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Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) – The Path to Immortality on the Silver screen begins in a Homeward direction [[PART I]]

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

So, what can I say about the long overdue sequel to the classic Ghostbusters franchise? It’s pretty darn good. Not great, which is a real shame, but a healthy contribution/continuation to a beloved epic movie from the 1980s. Not to mention a worthy farewell and tribute to the real genius behind the old movie, the very dearly departed Harold Ramis.

The original Ghostbusters (1984) is a movie very dear to my heart. I saw it when I was a kid, way back when, on video and have always found it to be a classic that you have to revisit from time to time, appreciating it even more than before and dazzling at its timelessness. It’s one of those genuine rarities. A near perfect movie. Perfect as a comedy, a horror flick and a sci-fi feature, and blending all three together seamlessly.  (I’ve even used the original in class with the younger generation and they all mightily like it, more so the girls. They particularly liked the relationship between Bill Murry and Sigourney Weaver). So naturally I wanted to watch this sequel and had high expectations, hoping it would re-launch the franchise and repair some of the damage done by the 2016 reboot. Hrm. Like I said, the movie is good just not great. It relies too much on jump scares and is really stiff and subdued the rest of the time, with an obvious nod to the original movie’s plot and premise, making it a bit too predictable.

That being said it’s what’s needed to get things back on track. The youthful director Jason Reitman, son of the original director Ivan Reitman, has proven his worth and its clear skies from now on. If he can get through the obstacle course that is my review, first!!

Dirt poor ville

The story starts off quite well. You have a set of mysteries to unravel. The old Ghostbusters mobile ramming through a metal gate escaping apparently from a strange place, heading off to a desolate looking farm with a faceless person trying to activate some electrical devices that malfunction as he makes his final showdown with a phantasm. Straight after that we cut to a woman shaving her son’s extensive hair, a gangly, pale-assed white boy with an afro called Trevor (Finn Wolfhard from the IT movies, only he was good there). The blonde lady in question (Carrie Coon as Callie) is informed she’s being evicted because of unpaid rent despite the recent death of her father. So far so good. The movie is big on tension but not nearly as good at humour. There’s too much gritty realism on display and moroseness. The colour palette is also a bit grim, ruining the Spielberg E.T. vibes you get when you see the small town for the first time. A kind of muddy brown that infects everything around it, but fails to change Trevor’s post-vampire attack complexion. (His mom, not coincidentally, mentions his non-existent moustache, making him a failed substitute for a dad). Thank heavens for his adorable little sister Phoebe (Mckenna Grace). She shines from the moment you see her. Apart from being cute as a button she’s a really good and natural actress. She’s a geek but without any pretention or pomposity and you know that beneath that rationalist veneer she’s just a little girl who needs to be loved and live as carefree as she can in the twilight of her preteens. She walks like a dejected teenager and her voice, while nerdy and slightly strained, is still thoroughly feminine. (These are all studied movies. Without exaggerating Mckenna Grace is the best child actress since Dakota Fanning, although not ‘quite’ as good). The family has to move into the household of the dead recluse on his derelict farm only to discover there’s no money there either. That’s where Callie bumps into an old friend of her father’s and its none other than Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) from the original movie, which leads you to understand that the dead guy is Egon Spengler. (Janine’s still a looker and I initially thought she was going to be Phoebe’s mom!)

DOUBLE VISION: McKenna Grace as the chip of the old block for a new generation of science + entertainment enthusiasts.

This is when the focus shifts to Phoebe, thank heavens, who goes to a new school and befriends a cool kid named Podcast (Logan Kim) who is into conspiracy theories and magic and mysteries. The kids hit it off immediately, as miles apart as they are – she believes in cold hard science and doesn’t believe in the soul – and the two actors really work well together, bouncing off each other. He’s enthusiastic and full of energy and ideas, she’s subdued and unsure of herself and fearful of happiness. I should talk about Trevor and the girl he’s interested in, the admittedly attractive Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), and the mother Callie and the goofball geeky teacher Grooberson (Paul Rudd), but I won’t. The kids steal the show. They’re really cool and you’re won over by Podcast’s enthusiasm and dorky haircut and love Phoebe’s rosy cheeks and all those lame science jokes she makes in an effort to be cool. You experience the story through Phoebe’s eye’s more specifically, her slow discovery that her granddad was a misunderstood genius and why exactly he was living in this flea-bitten little town, not to mention Phoebe’s spiritual awakening to the reality of the afterlife. (She thinks we’re all just ‘meat puppets’ as she says, an unflattering portrayal of the human condition especially if you’re feeling disempowered and insecure). Podcast also introduces her to the mysterious mines that her grandfather was running away from in the opening of the movie and we see the telltale imagery of the dogs from the first movie.

The visuals are really good in that sequence and the puny size of the two kids really exaggerates it in your mind. I just wish there was more ‘fun’ involved in all this. The movie functions too much like a documentary. Too factual and exposionary. (You can see that in the admittedly nice and warm scene when Phoebe calls up Dan Akroyd’s character). You also see how lackluster culture is in the countryside, with shopping malls and fastfood joints, with people stuck in dead-end jobs till the day they die.

The original had a lovely musical feel to it. No matter how many times I watch it, I expect certain scenes to turn into a Hollywood musical, such as the scene where Venkman (Bill Murray) is drinking and looking forward to being kicked out of college and in the scene where he tells Dana about Zool and he does a triumphant dance routine. This movie is too ‘grounded’. People look like they want to stay perfectly still or sit down. Anyway, Phoebe has a lovely scene where she finds she wears identical glasses to Egon – she looks more like his daughter than his daughter – and she gets the ghost trap Egon used in the beginning of the movie to her nerd schoolteacher. (He likes to distract the kids with videos of classic horror movies). The man inadvertently releases the phantasm inside, stupidly. Later she tests the Ghostbuster power packs with Podcast’s help. That’s when they encounter a ghost, one that eats metal and shoots out iron bolts, and they chase it down with their tools. Trevor then shows up, having fixed the Ghostbusters mobile, and they track the phantasm down and trap up, only to get arrested for disturbing the peace and destroying municipal property.

In the meantime the dogs wake up and come after the duo of Grooberson and Callie. It’s good that they used practical effects for the dogs, mind you, but I steadfastly did not like the cute and cuddly mini sized Stay-Puft Marshmallow men. The special effects look fake and they are just unbearable and seem to love to get themselves killed. In the meantime Podcast figures out how to get their impounded equipment, releasing the metal eating ghost, and the four of them – Trevor, Lucky, Phoebe and Podcast, the new Ghostbusters – head off to the mountain where Ivor Shandor (J.K. Simmons) is buried in a bid to revive the Summarian god of the underworld Gozer whom we all know and love from the first movie.

Sex is the new gender

Something I noticed while watching the movie is the kids commentating on the statue of Gozer, explaining that while she may look like a woman she transcends sex. I thought that was a bit odd, given how alluring and downright sexy Gozer was in the first movie – played by a Serbian model no less, Slavitza Jovan. Then I noticed how Gozer’s power comes from her dogs, the male-female coupling, hence Callie and Grooberson, and before that Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver. The kids weaken Gozer at one point by getting Callie out of her vixen-like state, which forces Gozer to use Lucky as a replacement. The duo of male and female is what powers it. And something you really feel in the movie and from early on is the gap left by the father, whether it be Callie’s own husband or Phoebe’s granddad. Seeing Egon at the end saving his granddaughter as she battles Gozer is great, and then hugging his daughter and making up for lost time is positively wonderous. The scene where Callie finds her photos in Spengler’s underground office is a lovely scene too and you can see how happy she is, in the pictures, trying to be a big girl in her father’s eyes. The scene where Pheobe confronts her mother, after getting out of prison, is also heartwarming and tragic, with a great performance by the girl, especially as she cries while holding her ground braverly, defending her granddad. The movie is (very consciously, in my opinion) repairing the reputation of dads in the US, so badly tarnished by movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Solo, a Star Wars Story.

FALLEN ANGEL: Harold Ramis, gone but not forgotten. Certainly not if I have anything to say about it!

Girl’s need their dads to gain confidence in themselves and learn how to become women. (If you’re still in doubt, watch A Little Princess). Phoebe is particularly badly affected. We’re told that her father got along fine with his hapless son Trevor but could never gel with Phoebe because she was such a science geek. (What a jerk; that’s one of her points of appeal!) Phoebe really finds herself when she discovers she’s Spengler’s granddaughter and her relationship with Podcast (her equal opposite and in more than one way) also has this pairing effect. You can see how happy she is when he asks her to be his lab partner, and also how surprised she is and unsure of herself. They also react very nicely to the low key flirting going on between Callie and Grooberson, and it’s really endearing and well written and snappy, another testament to the director’s skillset.

[[TO BE CONTINUED!!]]

 
Written by Emad Aysha