‘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.

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