Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Two movies enter the arena, each with a different idea of what made the original Ghostbusters work. (Some spoilers for Afterlife)

At this point, there have been three attempts to make a movie follow-up to Ghostbusters that captured everything that made the original such a classic. None of them have managed to do it.

But it’d be unfair to be too critical of them for that, since the original Ghostbusters was such a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of ideas, execution, and timing that it’s impossible to pick the one trait that made it such a classic. Back in 1989, when I was feeling so betrayed by Ghostbusters II, I probably should’ve kept in mind how completely surprised I had been by the original.

I’d gone in expecting it to be another Meatballs or more likely, Stripes: a movie built around Bill Murray’s charmingly lecherous, rebellious, screw-up persona that somehow became an engaging action comedy. It was only after the opening sequence, with a genuinely scary library ghost, that I realized this wasn’t “just” a comedy.

If the decades of behind-the-scenes accounts and making-of stories and frequent retellings are to be believed, that dichotomy was present in the project from concept all the way through to filming. Dan Ackroyd supposedly had a concept that went all-in on the lore, and Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman came in to steer it back towards family comedy. I’m skeptical that it was as clear-cut as all that, but it is evident in the movie, which has way more plot and world-building than a comedy needs, even in the golden age of movies that 1984 turned out to be.

(Case in point: possibly my favorite line in the movie is when the under-appreciated MVP of the whole project, Rick Moranis as Louis Tully, is foretelling the coming of Gozer the Traveler. From IMDb: “Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”)

So any attempt at a follow-up inevitably has to decide what it was that made the original work so well. Ghostbusters (2016) decided that it was a special-effects-heavy comedy featuring SNL alumni as wacky, hapless outcasts crackin’ jokes while bustin’ ghosts. Ghostbusters: Afterlife decided that it was a lighthearted supernatural adventure whose strength came from its characters and their discoveries.1Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

Honestly, neither one is wrong. But neither one is quite able to encompass everything that made the original work, either. Is it better to be entertaining in the moment but ultimately forgettable? Or to be more earnest and emotionally resonant at the expense of much of the comedy and action?

When I saw the 2016 Ghostbusters, I loved it in the moment. I was hyped up for it to be An Event. I was taken in by the marketing campaign that capitalized on the idea that these were underdogs standing strong against a horde of misogynist nerds threatened by funny and talented women. And while at the time, I could still tell that it was no match on the original, I still thought they managed to hit the right notes, capture the right tone (the beginning is an even more extreme scare than the library ghost), and serve as a pretty good remake/reboot. It even had a nice surprise, showing what a natural Chris Hemsworth is at doing comedy.

But time hasn’t been kind to it. The farther I get from it, the less I like it, and I can’t say I have any desire to see it again. It certainly wasn’t the re-vitalization of the franchise that I’d been hoping for, and the souvenir glasses taunt me every time I see them in the cabinet. (We saw it at an Alamo Drafthouse and I was caught up in the moment).

Even though it went all-in on comedy and special effects, I can only remember one funny moment from the entire movie: it’s when Kristen Wiig’s character is desperately banging on the windows of a restaurant trying to get in, while the bemused people inside are watching in confusion. As they watch her panicking and failing to find the front door, Cecily Strong’s character asks, “Isn’t she supposed to be a scientist?”

That scene itself is telling, since it’s kind of an echo of the scene in the original in which Louis Tully is trying to escape being possessed by a demon, and the occupants of the restaurant look on with detached curiosity. In the original, it’s actually poignant, because of Louis’s character as a lovably inept loser, and as a subtle critique of wealthy New Yorkers who’ll watch someone in distress instead of trying to help. In the new version, it’s really just an opportunity for Kristen Wiig to break out of her role as the straight man and do some slapstick.

The trailers for Ghostbusters: Afterlife made it seem as if they’d gone in the completely opposite direction. The first teaser seemed completely tone deaf: a desolate farm, kids taking a tarpaulin off of the dusty Ecto-1, all seeming like the entire premise of the movie was “remember Ghostbusters?”

The second teaser I saw, with Paul Rudd in a store encountering a bunch of tiny animated Stay-Puft marshmallows, seemed to at least acknowledge that it was a comedy. But it also felt like it was going to be a tone-deaf rehash. All nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, even if it didn’t really capture the feel of the original, or even make sense, for that matter. The whole point of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was that it was completely incongruous, a throwaway reference in the universe of the movie that had been turned into the instrument of their destruction.

In the context of the rest of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, though, that scene works better than it should. The whole movie is shamelessly, relentlessly nostalgic, but that’s more or less personified by Rudd’s character. He’s the one who remembers the attack on New York in 1984, who recognizes the ghost trap, and who’s a stand-in for all the fans of the original in the audience, now surrounded by kids who wouldn’t even be born until decades after Ghostbusters popularity was at its peak. My probably-entirely-too-charitable head-canon says that it makes sense that spectral activity would manifest itself around him as Stay Puft marshmallows come to life.

In any case, it’s the one sequence of pure action comedy that the rest of the movie never quite manages to match. Ironically, it captures the nostalgia for Gremlins more than Ghostbusters, with a ton of cute characters engaged in surprisingly violent chaos. My favorite bit of the whole scene is at the beginning, when a bunch of the marshmallows are joy-riding on a Roomba vacuum. As they drive away, it leaves a streak of marshmallow on the floor from one of their friends who’d presumably fallen off.

What makes Ghostbusters: Afterlife work is that there’s enough to Paul Rudd’s character for me to be able to build too-charitable head-canon around. I even know that his character’s name is “Gary Grooberson,” even though he’s essentially playing Paul Rudd, because there’s enough weight to these characters that I can remember their names. I’d heard multiple people say that Mckenna Grace as Phoebe is the breakout star of the movie, and they’re right. But all of the characters are played with such believability that it actually works as a story carried by relationships more than special effects and comedy jokes. I can’t think of many stand-out jokes in the movie, since it’s more the case that everyone is wryly funny.

Another thing that works but shouldn’t: this movie, like the 2016 Ghostbusters, is dedicated to Harold Ramis. But while the 2016 movie includes the dedication at the end, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is more like a two-hour-long homage to Ramis and his co-creation of Ghostbusters. The thing that shouldn’t work is that they committed to including a CG recreation of Ramis during a key scene — and an extremely emotional one! — that could’ve been so clumsy and maudlin as to be offensive. But I thought it worked better than any CG actor I’ve seen, and it was genuinely moving.

My favorite tribute to the character Ramis created, though, was a quick moment that was easy to miss and completely in character: a wall of photos of his daughter, with Egon’s clinically detached, handwritten notes associated, reading something like “INCREASED HEART RATE AT THE SIGHT OF THIS ONE.”

Maybe in five years, I’ll remember Ghostbusters: Afterlife a lot less charitably, but I suspect I’ll at least remember it. It’s not as humorless or as tone-deaf as I feared, but it did admittedly sacrifice a lot of the jokes, ghosts, and action in favor of characters that felt real. It seemed less concerned with rebooting a franchise, than in acknowledging that the franchise meant an awful lot to a lot of people. And while it remained silent on the subject of ghost fellatio, it at least acknowledged that Venkman was kind of a lecherous creep.

Winner: Ghostbusters (1984), obviously. But since there’ll never be another one of those, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a fine tribute.

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    Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.