Originality and success are strangers to one another.
Renoir clearly had never seen Ghostbusters. But his words are no longer a cautionary statement on the state of art – they are a motivational speech for the state of the art business. This quote could be a poster on the wall of many studio offices, not to caution them to seek originality but to caution them against it. Audiences are supporting that choice, as the battle cry on Twitter this morning was for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Sony’s 2020 reboot of the series following their poorly received attempt in 2016. This time, the trailer doesn’t feature cringey new comedy: it trumpets old music riffs, soundbites, gadgets, cars, the grandchildren of old friends, and familiar ghosts. The series is now defaulting on itself, an act that is being met with the cheers that boardrooms full of executives hoped it would. This is not so surprising in a world full of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World. But it’s particularly egregious with this series and this particular reboot.
I like Ghostbusters (1984), but I don’t take pleasure from seeing it on a t-shirt. You can't recreate its deadpan hilariousness with a logo. A new movie that more emulates the shirt than the original film feels like a step backward even from the 2016 one, which at heart was nothing but a comedy. I’m not a nostalgic fanboy for the film – I’ve never seen the sequel or the cartoon and I only briefly played the inconceivably bad NES game. But I love the way that original film feels. And it’s that feeling that producers seem opposed to recapturing, as much as audiences seem opposed to demanding.
That original film dealt with its symbols and toys at a different tempo compared to a normal franchise film. 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. The proton packs debut quietly, in an elevator, fired for the first time mistakenly at a maid. This is the only way they find out that they actually work because there wasn’t enough testing done beforehand. Egon: “I blame myself.” Venkman: “So do I.”
After all this time, I just realized that joke is grammatically imprecise (Venkman blames himself?). But it works when delivered by Murray – only writing it out made me see the flaw. And that’s part of the problem. Ghostbusters works on the screen, with those particular actors reading those lines. “Lightning in a bottle” is the phrase people use. But it’s not a secret what the power source was – it was the tone of anarchy combined with the tropes of a blockbuster. The unlikeliness of the film was the perfect bottle and the actors fit perfectly inside of it. Just because the exact same lightning may be hard to recreate doesn't mean that new lightning is impossible. But a picture of old lightning is a lot easier to sell.
Other elements – the Ecto-1, the jumpsuits, the ghost traps – were 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, though it inevitably did. The film’s characters (and their actors) acted like none of that mattered. Hudson acted like he was just collecting a paycheck as much as Winston was. Ramis sold the idea that he was in it for pure curiosity. Aykroyd probably believed he was actually catching ghosts.
And Murray clearly couldn’t care less. His deadpan sadism is equal to his character’s and that’s what makes the entire 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 they have become recognizable. 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 bummed me out and probably inspired this essay. It’s the most trying example of retroactive franchise manipulation for the purpose of abusing 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!” But that depends on how you define “fan.” And “Ghostbusters.”
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016) aggressively took advantage of its fanbase, infantilizing the tone of the series, stuffing itself with product placements, 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 the film’s universe lacked those before. It’s not when they’re replaying lady-farts in the lab and cackling about their receptionist’s butt that they’re least like the original Ghostbusters. The part that's the furthest from the series' appeal is when they’re action-flipping and shooting proton pistol lasers at the ghost army to an up-tempo reorchestration of the original theme of the film, as though they are heroes in an epic blockbuster world. And the new trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife is nothing but that.
People just want to love Ghostbusters again. And I think the younger Reitman means it when he says that Afterlife is his way of giving the series “back to the fans.” But in what state are the fans getting it back? When Venkman said that clip in the original film about fate and karma, he was being sarcastic; his sing-song tone was a parody of how dramatic a less-aware movie would make a scene like that. His disregard for his friend’s life, disguised as a peak in a character arc that wasn’t actually happening, made the film seem even more meaningless. That’s what was so funny.
Venkman knew that movie heroes aren’t really heroic; someone just wrote them that way. 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 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 an ideal example of how nostalgia for a franchise can get out of hand. It can become so strong that eventually, we allow ourselves to take pleasure from things that are literal counterarguments to what 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 felt 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. They're hyped for something that it is now completely impossible for them to understand or appreciate. Going back to the original, especially if they have never seen it, 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 should 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 not caring, retconned by a studio into an impression of greatness, 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. It’s always been epic, significant, and serious. But in the case of Ghostbusters, the cheers are for the anti-Ghostbusters, the hype which it once defied. The audience is paying to have Ghostbusters destroyed, acting like it was a great favor. It’s been given back to the fans now but in pieces.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn’t look like a badly made film technically in the way that Answer the Call appeared to be and was. The film may be misrepresented by this baity advertisement, so this is not a judgment on the film itself. But its specific relationship to its series, at least in the planning stage, its parent company’s obvious attempt to get back into the good graces of the fanbase, and that fanbase’s even more predictable willingness to do so, is the real anti-attraction. These reboots, so many of which manipulate someone else’s work to recreate an image of the fanbase’s profitable affection, have at last begun hurting my memory of the originals. For the first time in my life, I feel tired when I see a proton pack. I recoil when I hear the sound of a lightsaber turning on. Giving these franchises back to the fans has to start meaning something else, other than reheating the series’ leftovers and renaming that as a favor to them. Producers need to accept that it's okay to make them new again, to try and create different lightning in the same bottle. Doing so doesn’t have to contradict the original for the sake of an impression of nostalgia. In the end, the feeling, and not the “things,” is what the fans were nostalgic for to begin with. Even if they don’t remember that.
EDIT: “Choose the form of the destructor,” Gozer told the original Ghostbusters. “I tried to think of the most harmless thing,” Ray pleads, when he accidentally thinks of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, “Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us.” Today, when asked to choose, Ray would think of Ghostbusters. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man has already gotten his own “character reveal” trailer.
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, December 9, 2019
Image is a screenshot from the trailer: ©Sony Pictures Releasing