Like Recent Reboots of Varying Success, ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ Trailer Leans On Franchise’s Nostalgic Pull

December 9, 2019, 8:55 PM UTC

The first trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife has arrived, and with it our first look at Sony and Columbia’s latest bid to bring one of its most beloved franchises back to box-office glory, despite the indifference with which its three-years-ago attempt to do exactly that was received.

Notably, the new effort is written and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno), son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. Perhaps predictably, given that behind-the-scenes passing of the torch, Afterlife conveys a somber, nostalgic tone distinguished most by its remembrance of what came before.

Far removed from the Manhattan setting of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, this new entry is set in the countryside, in a small-town idyll most reminiscent of an Amblin film setting. J.J. Abrams’s 2011 Super 8, another sci-fi time-capsule filled with reverence for ’80s genre fare, makes for a better aesthetic parallel than the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, which relied more on star power than ambience (more on that later).

At the center of the new film is a single mother (Carrie Coon) who moves her family from the city to a mansion owned by her late father, whom she never really knew. Not all is well in the small town, as becomes clear once the kids (McKenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard) uncover that their grandfather was original Ghostbuster Dr. Egon Spengler (the late, great Harold Ramis), presenting one of his ghost traps to a nearby science teacher (Paul Rudd), who goes so far to remark on what a neat replica, a collector’s item, the contraption appears to be.

“There hasn’t been a ghost sighting in 30 years,” explains Rudd (being set up to serve as the film’s Rick Moranis successor, if that terror dog on the hood of his car is any indication). “New York, in the ’80s, it was like The Walking Dead. Did your dad never mention this to you?” News footage of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ramis is visible as those three head into battle, circa the end of the first Ghostbusters.

But of course he didn’t mention it. The new generation doesn’t know how legendary the Ghostbusters once were—but as all manner of paranormal activity spreads through the town, and they uncover what appears to be the original Ectomobile idling in a garage, they’re sure to learn. It’s a premise predicated on the notion the original Ghostbusters were national heroes, one that relies on considering the two original films to be sacrosanct, almost historical monuments.

One has to imagine that messaging will better appease those for whom the first two Ghostbusters films are unimpeachable nostalgia items, the way Rudd treats them. Sweetening the deal is that several original cast members, like Murray, Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson, are due to make appearances, lending the whole affair a sense of respect for its elders that some fans (especially those whose animosity was deepened by bigoted dismissal of the female cast members) may have felt the 2016 reboot willfully eschewed. A teary tribute to Ramis feels as inevitable as the return of Slimer.

With its small-town Americana setting, somber tone, and golden-hour lighting, not to mention the presence of star Wolfhard, the trailer also evokes Stranger Things, a curious bit of franchise Ouroboros-ing given that the characters on that hit Netflix sci-fi series dressed up as Ghostbusters for Halloween in its second season.

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ vs. the 2016 Reboot

All in all, the trailer points to a Ghostbusters update that seeks to avoid the progressive, modernized feel of the previous, ill-fated 2016 reboot, in which Paul Feig constructed a parallel universe where Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon became New York City’s first ghost-busting team. Instead, Afterlife serves as a direct sequel to the original two films and is sure to spend a not-insignificant portion of its runtime revealing connections between its young protagonists and the original films.

Tellingly, the upcoming, Reitman-directed film’s title shifted mid-production from Ghostbusters 2020 to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a small adjustment with potentially major implications.

The 2016 reboot, simply titled Ghostbusters, was awarded its title as a show of faith in writer-director Paul Feig’s all-female reimagining of the franchise; implicit in its use of the original title was a paving-over of sorts, the idea that Columbia and Sony were wiping the slate clean and setting up an extended franchise that might eventually treat Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon as reverentially as Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis.

It was a bold gambit, moreso than the studio had figured, and a particularly noxious fan contingent soon emerged in response, its criticism rooted primarily along misogynistic and anti-feminist lines. It’s time, the marketing seemed to communicate, for women to be the ones holding the proton packs; 2016 would have been a fitting subtitle, given the zeitgeist-y, feminist charge of that statement, one the film’s Gamergate-adjacent detractors have never been able to tolerate. That Answer the Call was once floated around as a quasi-subtitle/tagline only further aligned the film with girl-power blockbuster initiatives like the star-studded Ocean’s Eight.

By the time the film was released, garnering mixed-to-positive reviews and disappointing at the box office, its image was so entangled in a bizarre battle for the identity of the Ghostbusters IP—between the creative team that worked on rebooting it and fans who felt entitled to control over its creative direction—that it more or less poisoned what had been intended as a fresh start. Columbia and Sony would go on to pull plans for future installments.

With its Afterlife subtitle, Reitman’s film seeks to avoid a similar fate, even if its much less buzzy use of kid actors as leads is a safer bet for avoiding trolls than Feig’s all-female cast ever was. The marketing thus far, including an evocative poster of the Ectomobile in a Midwestern field as well as the trailer, positions the upcoming film not as a progressive overhaul of the franchise aimed at bringing it into the modern day (as might be conveyed by the subtitle 2020), but as a reverential look back at the Ghostbusters glory days. Following the descendants of original Ghostbuster Dr. Egon Spengler as they learn, in a nutshell, how cool their grandpa was, it casts the first two films in a golden Ecto-glow.

A mixed bag of results for nostalgia

Whether audiences will respond to this kind of continuation of the Ghostbusters franchise is a key question with no clear answer. Though there have been hugely successful efforts to continue ’80s franchises in the modern day (take a look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which similarly paired newcomers with franchise veterans), a few recent ones have been major failures, none more than Terminator: Dark Fate. (Though no one’s writing home about Charlie’s Angels or Doctor Sleep either.)

Like Dark Fate, which became a box-office bomb for Skydance and Paramount when it opened earlier this fall, Afterlife is being marketed (at least at this early stage) with a lightly melancholy tone that teases the legacy of its predecessors out by setting up the return of its key players. James Cameron came back to executive-produce and heavily retool Dark Fate, and it starred Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, returning for what should have been a triumphant passing of the torch to newer characters played by Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes (even a new Terminator, played by Gabriel Luna).

But the film got a brutally cold shoulder from audiences, and its studios’ losses are particularly deep given the sky-high pricetag of the sequel/reboot; they could reach $130 million, when marketing costs are tacked on top of the nearly $200 million budget. Unless something has gone very, very wrong over at Sony and Columbia, there’s no way Afterlife is costing them nearly that much. (Of note: one reason Feig’s Ghostbusters was considered such a failure was that its budget was set ridiculously high, at $144 million. Afterlife would be lucky to get $100 million, but the first trailer, coupled with Reitman’s indie credentials, suggests he could have done it for much less.)

The first trailer also smartly distances itself from the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot by showcasing an entirely separate tone and only considering the first two films to be canon (in other words, don’t expect Wiig and her co-stars to cameo). Dark Fate made little effort to choreograph that it was a very different kind of movie that the previous attempt at a reboot, 2015’s Genisys, which received rancid reviews and also starred Schwarzenegger (though not Hamilton).

A better comparison point might be Sony’s own Jumanji franchise, which has a similar “kids playing with heirlooms” setup but did something fresh and tonally unique with it, compared to the franchise predecessors. That film’s sequel is on track to open solidly in the pre-Christmas frame, serving as the one big blockbuster coming ahead of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Cats. And Afterlife has a small edge on that movie in the presence of Wolfhard, too, whose Stranger Things bona fides make him an unofficial tone ambassador Sony and Columbia will be able to lean on in the marketing.

Next year’s set to be an interesting one for this kind of franchise rinse-and-repeating. Bad Boys for Life, a purportedly long-awaited threequel reuniting Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, is opening in early spring. Top Gun: Maverick, testing just how enduring Tom Cruise’s star power is, is set for summer, as is a smaller-scale but still amusing update: a third Bill & Ted. And much later in the year, there will be a Coming to America sequel, as well as a West Side Story reboot from Steven Spielberg (though that latter one, as both a musical and a Spielberg production, feels like a much safer bet).

The biggest query for these studios lies in whether audiences still have an interest in seeing more, or whether the films are too forgotten to have a powerful IP pull. Charlie’s Angels never considered that question, and the film’s tanking box office speaks for itself; the mediocre postings for Doctor Sleep similarly communicated an idea for a sequel that never really stood for itself or considered that The Shining itself was not critically well-received upon release. Dark Fate, worst of all, exposed a studio’s worst nightmare: a once-treasured IP whose stock has been lowered through mismanagement enough it’s reached a kind of franchise death.

We’ll find out whether there’s juice left in the Ghostbusters franchise’s particular proton packs when Afterlife opens next summer.

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