I have a severe case of Oscars Brain this week, a condition that makes me think of every movie I’m watching in an Awards Season context that will cease to matter in just a few days. It’s an embarrassing affliction. Pray that it heals soon.
Intellectually, I know that the Oscars are a ridiculous pageant with no genuine implications for what pictures qualify as The Best Movies of the Year (except maybe in its winners having an easier time getting their Best-Movies-of-Next-Year projects funded). The ceremony is a great excuse to watch challenging dramas I’d usually put on the backburner of my sprawling watchlist. It’s also a great excuse to gawk at beautiful, sparkly gowns on television while eating junk food. Those are ultimately very superficial functions in the grand scheme of cinematic discourse, though. I don’t put much emotional energy into the wins & snubs of the awards race, but I do enjoy the ritual of tuning in with friends, pizza, and champagne on hand.
It’s just nice to have one month out of the year when everyone talks about movies that don’t star superheroes or talking cartoon animals. If you ask most audiences, there have only been three actual movies released in the past year, the ones that feature Spider-men, Batmen, and Ghostbusters. The Oscars are a nice respite from that constant IP-worship chatter among The Fans™, which dominates all online discussion of movies for the other eleven months of the calendar. Hilariously, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying their best to court The Fans as a potential TV audience, pushing for all the Spider-Men and other supertwunks out there to share the spotlight during the ceremony in semi-official “Fan Favorite” awards, as if the literal billions of dollars they earn crowding real movies out of the box office isn’t already enough of a reward. To be honest, it’s making me extremely petty. I can’t hear the word “Ghostbuster” without rolling my eyes, desperate for anyone to talk about a genuinely substantive movie for a goddamn change. For all of pageantry, inanity, and bribery that makes The Oscars a total sham, at least it does clear space for real movies like Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers, and The Power of the Dog to breathe in the daylight until Captain Morbius or whatever the fuck swoops into suck up all the oxygen again.
The new Ghostbusters film gives that petty reflex a lot of ammunition too. Afterlife is absolutely absurd as a nostalgia-bait IP booster. It somehow misremembers the original Ghostbusters franchise as an E.T.-era Spielberg heart-warmer instead of a frat-boy special effect comedy. Instead of using its ghost-infestation premise as an excuse for rapid-fire joke delivery (a tradition that was kept alive in the previous 2016 reboot), this lands closer to the Stranger Things version of 80s nostalgia, complete with a major role for breakout stranger thing Finn Wolfhard. There are constant Who You Gonna Callbacks to things that used to be jokes in the original Ghostbusters film—marshmallows, Twinkies, firemen poles, retro commercials for the titular ghostbusting service—but they’re treated with a reverent awe that makes absolutely no sense considering the series’ goofball origins. Afterlife is an earnest drama about a family who moves from the big city to a rural farm to confront the mess left behind by their absentee patriarch (Egon Spengler, for all you Bustheads out there), haunted both by his dusty belongings and by an upswell of actual ghosts. It’s also a throwback to 80s Amblin kids’ adventure films, to the point where a wisecracking side character named Podcast functions as all of the Goonies characters rolled into a single out-of-time archetype. What it’s not is a traditional Ghostbusters film, at least not beyond the familiarity of the logo and a few unnecessary cameos.
As intensely odd as Afterlife is as a nostalgia trigger for adults, I do think it’s passably adorable as a standalone children’s film. With the rare exception of titles like MirrorMask & City of Ember (which, appropriately enough, also features a small role for Bill Murray), I can’t think of many dark, live-action fantasy adventure films made for young audiences in recent decades. Even Stranger Things feels pitched to an older, nostalgic audience who remembers growing up with kids-on-bikes horror adventures in the 80s instead of their fresh-eyed children. In that way, I think Ghostbusters: Afterlife is most useful as an intergenerational bonding tool that kids can enjoy for its legitimate spooky-adventure charms while their knucklehead parents point and smile at the callbacks & Easter eggs, drooling onto their Target-brand Ghostbusters t-shirts between nostalgia pops. It’s frustrating that we can’t make children’s movies like this without tying them to pre-existing IP from 40 years ago, but hey, that’s the pop culture hellscape we’re rotting in, so you gotta celebrate the small victories where you can find them.
There are a lot of small touches to Ghostbusters: Afterlife that genuinely brought me joy – mostly the Creechification of Slimer in the nü-ghost Muncher (Josh Gad’s greatest performance to date) and Carrie Coon’s aggressive disinterest in absolutely everything happening around her as the non-plussed mom. I can’t claim that those minor, momentary joys justify how much cultural discourse the Ghostbusters brand has generated over the past few years. This movie is far too shallow & disposable to earn its vast pop culture real estate. If it weren’t for all the online chatter about how the Oscars and critical institutions ignore movies that people have actually heard of, though, I don’t think that shallowness would bother me. This is a perfectly cromulent kids’ movie with plenty of soothing nostalgia indulgences to lure in those kids’ parents, which is perfectly fine. I just really wish there were more space to occasionally discuss something else. I don’t know if that would require audiences or producers to be more adventurous in what creative voices they pay attention to, but it really is exhausting talking about fluff like this all year round when there’s not much to it. It’s sad how vital the Oscars are in breaking up that monotony, since that ceremony is itself equally shallow & silly, just in a different way.