Originality and success are strangers to one another.
I woke up this morning to find Twitter buzzing with fans hyping their team banner (that makes it a normal Twitter morning). The battle cry this morning was for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Sony’s 2020 reboot of the Ghostbusters series following their failed attempt in 2016. This time, the trailer doesn’t feature cringey new comedy: it features old music riffs, soundbites, gadgets, cars, the grandchildren of old friends, and familiar ghosts. The series is now defaulting on itself, and is being met with the cheers that boardrooms full of executives knew it would. This is not so surprising; in fact, it happens all the time. Why is this one under my skin? Maybe you think it’s because I’m a huge Ghostbusters fan, but I don’t really hype my own nostalgia. I like Ghostbusters but I don’t take pleasure from seeing it on a t-shirt, even when the t-shirt is a movie. Again: what am I expecting? No, this bothers me because of how it feels: the company’s arrogance and the fanbase’s ignorance are both particularly strong this time. This comes down to what Ghostbusters, as a movie, really means, and the fact that no one seems to remember anymore.
The way that original film dealt with its “things” is way off tempo from a normal series. Egon doesn’t present the proton pack with a swell of music, a push-in shot, a monologue about its significance; it isn’t given to Venkman with the ceremony that Obi-Wan gave Luke his father’s lightsaber, which was significant and full of lore and ready to be turned into a toy from its first moment on screen. The proton packs debut quietly, in an elevator, fired for the first time mistakenly at a maid; that’s the only way they find out that they actually work because there wasn’t enough testing done beforehand. Ray: “I blame myself.” Venkman: “So do I.”
Other elements – the Ecto-1, the jumpsuits, the ghost traps – are even less significant than the proton packs. Nothing in that movie was established as “lore” or as a “thing” as though it was designed to sell merchandise (even if, for someone behind the scenes, it was). The film’s characters (and their actors) acted like none of that mattered. Hudson acted like he was probably just collecting a paycheck, as much as Winston was. Aykroyd probably believed he was actually catching ghosts.
And Murray clearly couldn’t care less. His deadpan attitude, his resting outsider face, is equal to his character’s. That energy makes the film work: he’s an unflappable cynic, for whom the most amazing, world-threatening forces are barely nuisances. His cynicism doesn’t come from the belief that he’s so indestructible, but that what happens to the world matters that little. If the Ghostbusters could be called “heroes,” it’s purely on accident. The film itself becomes an anthem not to emotional reform, and definitely not to movie franchises, but to not giving a shit. They’re schlub saviors.
Now jump forward to this new trailer, which pretends that all those iconic gadgets and characters are noble because we have gone from age six to forty-six and want our toys to be given back to us in a way that justifies how much we played with them. It was one particular sound clip that really bummed me out and inspired this essay. It’s the most egregious example of retroactive franchise manipulation for the purpose of harnessing nostalgia that I have ever seen. The clip: Venkman saying in the first Ghostbusters, “Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma. I believe everything happens for a reason.” A choir ascends in mind-soothing major chords as he says each phrase; it climaxes with the new kids driving the Ecto-1. The response on Twitter: “It’s such a good time to be a Ghostbusters fan!”
There has never been a worse time to be a Ghostbusters fan.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016) aggressively took advantage of its fanbase, infantilizing the tone of the series, stuffing itself with product placement, casting a fanboy as the villain, and defeating him by shooting a giant representation of the series’ logo in the crotch. But even this utter dismissal of the franchise is not the least Ghostbusters thing about that movie, which is its insistence that these characters are "heroes," or that this universe needs those. The new trailer is nothing but that, nothing but weaponizing the things we love in order to turn them into material that has just as little to do with Ghostbusters, and yet this time pretends to be exactly what we have always wanted. That makes it so much more confusing, particularly for the people who (and I mean this) want nothing more than to love Ghostbusters again.
When Venkman said that clip in the original film, he was being sarcastic; his sing-song tone was a parody of how much stock less aware movies put in the silly destiny of their meaningless little heroes. No movie heroes are really heroic, after all: someone just wrote them that way to sell movie tickets. Venkman knew that; he knew that the people who save the world might as well not care about it. Murray’s energy deflates the rising music chords that play against his statement in the original film; he contraindicates feelings of grandeur or climax because you know that he’s a sleaze who doesn’t care about the safety of the world. He doesn’t care enough about Ray to get worked up about using him. He may not even believe in ghosts! He’s conning his whole universe, behind and in front of the camera. Repeating this soundbite in the new trailer to produce the exact feelings that it was originally a parody of is the most perfect example I have ever seen of how nostalgia for a film franchise becomes so strong that eventually, we allow ourselves to take pleasure from things that are literal counter-arguments of the things we used to know how to love. Ghostbuster: Afterlife is the ultimate anti-Ghostbusters.
Its trailer is about a love of Ghostbusters and of the characters and the toys and the jokes and anything, anything at all, except what Ghostbusters actually means or feels like. It was anti-hype; it was play-pretend nihilism; it was franchise filmmaking anarchy. And now it’s a rousing major chord; now Venkman’s parody of how movies can manipulate our emotions has re-become the manipulation again to sell movie tickets to the old fans and their children, who are hyped for something that it is now completely impossible for them to ever understand or appreciate. Going back to the original, they will now mistake Venkman’s slinky joke as the battle cry it’s making fun of. Afterlife is not bringing Ghostbusters to a new generation. It is completely walling them off from it.
Murray was the hold-out for Ghostbusters 3, the reason it was never made. Him playing these cameos in the new films must be understood, not as returning to a state of caring about Ghostbusters, which he never possessed, but a new low of caring. His voice appearing in this trailer is an ultimate statement of manipulation, of which the fans are completely unaware because of how willing they are to mistake manipulation for their own nostalgia. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this was more understandable because the manipulations were done through objects whose significance remained the same in canon: a lightsaber is still a lightsaber. But in the case of Ghostbusters, we are cheering the anti-Ghostbusters, the hype which it once defied. We’re paying people to destroy it for us and thanking them for doing us the favor.
Each new reboot leaves a worsening taste in my mouth. Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn’t look like a badly made film technically (certainly better in that way than Answer the Call). Yet in its specific relationship to its series, in its parent company’s astoundingly obvious attempt to get back into the good graces of the fanbase and that fanbase’s even more predictable willingness to do so, it may be even worse for the brand. I’m aware that it's unpopular to swim against the current of nostalgia; you become responsible for disappointment. But a company's purposeful manipulation of someone else's work and a fanbase's good graces is disappointing without any help from me. The original Ghostbusters can still be enjoyed, but it is different in context surrounded by association with these new iterations. I would ask big companies who are reheating leftovers and calling it a favor to fans to try and understand what made the food good in the first place. I would ask them to try and make them new again, without contradicting everything they represent for the sake of nostalgia. I know I’m asking too much.
Image is a screenshot © Sony Pictures.