Making a sequel to Ghostbusters (1984) is tricky. Ghostbusters is one of few perfect movies. Everything about it works! It was one of my all-time favorite movies when I was five-years-old and it still is now at thirty-nine. Already a fan of the cartoon show, my world was forever changed when my uncle gave us a VHS tape on which he’d recorded a Ghostbusters movie with real people in it from HBO. I was a little thrown (at first) as they looked different and I am 99.99% sure it was what scarred me and made me scared of dogs all through my youth (as they constantly refer to the demonic forms of Zuul and Vinz Clortho as “dogs”) but none of that really mattered. It was love at first viewing and it’s the only movie from my youth I still watch multiple times a year. It spawned three sequels – Ghostbusters 2 (1989), Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016), and the new Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021). One I loved! One disappointed me. And one was a straight up traumatic experience. With thoughts of Ghostbusters: Afterlife fresh in my mind, I felt it’d be fun to discuss which is which!
So Ghostbusters 2 was the traumatic one. I saw it in the theatre when I was six-years-old and it TERRIFIED ME. I had never experienced fear like that before and I didn’t watch it again for over twenty years. Now, I’ve come to love it and see it’s criminally underrated. It’s a lot of fun and has a message that grows more important each year we find ourselves angrier and more divided. As the title of this piece implies, Ghostbusters 2 won’t factor heavily in this discussion simply because it’s the only sequel we have with the entire original cast – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, and Rick Moranis – directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as was the original. So Ghostbusters 2 is in a class by itself.
This piece will have spoilers for Ghostbusters: Afterlife but they will be clearly marked. The conversation begins generally and when specific spoilers arise you’ll be warned so can read around your comfort with those things :).
Hannah, who shares my adoration of the original, and I saw Ghostbusters: Afterlife Friday night. We caught the 10:05 showing as, thankfully, the crowd was pretty thin by then. Everyone in the theatre was plenty spaced out so we could enjoy it without any major Covid anxieties.
Set thirty years after the events of Ghostbusters 2, Ghostbusters: Afterlife follows Egon’s estranged daughter and struggling single mother, Callie (Carrie Coon), who moves with her two children Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to her father’s farm in Summerville, Oklahoma after his passing. Trevor spends his time hanging out and trying to flirt with local girl Lucky (Celeste O’Conner) while Phoebe finds a friend in Podcast (Logan Kim) and their summer school science teacher (and fan of all things ghost and ghostbusting) Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). The town was built around the mining operation of Ivo Shandor, the leader of the Cult of Gozer whose building summoned Gozer (you know, Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destructor, Gozer the Traveler, Volguss Zildrohar and Lord of the Sebouillia…that Gozer) to New York City in 1984. When things start to get weird Phoebe, Podcast, Trevor, Lucky, Mr. Grooberson, and Callie have to figure out what to do as it’s been decades since there was anyone you knew you were gonna call in a situation like this.
As the credits began to roll Hannah looked at me and said, “It was a cute movie but it wasn’t a good movie.” I completely agree with her assessment. Naturally, I don’t ever expect any movie to live up to the original. I don’t think any film can. It’s perfect. But with Ghostbusters: Afterlife they just pulled a Star Wars: The Force Awakens and remade the first film with a new cast and filled it with cameos and callbacks for nostalgia’s sake. As Hannah also observed, it felt more like a Stranger Things film than a Ghostbusters one (and not just because Finn Wolfhard is in it). The kid-centric cast and the tone of the film left us feeling like Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, who directed and co-wrote this movie alongside Gil Kenan and Dan Aykroyd) watched that scene in Stranger Things 2 where Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will dress up as the Ghostbusters for Halloween and thought, “Yes! That’s it! I’m just gonna do that for a Ghostbusters sequel.”
The oddest thing of all though was…it isn’t funny. It certainly wasn’t a comedy. I’m not entirely sure what genre it was supposed to be. It had funny moments! Phoebe and Podcast’s interactions had so many great lines. But Hannah and I hardly laughed. And the humor of Ghostbusters is so essential to the experience of the Ghostbusters! Part of the brilliance of the original is how you find it funnier in new ways as your grow up. As a kid I had no idea what the Gatekeeper and Key Master were really doing to bring Gozer into the world and I missed the point of half the other jokes XD. There is so much humor that works for kids – which you still appreciate as an adult – but then you find all this extra humor woven throughout when you grow up that you never saw as a kid.
Paired with this observation, I also found it odd I didn’t cry. Ghostbusters: Afterlife certainly has an emotional core to it. Simply telling a story in the original Ghostbusters universe with the original cast after Harold Ramis’ passing in 2014 is going to need to address Egon’s absence in some way. It was easy to see the scenes that were designed to tug on the ol’ heartstrings. And in every interview I’ve seen with the cast of Ghostbusters: Afterlife they say how every screening has people crying because it was so emotional. But for me, it didn’t land. I didn’t even get teary eyed. More than anything else, this was an indicator of how emotionally disconnected from the film I was.
One of my favorite one-off lines of dialogue comes from The Holiday (2006) when Graham (Jude Law) tells Amanda (Cameron Diaz), “Well, I cry all the time. More than any woman you’ve ever met. A good book. A great film. A birthday card. I weep. I’m a major weeper.” Check, check, check. I am a major weeper! Even though The Force Awakens wasn’t my favorite film, I still cried in the emotional parts. I sob (every time – as hard or harder) through an episode of Doctor Who I’ve seen a dozen times. I had to pause the final act of The Leftovers and Marriage Story because I was crying too hard to see the TV and sobbing too loud to hear it. Heck, I will get teary-eyed at the last five minutes of a Hallmark movie when I’ve never even seen the rest of! It’s who I am. I’m an empath and that means I invest easily and quickly into the stories I watch and I feel them deeply. It’s how I’m wired. It’s my nature.
But with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a story told with characters I’ve watched and loved my entire life and a story told in the wake of Harold Ramis’ passing (Egon was always my favorite Ghostbuster), I didn’t feel…anything. There wasn’t even the trace of a tear.
The whole experience was very odd. That’s not to say I didn’t like it at all. Carrie Coon was magnificent, as always. I love her. She’s good in everything! And OH. MY. GOSH. McKenna Grace!!! She was thirteen-years-old when they filmed this movie and stole every scene she was in. Playing Egon’s granddaughter Phoebe, she largely carried the film. Her performance, shifting from humorous to heartfelt, was the closest Ghostbusters: Afterlife came to capturing the original movie even if everything else in the film failed to do so. She was so impressive!
Of course it did warm my heart to see Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) back in their Ghostbusters jumpsuits with their proton packs slung on their backs. Long ago I gave up hope of ever seeing that again and, while it was bittersweet without Egon alongside them, it made me happy all the same. It made me happy to see Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) and Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) back as well. The new things they did with Ecto-1 were cool, too. So it wasn’t all disappointing.
Hannah put it perfectly when she said, “I’m glad I saw it but I never have to see it again.”
Conversely, I really enjoyed Ghostbusters: Answer the Call. I know my just typing that has the “outrage sense” of many an internet commenter tingling. To say this film was polarizing amongst Ghostbusters fans is something of an understatement. Directed by Paul Feig and written by Katie Dippold, Paul Feig, and Ivan Reitman, this film was set in another movie universe and featured an all-female team of Ghostbusters – Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), and Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon).
Many of the people who hated the film hated it for that reason alone. It was a piece of “social justice warrior propaganda” or it “ruined [their] childhood” or it was “pandering” of whatever simply because it had women in the starring roles. To react that way (as we saw people online do with Captain Marvel, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn or Jane Foster becoming Thor or Sam Wilson becoming Captain America or any of the zillion other similar story beats) comes from a place of deep wounding. That person has wounded parts that are so scared and so threatened by anything they perceive as “different” that they have to react with ire and hate. There is nothing logical in their reaction nor is it something worth entertaining. If you hear the new Ghostbusters team will be women and your anger ignites, there is nothing I can write which will help change your mind. It’s a conversation for you and a good therapist.
But those weren’t the only critiques of the film and there were some who felt the tone of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call deviated too much from the original. There were some who felt Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Leslie Jones were playing caricatures of female characters instead of getting the chance to fully flesh out their own quirky personalities as all the original Ghostbusters had. There were some who were upset it was set in another movie universe as opposed to having these women pick up the mantle Egon, Winston, Peter, and Ray set down decades ago. Heck, the one psychic Peter had on his show The World of the Psychic in Ghostbusters 2 predicted the world would end on February 14, 2016…so Ghostbusters: Answer the Call coming out that year and not being set in the same universe and dealing with that event kinda feels like a missed opportunity.
These more reasoned critiques of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, obviously, carry more weight with me. While I don’t share that opinion of the film, I appreciate them all the same. The people who argue on the internet often forget this truth but all art is subjective. So we like what we like and we don’t like what we don’t like. Not everyone’s gonna dig the same things and that’s great and how it should be and it’s a big part of what makes talking about art so much fun (unless you’re dealing with trolls on the line or in real life).
In Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Erin finds herself fired from Columbia University after reconnecting with her high school best friend – and fellow particle physicist – Abby, now working with Holtzman on paranormal investigations. The video of the ghost they found at the Aldrich Mansion discredits Erin at Columbia and leads the women to do their investigations on their own as the “Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination.” Patty, a history buff and employee for the MTA, brings their attention to a device that attracts and amplifies psychokinetic energy in the New York subway tunnels. She joins the team and their catching and containing ghosts leads media pundits label them “Ghostbusters,” a name their hysterically-dim-yet-oh-so-hunky receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) runs with…when he remembers to answer the phone. They soon find themselves on the trail of Rowan North (Neil Casey), a man turned angry and cold by a lifetime of being bullied and ostracized, who is strategically placing these devices around the city to tear open the boundary between worlds and allow the Earth to be destroyed by malevolent ghosts.
For me, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call was fun. It felt fresh. It had plenty of callbacks and nods and it took its main story beats from the original Ghostbusters but it was clear Katie Dippold, Paul Feig, and Ivan Reitman were trying to do something new. No Gozer. No demon dogs. The Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man shows up only in a cute little cameo. No Vigo (you know, Prince Vigo Von Homburg Deutschendorf, Scourge of Carpathia, Sorrow of Moldavia, Vigo the Carpathian, Vigo the Cruel, Vigo the Torturer, Vigo the Despised, Vigo the Unholy…that Vigo). No rivers of slime. It wasn’t a remake. It was something new. You also had the entire original cast back in fun cameos, too, playing new roles as it was set in a different universe from the original. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call was fun. It was a great adventure. And it was so damn funny.
I thought everyone was great but Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman and Chris Hemsworth as Kevin have to be two of the greatest comedic performances of the last decade. They created immediately iconic characters! The whole movie was funny. It had it’s own humor, which I think was important. It wasn’t trying to “redo” what Ghostbusters did. But it’s hilarious and it had a lot of heart. I really cared about these characters and I was invested in their world. It makes me sad that, scared by the polarizing effect of the film amongst fans, Columbia Picture abandoned their plans for any sequels to Ghostbusters: Answer the Call and instead went with Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
I don’t mind having both! Let’s open the world of Ghostbusters stories up! But if they are only going to develop one universe, as far as I’m concerned, they picked the wrong one. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call does a far better job of carrying the torch of the original Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 than Ghostbusters: Afterlife in every way that counts. Sure, it wasn’t a direct sequel. But the heart and the humor were there and that’s what I think is most important to the world of the Ghostbusters.
Ok, now I’m gonna get spoiler-y with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. I’ve got two pictures below, then a paragraph filled with spoilers, than two more pictures, then the conclusion to this piece. If you want to avoid spoilers, you can skip to the bottom. If you’ve seen Ghostbusters: Afterlife or don’t care about having key plot points spoiled, feel free to read the paragraph between all those pictures. Coolio? Coolio.
To expand on my frustrations mentioned above, it really was THE SAME MOVIE. More Gozer. More demon dogs. Very few new ideas. As soon as I saw the demonic forms of Zuul and Vinz Clortho I knew Callie Spengler and Gary Grooberson were gonna end up possessed and having sex as the new incarnations of the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster. I certainly didn’t need to hear Callie growl, “There is no ‘mom,’ only Zuul.” And the way the plot plays out, far from being an homage to the original, ends up undercutting Ghostbusters! The setup, Ivo Shandor created Summerville as a mining operation to get the materials he needed to construct the building Dana lived in in 1984 as a way to summon Gozer, was so clever! They speak of how unique the building was in the first film and now we know where the materials came from! But then they go on to show the elaborate temple for Gozer Shandor created in Summerfield and it becomes very obvious this, not the Manhattan Crossrip of 1984, was the real moment Gozer was coming to take this world. This is the same lazy storytelling permeating so many of the Star Wars sequels, “Ok, so, this movie is the same exact story as before but with NEW PEOPLE and – oh my gosh guess what?!? – THIS THREAT is even worse!” I’m sorry but if you can’t build a credible threat in a new story in an existing franchise without retelling its original story while undercutting the importance of that story, you shouldn’t be telling a new story. That’s not “fan service” or “nostalgia.” It’s lazy and disrespectful writing. On the disrespectful note, I was not a fan of how they handled Egon’s character. We’re supposed to believe the Egon Spengler we followed through Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 abandons his partner and daughter, robs his friends of all their gear, and runs off to Oklahoma to live life as an eccentric hermit while burning every bridge in his life? And we’re supposed to believe – after everything they’ve seen and done together – Ray, Winston, and Peter wouldn’t follow Egon to talk it out and/or believe him that something big was going on down there? They could’ve had almost the exact same story while respecting what came before if they only framed it a little differently. Years ago all the Ghostbusters move down to Oklahoma together. They burn through all the money they have building the devices Egon has in the Gozer Temple. Debt and bills pile up. Eventually everyone – including Egon’s partner with their young child – decide to move on with their lives…but Egon stays. They lose contact over time. Then the movie opens the same way and it can have almost the exact same story without turning Egon into an erratic, carless character who’d abandon and betray his best friends, his partner, and their young daughter. Ok, spoiler-y talk over.
So neither Ghostbusters: Afterlife nor Ghostbusters: Answer the Call do for me what Ghostbusters did. But that’s ok. No film ever can. That’s part of what makes it Ghostbusters – it’s one of a kind. And I’ve never expected any sequel – even Ghostbusters 2 – to do so. That would be an unfair expectation to hang on everyone involved in any Ghostbusters film. For me, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call comes much, much closer to honoring the legacy of the original than Ghostbusters: Afterlife does. Not everyone will agree with me, I know. That’s fine. Again, all art is subjective. And that’s why it’s great we have both! So watch what you love and geek out and have fun with it. And while Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the first Ghostbusters movie I don’t care to ever see again (I mean, Ghostbusters 2 did traumatize me as a kid and I did avoid it for decades but we made our peace and I watch it all the time now), I agree with Hannah. I am happy I saw it and I’m intrigued to see where, if anyplace, the Ghostbusters movie universe goes from here.
Oh, and should you want to read the terrifying and bone-chilling account of how seeing Ghostbusters 2 traumatized me as a kid, you can click here. I was ABSOLUTELY afraid of those ghosts!
Also, the credit for the brilliant featured image in the piece goes to Slash Film.