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The Fans Aren’t Always Right

There’s something comfortingly irrelevant about Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. The fifth film in the Ghostbusters franchise came out last weekend to mediocre reviews and middling box-office numbers; it’s probably selling enough tickets to justify yet another entry, but the product itself is so perfunctory that it’s driving zero cultural discourse. Thank God. I still shiver at the memory of 2016, when Hollywood’s attempt to create a team of female ghostbusters ended up instigating a monthslong online firestorm.

In fact, the outcry over Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot, which starred Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, was so loud that it seemingly frightened parent company Sony into backpedaling toward more familiar “legacy sequel” territory, where movies bring back old cast members and try to summon as much nostalgia as possible. Before 2016, I would not have predicted that Ivan Reitman’s hit ’80s comedy had enough of a devout following to treat such a fundamentally goofy film like it was the Magna Carta. But its cadre of aging mega-fans, combined with a coterie of bad-faith online rabble-rousers, turned a summer comedy into a toxic, Trump-adjacent pop-culture talking point—and highlighted the perils of paying too much attention to your “fans.”

Of course, it didn’t help that Feig’s movie wasn’t a huge creative success, though not for any distressing culture-war reasons. Instead of figuring out how to distinguish itself from the original film, it only tweaked that plot—oddball scientists convincing the New York City public of the existence of paranormal goons—with bizarre trepidation. Rewatching it now, I think the reboot mostly suffers from a marked lack of energy; both McCarthy and Wiig dial down their usual comic mania. The film’s not unwatchable, but it’s representative of a certain kind of half-baked studio thinking whereby the mere idea of a “reboot” movie is more important than whatever happens while the lights are down.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the other reboot, which followed in 2021, is a different approach—one that is bewilderingly conscious of its existing fan base. That movie was written and directed by Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan, and focuses on the grief-ridden descendants of Egon Spengler (played by the late Harold Ramis in the original film), who uncover a ghostly mystery at an Oklahoma farmstead he left them in his will. I attended that film’s premiere, where it was introduced by both Reitmans and preceded by curtain calls for all of the surviving original Ghostbusters—Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson—that set the tone for a movie that rolled out every piece of ghost-busting iconography with hushed respect. The finale used CGI to resurrect Ramis as a silent, ghostly version of Egon, a moment that was clearly meant to be tear-jerking but instead felt genuinely unsettling.

[Read: Nostalgia is a shield against unhappiness]

This awestruck fervor was a little too much, given that, in the source material, Aykroyd famously dreams about being fellated by a ghost and Murray spends nearly every minute on-screen rolling his eyes. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife fell into a teeming bucket of legacy sequels that followed the same pattern: introduce new characters played by up-and-coming stars, have them stumble across some artifact from a past film, then slowly reveal the involvement of the original cast with triumphant fanfare. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the box-office gold standard for this formula, but almost every beloved Gen X or Millennial media property has done it—many of them multiple times—including sci-fi works such as Alien and The Terminator, and horror-fests such as Scream and Halloween.

I’m not quite sure at what point the miserable apotheosis of this trend was reached, but it might have been when the poor nonagenarian Ellen Burstyn wandered into the latest Exorcist movie only to have her eyes stabbed out 10 minutes later. Though studios haven’t fully abandoned the legacy sequel—hence Frozen Empire—theatergoers have grown wise to its cynical nature. The most devoted fans might be satisfied by the worshipful vibes of a Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but casual viewers do not seem similarly moved; the deepest irony is that Feig’s 2016 film and Afterlife, despite their different approaches, took in near-identical amounts of money in the U.S. and Canada, with Feig’s movie actually making more overseas.

Frozen Empire, then, charts a middle path between the total reboot and the legacy sequel. The Afterlife cast—Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, and other assorted pals—is still present. Original stars such as Aykroyd and Murray rattle around in the background, now as supporting characters rather than much-touted cameos. Some new comedians, including James Acaster, Kumail Nanjiani, and Patton Oswalt, drop by to add humor, a quality that was sorely missing from Afterlife. Though Reitman produced and co-wrote the movie, he handed the directing reins to Gil Kenan, a filmmaker with plenty of experience making mid-tier, family-friendly genre offerings with a spooky edge. The plot centers on—get this—the Ghostbusters fighting some ghosts in New York City. Revolutionary stuff, right?

The result is a functional if unspectacular film that makes no outsize effort to speak to cultural conversations around the movie. If you are looking to spend a couple of hours watching a quippy blockbuster, you could do a lot worse. I am not praising this moviemaking strategy, merely noting its efficiency; it’s like studios are just now remembering that you can simply make a good-enough movie in an already popular series. Sure, you might not inspire thousands of approving social-media posts from ardent supporters, but you won’t stir up thousands of angry ones, either.

For this reason, it’s far too much to hope that Hollywood will totally abandon the throwback route going forward. Amazon just churned out an updated Road House—a reboot of the 1980s cult classic—starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the wildly objectionable Conor McGregor, which premiered to tepid shrugs. The 2024 release calendar features new installments of Planet of the Apes, Bad Boys, Inside Out, and A Quiet Place, among many others; long-dormant hits such as Twister, Gladiator, and Beetlejuice are all getting sequels, with major talent involved. But I hope there’ll be less lazy reverence in each of these properties. As studios continue to reassert the significance of the cinema experience, pure entertainment—rather than some vague notion of fan “satisfaction”—should be the most important argument for getting people back into theaters.


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