Spoiler warning: I’m going to be talking at length about plot points in Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Star Wars episode VIII, and Stephen King’s It
I’m a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters movie, and as I’ve gotten older it’s only come to mean more to me. I began my software engineering career working at small startup. And Ghostbusters is a weird comedy about, of all things, a tech startup. Three guys, having discovered a novel technology under-appreciated by the academia they’re ensconced in, go into business for themselves, build it brick-by-brick and job by job, and make their way from obscurity to saving the world when a need for their technology is discovered that nobody had predicted. So many bits of the movie resonate with me: the anxiety of leaping from academia to industry, the cobble-together lifestyle of pulling all-nighters in whatever office space you can afford, the thrill of landing your first client, and the need, when someone asks you if you are a god, to say “yes.”
This movie was brilliant. It’s also an artifact of its era and I don’t think it could be made again. Not only because not all the cast is with us anymore, but because the world of today is… Different, from 1984.
This is why I’m very impressed with Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
I’m going to talk at length about what works in Afterlife, what impressed me about the direction the story took, and why I’m glad this movie was made. It’s easily the best movie I saw in 2021.
But first, a couple digressions to set the chess pieces on the board.
Of the horrors we cannot comprehend and the subversion of the trope
There is a sub-genre of horror, most famously associated with early 20th-century author H.P. Lovecraft, that explores the idea of the incomprehensible. Not things too difficult to comprehend, but things fundamentally incompatible with comprehension—things as incompatible with human cognitive faculties as the vacuum of space is with human respiration. Lovecraft lived in an era of scientific marvel—during his lifetime over half of the homes in the US became outfitted for electric light—and it was a time when people talked seriously about whether there was anything science could not do. The Lovecraftian formula for supernatural horror was to start with a premise of “Yes, not only are there hard cosmic limits to what we can experience, but merely probing too deeply into the edges of reality risks destroying the questioner, like an ant curious about a car’s exhaust pipe.” But he explored even grimmer themes of utter helplessness in a cosmos not centered on humanity’s existence or non-existence… As we might bury or drown an anthill without even noticing, might there be cosmic forces out there that could eradicate our fragile species without even a thought paid to our fates?
The climax of Ghostbusters taps into this trope and subverts it brilliantly. Gozer, the monster at the end of the movie, is clearly inspired by cosmic horrors like the works of Lovecraft and other authors. It’s an ancient god known by the Sumerians, which we learn from the mad ramblings of a possessed man exists in and through dimensions beyond our own. The Ghostbusters, having pieced together that an apartment complex in New York was the work of mad cultist Ivo Shandor who wished to summon Gozer to destroy humanity (more on him later), arrive at the scene of a massive disruption too late to stop Shandor’s decades-long machinations: the summoning focus his apartment complex is secretly built to serve as has done its work, and an incomprehensible horror has come to tread this world.
… and it promptly gets shot in the face by four scientists wielding death rays.
One of the things that really works in Ghostbusters is this ending. It’s brutally, unapologetically hopeful, a comedic rejection of the Lovecraftian premise: if we are smart enough and work hard enough, not even the incomprehensible chaos from beyond our world can stop us. We’ll just out-science it. We’re good enough. Save girlfriend, world loves us, cue credits.
The movie had a sequel that recapitulated this theme (big evil, comprehend it, get out in front of it, save world… This time though with the power of love), a couple of TV shows, and a reboot that basically re-trod the ground of the first movie with some tweaks (fake-out final boss, bigger budget for the final battle). They basically all say more or less the same thing as the first movie, though the second movie introduces an interesting wrinkle: to justify resetting the status quo, we establish in act 1 that even after saving the world from an actual apocalypse, the world more-or-less forgets about our heroes. They have to take on side-jobs because busting ghosts (and accolades from having done so) don’t pay.
Put a pin in this idea, right next to that Ivo Shandor pin. We’ll come back to this later. Meanwhile, let’s talk about some more monsters.
Of Stephen King, cosmic horror, kids on bikes, and unfinished work
Two years after Ghostbusters, hyper-prolific horror novelist Stephen King published It. King wrote in many sub-genres of horror and was no stranger to the cosmic one; indeed, It’s titular… It… is an alien creature burrowed under a town in Maine that kills children and feeds on human fear. Complementary to its predatory nature, It can shapeshift and is able to tap into a person’s mind to draw out the thing that will terrify them most (to maximize their nutritional value). It also possesses a kind of mild stupefying effect on adults; with rare exceptions, most adults don’t take It seriously or can’t understand the nature of It’s threat, even while It’s literally devouring their children.
Indeed, it is children, not adults, who stop It. In addition to cosmic horror, It lives in a sub-genre of adventure story that has only recently been uniquely identified and named: “kids on bikes.” Because of an interesting interplay of phenomena in the US in the latter half of the 20th century (Americans leaving farms and moving to suburbia; the labor economy reacting to the postwar sex-agnostic workforce and Reaganomics by flattening wages, pulling both parents into the labor market to maintain a middle-class lifestyle; the bicycle boom of the ’70s; desegregation widening the circle of friends a kid might have from school, both culturally and geographically), the late ’70s and early ’80s saw a wave of adolescents self-entertaining by meeting up on bicycles and going adventuring. A whole slew of books and movies featured young protagonists on bicycles getting into adventures—often supernatural adventures involving things adults, trapped in the rat race of work and maintaining a middle-class lifestyle in a world of accelerating complexity—could not or would not see, just outside of their civilized streets of houses fronted by well-manicured lawns. It is in this genre; after his brother is killed by the monster, Bill Denbrough befriends a whole slew of outcast kids who realize the bad things that happen in the town match a pattern, encounter and confront the monster, and perform a ritual that defeats it. They discover that though It is a cosmic horror, there are rules it must obey, and they can be exploited. And they defeat It. Save girlfriend, cue credits.
… halfway through the book.
The trope subversion that It dabbles in is that the monster’s defeat did not destroy it. A plot point established in the first half of the story is that It feeds on the town in cycles… Every 27 years, It stirs from sleep and visits despair on the town. Twenty-seven years after It’s defeat, deaths begin again. And though they are now adults, with lives of their own, the “Loser’s Club” finds their way back to the town to fight It again. Not all of them survive this time, but their sacrifice is met with success; though they pay dearly, they seemingly destroy It permanently this time. It will take no more children from the town. But the scars they bear from the experience are permanent.
Of a movie displaced in time but very, very modern
Our chessboard is now assembled, and we can begin moving the pieces.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a movie with a far more dramatic tone than its predecessors. While it has funny moments, it isn’t a laugh-per-scene comedy in the way the first two and the reboot are. Set in an extremely-intentionally-out-of-the-way town of Summerville, we encounter the family of Callie and her two kids, Trevor and Phoebe, who have pulled up stakes to settle accounts on a farm owned by Callie’s estranged father. The town knew little of the farm’s owner, calling him “The Dirt Farmer” and explaining that he bought weird equipment but basically kept to himself. He made no money and, the locals assume, died of a heart attack. The money is significant; a recurring theme through the movie is poverty, between Callie’s need to squeeze money out of her father’s farm and the general state of the town as a former mining town with very little by way of a local economy.
The old abandoned mine, it turns out, is very significant and immediately meaningful to viewers who know their Ghostbusters lore. “Shandor Mining Co.” is soon revealed to have been owned by the same cult that built the Gozer temple / apartment complex in New York. As Phoebe learns about the town and begins to experience supernatural phenomena in her new home, she discovers her legacy: her grandfather was Egon Spengler, one of the four Ghostbusters and the primary inventor of the science of trapping ghosts.
Aided by an adult mentor—a seismologist who cares more about the town’s mysterious earthquakes than anyone else in town and is familiar with the now-mostly-ignored story of the near-apocalypse in New York City in 1984—Phoebe, her brother, a bored girl from town, and another local kid with a penchant for the supernatural piece together what is happening: Ivo Shandor had set up the mine as a second focus to summon Gozer, and it’s working. But it’s been blocked by Egon; having discovered the threat they defeated in New York is not destroyed, he rigged a device to suppress it and was working on ending the Gozer threat permanently when one of his devices failed, letting the ghosts reach him.
The major pivot of the movie occurs after Phoebe and her brother severely damage downtown chasing a stray ghost with their grandfather’s equipment (having never learned the Peter Venkman trick). Stuck in jail with one phone call, Phoebe calls the phone number on the old television ad from the first movie and discovers it still connects to Ray Stantz. But Ray explains why Egon was facing the threat of the mine alone: like so many startups, Ghostbusters folded. A victim of their own success, after the Manhattan cross-rip and the Vigo Incursion, supernatural phenomena died down and they couldn’t justify the cost of running a business to chase ghosts. Peter and Winston left when they couldn’t pay the bills; Ray and Egon had a falling out that culminated in Spengler taking off to Summerville alone with the hardware, leaving Ray with the debts and no tools to clear them. This betrayal echoes Callie’s feelings of betrayal by her father, who was obsessed with his ghosts and abandoned his family.
Upon seeing the threat posed by Gozer, learning the cavalry isn’t coming, and losing Callie and the adult mentor to recapitulation of the possession arc from the first movie, the kids realize the adults aren’t going to fix this and they kids-on-bikes themselves a plan to cancel the apocalypse. The plan comes within range of failure, and is rescued at the last second by the arrival of the original three still-living Ghostbusters assisted by an apparition of their fourth partner. The day is saved, and… Nobody knows. Save girlfriend, sure, but world… Doesn’t really know they exist. The entity known as Gozer came through to our world. It nearly started an apocalypse. But it didn’t happen on top of a skyscraper in New York, so only a handful of people know.
A very serious comedy
There’s a lot to unwrap in this movie. I think this movie fits a trope we’ve seen from a couple other films in recent years, most notably Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I don’t have a name for this trope yet, so for now, I’m going to call it “The retired hero.” When Rey finds Luke Skywalker, he refuses to train her because he has seen no good come of his ability to train Jedi. He’s given up on that entire path; closed a chapter in his life. But the galaxy stubbornly refuses to care what Luke Skywalker thinks his role is.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is also a tale of heroes in retirement. With one exception—who was killed for it—those who saved the world in the past are done saving the world. They don’t even perceive a threat. But the threat is real, so it’s up to some children to strap on unlicensed nuclear accelerators and go set things on fire. Phoebe and the gang kick ass and are so much fun to watch, but there’s an undercurrent of disquiet in a kids-on-bikes tale… When literal children have to wield death rays, the adults in the room done effed up.
The part of Afterlife that stuck with me was Ray turning his back on Egon. Venkman and Zeddemore I could get; Winston was clear from scene 1 that a steady paycheck was key to his involvement, and Peter was already shown to have bowed out in the second movie when things got rough. But Ray and Egon were always on the same page from the first time we see them. They both knew ghosts were real, cross-dimensional events were real, and apocalypse cults could start an apocalypse. What on Earth would make Egon leave everything else behind and dedicate his life to a solo project setting up the biggest ghost trap ever built without Ray coming with him?
The movie never says (and given that Ray gives us the narrative, I’m going to play the “unreliable narrator” card and say if he said things he regrets, he’s not going to admit it to a stranger, even Egon’s granddaughter). But I’m going to go out on a limb and make my own assertion:
Ray’s an optimist and he couldn’t handle the truth.
So, Egon looks at information about Gozer and concludes the apocalypse isn’t canceled yet. He has inklings, but not enough hard evidence. He brings it to Ray. And Ray’s response? Relax, man. We already beat Gozer. We won.
We’re already heroes.
Egon had to leave, because Ray couldn’t accept the monster wasn’t dead.
There’s a powerful sense of abdication of responsibility in the face of hardship that undergirds Afterlife. Egon leaves his family to pursue his mad quest to stop Gozer. The Ghostbusters give up on the thing they’re best at because nobody will pay them to do it. Shandor Mining Co. gave up on the whole damn town in pursuit of their apocalypse.
Oh yes, Shandor. Who was he? Egon tells us in the first film.
After the First World War, Shandor decided that society was too sick to survive. He wasn't alone. He had close to a thousand followers when he died. They conducted rituals up on the roof, bizarre rituals intended to bring about the end of the world.
Ivo Shandor. A man from the 1920s. A man who sought the apocalypse.
A man who gave up on humanity.
Stories are for the audience
As a rule, I prefer sequels where there is a different story to tell in the same setting to re-treads. In many cases, I’d rather a property lie fallow than see it dragged out and puppeted around if there’s nothing new to say. At first glance, Ghostbusters: Afterlife says nothing new that the first one didn’t. The beats—discovering the tech, putting a four-person crew together (they even map near 1-to-1 to the original crew), discovering the threat, the keymaster and gatekeeper, and working together to stop Gozer—are the same. But that’s a surface-level similarity; it’s just the Ritual of Chud necessary to call out the monster and beat the monster.
Ghostbusters was, and is, a brilliant and hilarious movie. The comedy is spot on, the premise is absurd, and underneath it all is a beautiful tale of competence and hope, of beating the odds and what we can do when we put our minds and shoulders to it. Literal apocalypses can be cancelled and heroes made.
As Ray says to Phoebe, “It was the Reagan years.”
The second decade of the 21st century is a different time. Ghostbusters: Afterlife takes what is still a modestly absurd premise but uses it—as any good science fiction does—to talk about some truths that are hard to look at directly. *Afterlife *is a story about what we value vs. what we pay for. It’s a story about evil never being defeated, only disarmed for now. It’s a story about the kind of world-saving that doesn’t make people into famous heroes, but merely saves the world. And it’s a story about what happens when people give up. And what happens when people don’t.
Underneath the comedy, Ghostbusters is a movie about not giving up. It spits in the face of the idea of unstoppable horror. It cries out to an uncaring and destructive ancient god, summoned by the folly of men from the past, that we have the tools; we have the talent.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is its sequel.