for her role as frazzled single mom Callie. Egon abandoned his family and colleagues to move to Summerville when Callie was a child, but when he dies at the start of the film, she and her kids move to the house he left her because they don’t have any other place to go. The Ecto-1 is languishing in the barn, a proton pack is half-disassembled in the basement, and Annie Potts is there to briefly welcome them in a reprisal of her role as receptionist Janine Melnitz. But Callie, unaware she’s in a legacy sequel, only focuses on the news that she’s mostly inheriting debt. Coon isn’t without things to do — she has a flirtation with Phoebe’s middle-school teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), the only grown-up in the universe of the film who seems to care that it was once confirmed that ghosts are real. But Afterlife is queasily demeaning toward the character and the fact that she wants nothing to do with her dad. Phoebe, the prodigy who informs Callie that her strengths lay more in making quesadillas, later takes her mother to task for not setting aside all that pain to tell her about her grandfather, because “He was special! He loved science, like me!”
It’s hard not to think, in that dismal scene, about the fact that Afterlife was directed by Jason Reitman (who co-wrote the film with Gil Kenan) and produced by his dad, Ivan. Jason Reitman, previously dedicated to midsize indies whose quality fluctuated with that of their scripts, seemed intent for a long time on carving out a career distinct from his parent’s, who in addition to directing the original Ghostbusters and its 1989 sequel made other studio comedies ranging from Kindergarten Cop to Six Days Seven Nights. In signing on to Afterlife, he seems to have surrendered — not just to making a follow-up to his father’s biggest hit but to assigning ownership of it to the audience and being puppeted by its perceived desires, the way that Sumerian demigods possess and control some of the unlucky characters. And hey, we may deride nepotism in Hollywood as an industry, but we sure do love it in the franchises that Hollywood has embraced, where it becomes continuity and inheritance and proof that someone deserves to be the center of the story.
The true recipients of this largesse are the fans, who are presumably being given what they want after the turmoil surrounding Paul Feig’s female-led Ghostbusters in 2016, which for all its weaknesses was a shambling comedy that’s closer in spirit to the original Ghostbusters than Afterlife. While Afterlife is technically female-led, too, it seems unlikely to stir up the same kind of misogynistic wrath, in part because it’s less intent on branding itself this way and in part because it’s so outrageously deferential to what it believes they want. It might be right. At a surprise screening at the film at New York Comic Con last week, the crowd cheered regularly at every bit of fan service, from the Crunch Bar wrapper in an old uniform to the way the sheriff, upon being asked by a character who’s been thrown behind bars about using the phone, answers, “Who you gonna call?” In the name of fan service, Afterlife revisits old villains, tries to build lore out of gleeful nonsense, and goes with reckless abandon beyond all bounds of good taste, as if to prove there’s nothing it won’t do to achieve a sense of maudlin coziness. I hope it makes a billion dollars, because if you’re going to sell your soul, you might as well get something in return.
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