The two films I have most been looking forward to in 2021 were both released this weekend. Yep, it wasn’t Bond or Dune or any of the four MCU movies we are getting this year; the two are French director Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman and hopefully highlighting my wide tastes, Ghostbusters Afterlife.
We’ll come to Sciamma’s follow up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire in good time but as soon as this one was announced, with that video promo of someone pulling back a tarp to reveal that famous logo on the side of what was evidently the Ectomobile, I got goosebumps. There is a glut of modern nostalgia cinema coming out right now (see a little discussion of this here) and most I could take or leave but the idea of a return to the original Ghostbusters story, particularly after the fun but flawed remake, instantly seemed a welcome proposition. I love that first movie for the cast and the iconography (the proton pack has to be the second coolest weapon in cinema history) and the promise of a return to both of these was exciting.
Those touch points from the original film are where this film really excels. Like in that teaser trailer, the way the car is rediscovered is delightful. It shows up rusty in a garage but with all of its personality in tact, like Herbie, and when it goes for its first ride it is a joyous trip right back to 1984. Dilapidated as it may be, it’s had some nice upgrades since we last saw it too. Then we’ve got the armed spectrometer, the trap and the aforementioned photon pack which are all picked up and brought back into action at various points. The first time the latter of these is discharged it is a moment akin to Darth Vader igniting his red lightsaber again in Rogue One; the effect looks as good now as it did then and it is just magnificent to behold. Obviously, to get the most out of this it has to have the potential to transport you Ratatouille style back to your younger years as it clearly does for me*, but crucially these elements are not shoehorned in for the sake of reminiscence; they totally serve the story. Ghostbusters Afterlife doesn’t lean on past glories or replay key moments from the past as much as something like The Force Awakens or Star Trek Into Darkness and even when it strays into this area at the end, it has earned it narratively.
*My wife, who is not as much as a Ghostbusters fan as me (she did not feel the need to accompany me on my trek through Tribeca to find the famous fire station the last time we were in New York) says that she remembers enjoying the first film and she enjoyed this one too so if you are more akin to her than you are to me in your levels of geekiness, then there’s your take home.
While the iconography might be familiar though the cast are mostly new. It is not the ghostbusters we know that are involved in this adventure but a group of kids who have stumbled across their equipment. This does give Ghostbusters Afterlife a different tone to what came before and some reviews have objected to this but I thought it was a refreshing angle. I am aware of some suggestion that this film is too serious compared to its predecessors but it really isn’t. It may not have as many dry one liners and is not as laugh out loud funny but it is still a slightly silly romp populated by endearing characters. It’s no good for the critical fraternity to say they wanted another film with the brightest and best of Saturday Night Live bringing their particular brand of comedy to a tale of ramshackle scientists catching spooks because that’s exactly what they got from Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon five years ago and lots of people rejected it. To be fair, that film was too conscious of trying to recreate the magic and came across as overly knowing. It was sure of itself but not sure of the effortless approach of what it was trying to emulate. This one gets this right, understanding like the original movie that story and character come first and jokes second.
I applaud director Jason Reitman for doing something both different and familiar with his director father Ivan’s most famous film (Reitman senior produces). Bringing the old cast back for the whole thing wouldn’t have worked either because that would have felt like a cash in. Fittingly the one Ghostbuster who is no longer with us, Harold Ramis, does feature quite heavily as it is his character Egon Spengler’s family who are mixed up in the otherworldly shenanigans this time round. This film is actually a lovely tribute to a beloved actor and his most famous dramatic creation, who in the story has also passed away. There are brief moments reminiscent of Peter Cushing in Rogue One but it is managed better here.
Of the new cast fourteen year old Mckenna Grace is the standout. Grace has already appeared as a varied selection of iconic pop culture characters. She was Tonya Harding and she was Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She was Emma Swan in Once Upon a Time. She was Daphne in Scooby Doo and she was Captain Marvel. Admittedly in each of these cases this was all brief and in flashback, with her only playing these people when they were children but either way she’s chalked up some pretty significant performances. In Ghostbusters Afterlife while she doesn’t actually appear as the adolescent incarnation of another loved and established character, she actually kind of does. Her Phoebe is totally a young version of her grandfather Egon. Supporting her in the teen cast is Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard along with Celeste O’Connor and newcomer Logan Kim as a kid who is called Podcast because he hosts a podcast. (I identified with him, we have about the same number of followers.) There are grown ups in the film too but they are less consequential and as adults we don’t need them because we have the nostalgia as a way in. Having the children as so central gives younger viewers something to hang on to as well. My 12 year old loved it.
For me this is modern nostalgia cinema done right. On the Blade Runner 2049 to Dumb and Dumber To scale this one is near the top and actually it made me think that that other regular suggestion for a belated sequel might work too. Its a turn around but I now want a Back to the Future 4.
The Ripley Factor:
Sadly it seems one of the reasons the 2016 McCarthy/Wiig movie failed commercially is because people didn’t want to see female ghostbusters, at least if the online commenters are to be believed. This film, which is a continuation of the much revered original with many of the artists behind it involved, returns with the resounding message that in truth anyone can, especially it seems a little girl.
The first film has also been accused, with some reason, as being sexist in its depiction of the relationship between Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett. There is a nice little mid credit scene that has no other reason for being there other than to address this which is good to see. Of course from the Not Left Handed Film Guide’s point of view who better is there to challenge chauvinism in cinema than Ripley herself?