‘Ghostbusters: The Force Awakens’ and fandom as performance

Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

4/10 I still remember the sinking feeling after the credits rolled on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, after the movie had finished slowly funneling into a shameless, point-by-point remake of the original film, endlessly creative when looking for excuses to revisit the old but bankrupt and timid when asked for fresh ideas. How much more hollow would it have felt to realize immediately that this would be the model every reboot would follow moving forward?

Summerville, Oklahoma, summer 2021- Callie Spengler and her children, Trevor and Phoebe (Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace), ditch Manhattan for an abandoned Oklahoma mining town, partially to avoid eviction and partially to settle the affairs of her estranged father, Egon, who earned fame in the 1980s as a Ghostbuster but suddenly left the group decades earlier. Callie navigates her feelings of being abandoned by her father, Trevor fools around the town acting out against his newfound poverty, and Phoebe investigates the seismic activity shaking the town.

Where Ghostbusters (2016) applied the shortcuts and laziness of modern “Saturday Night Live” alum-comedies to a familiar premise, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the Ghostbusters: The Force Awakens treatment. It’s a slime-stream of plot elements a stuffed suit would insist on putting into a Ghostbusters reboot, built around fetishistic close-ups of old props and ghoulish cameos, including using CGI to rip Harold Ramis, who played Egon Spengler, out of the grave. It’s got that same obsession with older characters’ children that’s become so exhausting in reboots, which even extends behind the camera – writer/director Jason Reitman is the son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the original Ghostbusters and has served as the series’ steward during the past three decades of mostly failed attempts to get a sequel or reboot off the ground. Ivan is credited on Afterlife as a producer.

Mmmm, not quite so colorful in images that are actually in the movie, are we?

Ghostbusters: Afterlife has a lot to offer under all the fan service sludge, and most of it is due to Jason Reitman. He’s spent 20 years telling human stories about female alienation and arrested development in 21st Century America, and Afterlife fits right into that – it’s about a single mother drowning in debt who moves from Manhattan to a mining town in the middle of nowhere, abandoned and stuck in the past after having all its resources sucked out and still haunted by the big-city real estate developer who did the sucking. In this sense, it’s a terrific complement and counterpoint to the original Ghostbusters, an iconic Manhattan movie with thick subtext about starting a business in Reagan’s America.

Under 30 years of rewrites, the script still traces its roots back to the original concepts for Ghostbusters III, which would have sent the Ghostbusters to hell and featured a new crew of comedians taking up their proton packs all the way back in the early ‘90s, and Ramis and Dan Akroyd are still credited as story writers.

The human scenes are terrific, especially when Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Phoebe Spengler’s teacher and Callie Spengler’s love interest, is involved. There’s so much comfort and chemistry whenever Rudd is onscreen that it’s surprising in hindsight to realize this is his first time working with Reitman. He’s the perfect actor to express the disconnection and emotions Reitman’s films usually explore.

The je ne sais quoi of The Force Awakens is in scenes of its characters stumbling upon sets and props from the original film, and Afterlife leans into that by, in Jason Reitman’s words, “unfolding like a mystery.” As the Spengler family – well, Phoebe – digs around Egon’s old house and town, the old props aren’t just fan service, they’re the key plot elements that Phoebe is hunting for, so it’s less like a mystery movie and more like a game of peek-a-boo with props the audience already knows are there. If your movie’s mystery is “what’s the Ecto 1-shaped covered car in Egon Spengler’s garage,” you’re not getting much in the way of traditional mystery movie fun, especially when the promotional campaign is already built around the Ecto 1. Its prologue sequence shows where the ghost trap and P.K.E. meter are hidden as well as Zul and the general strategy of the climactic battle, so viewers who are new to the franchise will also get to experience the joy of knowing exactly what’s going to happen in this ostensible mystery movie.

As desperately as Ghostbusters: Afterlife wants to be Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it even more desperately wants to be “Stranger Things.” The hit show preceded a flood of blockbusters about teenage brat packs in ‘80s suburbs or similarly nostalgic environments, and it always had a special synergy with the original Ghostbusters, so it makes a lot of sense to see Wolfhard here in another gaggle of teenagers blasting through another catastrophe the adults around them mostly aren’t even looking at.

What The Force Awakens taps into so expertly, and the concept that Ghostbusters: Afterlife trades on, is fandom as identity and as performance. In the Marvel/Moviepass era, you don’t go to see movies because you’re excited about them, you go because you identify as a fan of the property that they’re made from, and in order to perform that identity, you need to read all the little articles and watch all the little trailer breakdowns and at least claim to enjoy all the movies. That’s why people lump all those Harry Potter movies together, despite them mostly being very different films made by different people at different levels of quality. That’s what people think they’re pointing out when they say stupid things like “Star Wars fans are bad fans because they don’t like all the movies” – because actually enjoying a movie that is good and new and unique and has its own things to say isn’t the point, and any sort of critical evaluation or differentiation between installments may as well be sacrilege. Fandom is completely divorced from that sort of joy or even active engagement at this point.

That’s why seemingly everyone who’s tweeted about Ghostbusters: Afterlife says very specifically that they cried at the end, when Bill Murray gets to hug the cartoon corpse of his old friend who was estranged from him for the last 20 years of his life, who is drawn in as his 40-year-old self with more grey hairs even though the real Ramis put on a ton of weight and grew his hair out like Karl Marx – emotional, cathartic crying, this is supposed to be, not crying at the abject horror of this thing happening, which would be more appropriate. Has anyone actually witnessed this crying? There wasn’t any at my screening. There was an annoying round of applause when Murray showed up, but that was all.

That’s why people are apparently upset that Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn’t acknowledge the 2016 remake. It isn’t that far-fetched that a person could enjoy all three of the original Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters (2016) and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but they’re three very different movies. Ghostbusters doesn’t have any of the slapstick and fart jokes that defined the 2016 remake – though it does have other charms, like a real script – and Afterlife isn’t a comedy at all. But it’s not about enjoying them. It’s about the Ghostbusters fandom needing more content if they’re ever going to be able to kill an entire weekend, spend days of their lives at a time, doing nothing but watching all of the Ghostbusters movies, maybe one or two of which they actually like, the way other fandoms get to.

That’s what everybody involved with the recent films means when they say it’s “for the fans.” The average fan of the original Ghostbusters is going to be mid-50s, American, most likely male, probably slightly more likely to be white, conservative and middle class. No one in that demographic actually wants to see a movie where one of the characters insistently calls himself “Podcast.” Nobody’s sitting on their porch in early retirement saying to themselves, “They should make another Ghostbusters movie, but not a comedy, with all new characters, but also all the same characters.”

Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t a movie for them, it’s a movie to get people who dress up in homemade jumpsuits and proton packs to go to the theater for a night instead of a convention. The guiding principle behind it isn’t to make a good movie, it’s to put together an experience that contingent will tell each other they enjoyed.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

Posted in Entropy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Eternals’ vibrant plot full of big ideas held down by MCU-enforced technical weaknesses

Ugh, why does it have to look so flat and sad and boring! Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

4/10 Eternals has long been built up as a shift in direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and boy, is it ever. There’s a new production mentality, a new story mentality, new story directions and relaxed series rules. It’s more of a lateral move than a step up, the series’ signature terrible action scenes and visual design is still here, but instead of being the point like in Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, they now feel like vestigial organs that could eventually be shed.

Eternals’ marketing painted a deceptive picture of its plot and I’m not sure what is or isn’t a spoiler, you’ve probably already seen it anyway, whatever. Consider this a spoiler review.

***

In the beginning, the celestial Arishem (David Kaye) sends eight angel-like immortal beings, dubbed “eternals,” to Earth, where they protect the indigenous population from wild alien predators called deviants. They arrive 5000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and take their sweet, sweet time, partying with humans and embedding themselves into our myths and legends. When they finally finish getting rid of the deviants in 1521 A.D., they split and hang around the globe while they await further orders, but after the mass destruction and restoration related to Thanos and The Avengers, the emergence, which will destroy the planet, begins, and the eternals must reassemble to stop it.

Continue reading
Posted in Entropy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Dune’ is not a complete movie

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

1/10 Dune is not a complete film. It is a deliberately incomplete film, and despite what writer/director/producer Denis Villeneuve will tell you, the decision to only make half of it was made at the story’s expense, not its benefit.

The Galactic Padishah Empire, 10191- The emperor has reassigned fiefdom over the planet Arrakis from House Harkonnen to House Atreides in a transparent attempt to consolidate power by triggering a war between the richest and most powerful houses in his empire. Arrakis, desert planet infrequently referred to as Dune, is the only source of the spice Melange, the most important logistical, medical and religious substance in the universe, meaning the planet is a great source of wealth to its rulers, but it also poses incredible danger from the heat, the indigenous Fremen population and the great sandworms that shape the desert. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), knowing the Harkonnens will soon attack, seeks to build an alliance with the Fremen, whom the Harkonnen brutally suppressed, while his son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), at the confluence of several destinies, studies the politics of the situation.

Continue reading
Posted in Entropy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘The Last Duel’ a brilliant work of storytelling, period action, and a nervous apology

Awesome. Images courtesy 20th Century Studios.

9/10 The Last Duel doesn’t just tell a story, it builds one, layer by layer, interlocking and leaving gaps at all the perfect points, creating a pyramid worth observing as a whole, as individual layers and as connections between the layers. It’s a genius work of storytelling that captures and dramatizes not just conflicting accounts, but the conflict of those accounts.

Paris, Dec. 29, 1386- Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, who also writes and produces) meets his former squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in a trial by combat. de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), has accused Le Gris of raping her that January, but Le Gris is the favored tax collector of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, who also writes and produces), and de Carrouges knows he will be protected in court, making this duel the only way to pursue justice. However, if he loses, Marguerite will be found guilty of perjury and burnt at the stake. This was the last judicially sanctioned duel in French history, and the truth of Marguerite’s accusation remains disputed.

The Last Duel is split into three chapters, dramatizing first de Carrouges’ version of his relationship with Le Gris going back 15 years as they served together in various campaigns of the Caroline War, then Le Gris’ account of their friendship, his service with d’Alençon and his meeting of Marguerite, then finally Marguerite’s account, which is distinguished as “the truth.”

Continue reading
Posted in Entropy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Halloween Kills’ lumbers dully, aimlessly through theaters

Most of Halloween Kills’ imagery is around Myers surviving the last movie’s fire, another plot point that’s been repeated endlessly throughout various sequels. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

1/10 Halloween Kills is a film after Michael Myers’ own heart, a mindless machine doing something no one really wants over and over again with no distinguishing features, nothing to say, no discernible motive and no discernible reason why audiences keep coming back.

Haddonfield, Illinois, Halloween Night 2018- After the events of Halloween (2018), on the seemingly interminable Halloween Night of 2018, Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, credited as “the shape,” with Nick Castle reprising the role he originated in scenes where Myers’ mask is compromised and Airon Armstrong and Christian Michael Pates joining in flashbacks) has survived Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who also produces executively) burning her house down around him. As word of his activities spread and seemingly the entire state of Illinois congregates at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, working themselves into a frenzy over his reemergence, Myers works his way to his still-standing childhood home, killing as he goes.

Continue reading
Posted in Entropy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment