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The Weirdly Political Legacy of ‘Ghostbusters’

Stay with me here: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” released this weekend, is the third in its franchise chronology, a long-delayed sequel to the 1989 sequel to the iconic 1984 film that shares its name (and is ostensibly set in 2021). But it follows the 2016 release of… “Ghostbusters,” a confusingly-named attempt to “reimagine” — not remake — the original film for a new generation, which disappointed at the box office and forced yet another reconfiguration of the franchise.

The original was an authentically fresh blockbuster comedy: by combining a special effects extravaganza with “Saturday Night Live” humor and unusually sharp Reagan-era social satire, it carved a lane for the kind of four-quadrant, effects-driven blockbuster in which similarly massive hits like “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park” would later thrive.

It also had another point of distinction: It's one of the handful of cinematic hits to have been wholeheartedly adopted by conservatives. Like any work that reaches that level of monocultural ubiquity, "Ghostbusters" became the subject of endless analysis by critics, academics, fans, and various wags all eager to integrate a film they deeply loved into their various intellectual or creative projects. (Ahem.) Conservatives seized on the key element of its plot, in which the titular entrepreneurs are antagonized (and New York City is apocalyptically endangered) by an overweening EPA flack: National Review listed it in 2009 as one of the 25 “best conservative movies”; a Washington Examiner writer declared it “the most libertarian Hollywood blockbuster of all time.”

The film’s fluffier, mostly superfluous 1989 sequel didn’t quite have as much for critics to latch on to, but the 2016 “Ghostbusters” sparked a political discourse that was just as deeply of its time. When its director, Paul Feig, tweeted in 2014 that “It’s official. I'm making a new Ghostbusters &… it will star hilarious women. That’s who I’m gonna call,” it triggered a Gamergate-style backlash from angry trolls who accused Feig and Sony Pictures of social-justice propagandizing for their decision. (The campaign was especially personal and hateful toward Leslie Jones, the only black member of the principal cast.)

The cultural comparison is neat, if depressing: In 1984, America’s biggest blockbuster inspired a round of conversation about entrepreneurship and the relative merits of deregulation; in 2016, its revival became a particularly noxious flashpoint in the early-Trump-era culture wars. So what cultural portent does “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” bring? The answer that immediately comes to mind is… fatigue.

In his 2020 book of the same name, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote about our “decadent society,” an American culture where creature comforts and political deadlock rob us of our ability to imagine or realize anything truly new. Paul Skallas, the popular Substack writer and cultural critic, refers to our condition as, simply, “stuck.” Which makes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” a perfect match for our era, in the same way its predecessors were for theirs: For all the film’s actual merits, what it reflects most about American culture today is our terminally backward gaze.

Consciously or unconsciously, “Afterlife” evokes its fellow nostalgia-culture phenomenon “Stranger Things” through its wheat-field Americana setting, central conceit regarding a group of precocious kids who solve a supernatural mystery, and even the casting of “Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard in a major role. But “Juno” and “Young Adult” director Jason Reitman gives the film a solid emotional foundation that elevates it above mere nostalgia-bait. And as retro-minded as the film is — or in this case, because of it — just like the original there’s still something to be learned from it about the animating cultural and political forces of our time.

For all the genre-bending of the original “Ghostbusters,” it’s noted less often than it should be that there’s one cinematic category into which it fits neatly: the New York movie. As much as “Annie Hall,” or “Mean Streets” or “Do the Right Thing” did, “Ghostbusters” perfectly evokes its own little slice of New York culture: here, the yuppie environs of 1980s Manhattan, with its workout tapes by day, black-tie dining by night, and the Ivy League strivers at the film’s center. If you need a refresher: the film follows a trio of Columbia University parapsychologists who, after being ejected from the school for their lack of rigor, strike out on their own as paranormal exterminators, using proprietary technology to snare the various spooks haunting the five boroughs.

The conservative read on the film is based on its main plot tension, in which a meddling EPA inspector — played to a sneering hilt by the character actor William Atherton — attempts to shut down the Ghostbusters’ operations, accusing them of conning New Yorkers and storing hazardous waste without the proper permits. When the inspector barges into their headquarters along with a Con Ed engineer and NYPD officer in full dress blues to shut down the system they’ve used to contain their quarry, all hell — literally — breaks loose, and the titular heroes are eventually vindicated in saving the day.

There’s no small amount of truth to the conservative read on “Ghostbusters,” but the film’s conservatism is more philosophical than it is overtly ideological. There’s nothing politically “liberal”-coded about the film’s various antagonists; its heroes are set up in opposition to an ineffective, byzantine, cynically political bureaucracy that recalls more than anything the exhaustion and wariness of the post-Watergate era, or the disaster of governance that was New York City in the 1970s. If “Ghostbusters” is a conservative film, it’s conservative simply in that its protagonists prove themselves more capable and savvier than that bureaucracy. Its critique is implicit, rather than explicit about the reasons for governmental decrepitude.

The “reimagined” 2016 film carries a similarly implicit cultural critique, albeit one that speaks more poorly of itself. Feig’s self-congratulatory tweet announcing the woman-led reboot is unmistakably of its time, recalling the late-Obama-era liberal triumphalism that the Trump movement, and the cultural backlash it represented, flattened like a Mack truck. (Or, if you will, a 1959 converted ambulance.) Unfairly, the conversation around the gender swap at the center of the film’s premise and promotion took the place of any debate about its actual merits as a piece of pop entertainment.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of them. The 2016 “Ghostbusters” is broad and slapstick where the original was dry and urbane; it relies on manufactured-feeling references and cameos where the original had the zeitgeist directly in its sights; it’s sweatily eager to please all hypothetical viewers — and therefore justify its $144 million budget, and years of capital-d Discourse — where the original was confident in its own quirky charms. Just as much as its attendant social-media troll job, the film reflects the political era in which it was released through its satisfaction with its central conceit, at the expense of remembering to actually give its talented lead actresses anything entertaining or compelling to actually do. It’s the apotheosis of a simplistic strain of cultural thinking where mere representation is self-justifying, without any regard to the actual interiority or cultural context of those being represented.

In the wake of that film’s box office disappointment, some critics were inclined to see the announcement of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” — helmed by Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman, the comedy mastermind and director of the original film — as a cynical nostalgia play to rehabilitate a bruised IP, or worse, a sop to the man-boy trolls who hated the 2016 film before seeing a second of it. They’re dead wrong on both counts. (For one, Reitman has spent most of his career directing smart, searching collaborations with women, like “Juno” and “Tully” writer Diablo Cody.) But more than that, the film is an attempt to do something that most of today’s franchise-driven popcorn cinema hardly bothers with: put an identifiably human emotional story at its center, exploring the complicated relationship between the characters played by lead actresses Carrie Coon and McKenna Grace and their late family patriarch, the ‘buster portrayed in the original film by Harold Ramis, who himself died in 2014.

The film trades the original’s street-wise social satire for a gentler brand of family-friendly humor that recalls Steven Spielberg far more than the work of Reitman’s father. And given how, like the ’16 film, it’s devoid of any obvious political commentary (aside from a knowing, tossed-off reference to Reagan himself), that’s the biggest meta-textual message it has to offer critics: Even our most well-crafted popular entertainment is still made of recycled parts. It’s feather-light, with a handful of undeniably awkward moments, but with its easy confidence and winning performances “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is one of the better sci-fi blockbusters in recent years, in a cinematic landscape utterly dominated by them. Still, by its very nature as a sequel, like so much else in our retro-obsessed era it’s incapable of delivering the novel thrill that turned the original film into a cultural phenomenon.

It makes sense that where the original “Ghostbusters” was infused with the political philosophy of its time, its modern iteration would mostly look back. American life is dominated not only by retread entertainment, but a retread president, retread economics, even retread food trends. One might say that we’re more than a little bit haunted — but absent any pseudo-Randian, Ghostbuster-like entrepreneurs of pop culture or politics on the horizon, it isn’t immediately apparent who we’re supposed to call.

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