Setting my time machine (don’t ask me where I got it) back to about early-mid 2016, I am going back to tell past humans two things. The first will be to—after referencing the general state of everything by waving my arms hysterically—tell everyone that it can and will get much, much worse. The second will be that although that is very much true, there will soon be a short-term tonic. That tonic arrives on July 15, and it’s the new Ghostbusters movie. On that day and any day after, buy your tickets, sit down, and cherish every second. Cherish the expertly assembled ensemble of hilarious people making every sequence a riot; cherish the bonkers new take on spirits, spectres, and ghouls that need busting; cherish the titan that is Kate McKinnon stealing every scene and getting her own slo-mo action sequence; and cherish the fact that this is a reboot/remake/whatever that means to respect what came before, but remains 100 percent confident in its new vision. Cherish every fleeting moment, because while it may not be perfect or the new take on the series you were expecting, I was telling the truth when I said what’s coming would be much, much worse.
The necessity for Terminator-style time travel stems from the fact that when the movie from director Paul Feig and starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and McKinnon dropped over five years ago, we didn’t give ourselves a chance to bask in its comedic brilliance. Instead, the entire conversation was dominated by controversy, and by “controversy”, I mean big babies taking to social media. Said babies made the first trailer the most “disliked” film trailer in YouTube history, and in turn made every conversation about the movie have to share space with sexism aimed at the cast, racism aimed at Jones, and general rage that this reboot simply didn’t look like the new movie they wanted. In essence, any praise (or valid criticism) was drowned out by children who opened a box on Christmas, and saw that the toy they got wasn’t the exact one they wanted, and proceeded to pout a la Veruca Salt. And a big chunk of this was all before the movie even came out.
Not even needing these five years for retrospective, it was instantly clear how much of a shame that response was. Had we as a society had the opportunity to have a normal discourse about the movie, and have the foresight to see what was coming after the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens the previous December, people maybe would have better embraced how Feig, co-writer Katie Dippold and the cast delivered the best possible version of a reboot of a beloved franchise. Understanding the inherent silliness of the 1984 original’s premise, everyone involved embraced the lunacy with a modern sense of humor, upped the ante on the supernatural bedlam, and threw out just enough references to function while standing firm that this was its very own beast. It was not beholden from top to bottom with what came before, and even if the plot beats could ring similar, every character, joke, and ghostly figure worked to solidify that this vision was going to be working on its own terms.
And yet, despite making a wildly fun movie that lived up to the spirit of the original and opened a portal to a world of new opportunities, the damage was perhaps done before opening weekend. With disappointing box office that didn’t justify the budget ($229 million worldwide off a $140-150 million production) blending with online vitriol, Sony began making plans that would lead to the current crisis that is a far greater omen for the state of modern series development. The aforementioned “worse” hit theaters last week in the form of the cinematic equivalent of a product recall: Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
The antithesis of what preceded it, Afterlife is two hours of a studio issuing a response to a very small contingent of angry fanboys that reads, “We’re sorry we didn’t make the movie you wanted to see, so here’s some free Easter Eggs, and we hope you remain a loyal customer.” Hiding behind the guise of a young cast being the “new generation” of the series, the movie treats them as the end result of a Stranger Things algorithm who exist solely as catalysts for a story about literally digging up the past. As if gulping down a witch’s brew of ‘80s nostalgia that combines the explosive hit Things, the more explosive box office of The Force Awakens, and the deafening screams of a subset of Ghostbusters fanboys who possessed rage towards the 2016 movie before it hit theaters, Afterlife functions as a feckless, weak-willed studio hodgepodge. It’s like Sony was so afraid of the rage of online commenters and fanboys that they basically made the first piece of safely adaptable fan fiction that came across their desk.
At the very worst, it’s the continuation of a precedent within a studio system to put not even fans, but simply the angriest, most vocal fans first, no matter the cost to creative filmmaking. At the least, it’s flat out lazy. If the 2016 Ghostbusters lived to give its characters their own voice and the world its own tone, so as to carve out its own name in a popular series, Afterlife is all about taking every absurd element of the original and treating them like excerpts from a sort of Dead Sea Scroll, worshipping with utter seriousness a movie in which Dan Aykroyd gets blown by a ghost, as if this fun, low-stakes comedy is the enshrined history of the Holy Saints Spangler, Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddemore. Every beat that isn’t rudimentary childhood antics is dedicated not to telling its own story, but rehashing what came before as a way of appeasing a fan base that needs to be coddled with the familiar, as if to be told their years of dedication to a goofy movie about ghosts actually does mean something, and that their future dollars can continue to be safely spent.
I’m not here to say that Ghostbusters: Afterlife is in itself a completely imperfect movie, and the 2016 Ghostbusters is a perfect one. But between the two, only the latter seems to have understood what the real spirit of Ghostbusters is, and in turn, added to it. The first movie got lucky and became a monster success in 1984, but there’s not much there that hints it was a true movie franchise behemoth. With the 2016 film, we got exactly what we needed to jump start the series: a hysterical time at the theater that could’ve been the start of something wild and increasingly fun, all while respecting what came before and expanding its own horizons for everyone to grow with. But that kind of vision for an established franchise is probably done for, and we should’ve enjoyed it when we had the chance. What creativity was bubbling there is now gone in place of shameless fanservice catered by yet another studio afraid to take a chance on something different with their precious IP, and all for supposed fans who couldn’t be less deserving.
Matt Rooney is an entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Collider, IGN, JoBlo, ScreenRant, and more. If you want to read more of his writing and musings, follow him@MrMattRooney on Twitter.