On Set: New Ghostbusters film struggles to let go of the past

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews the latest update to the Ghostbusters franchise.
(Columbia Pictures)

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Culture, Film & TV

If you leave out Paul Feig’s very funny all-female reboot from 2016 (something I personally wish we didn’t have to do), the “Ghostbusters” franchise spans only four films. It seems like too few, doesn’t it? This brand has a such a big footprint, too big for only two movies from the 80s and two new ones. And that’s the challenge, the fact that the legacy has grown well beyond the sum of its actual parts. Expectations have grown right along with it.

“Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire”, out now in theaters, continues the story refresh that began in 2021 with “Afterlife”. The cast has all returned, including Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace. The surviving members of the original crew are here too, but we’ll come back to that. “Afterlife” was directed by Jason Reitman, son of the late Ivan Reitman. Ivan directed the originals in the 1980s, so it stands to reason that his son would feel beholden to those templates and want to pay homage to his dad’s work with cameos and easter eggs galore. “Frozen Empire”, however, is directed by Jason’s screenwriting partner Gil Kenan, so an opportunity for fresh ideas and a look forward was right there if anyone wanted to grab it. Nobody did. And it probably wasn’t really an option anyhow, not with both Reitmans listed as producers. So, yeah, more easter eggs, more fan service, more clunky callbacks. “Frozen Empire” doesn’t so much pick up where “Afterlife” left off, it wears the earlier film like a skinsuit. Everyone is a little older, but none of them have developed in any big ways. The plot this time centers on an ancient demon trapped in an artifact. If he gets out, and of course he will, he plans to send the world into a second ice age. It’s harmless, uncomplicated and utterly familiar.

The script doesn’t ask much of the all-star cast and they don’t appear to demand much from it either. The jokes are weak, the serious moments weaker, and even the visual language of the special effects is muted and distilled. They apparently spent $25 million more on “Frozen Empire” than “Afterlife” but it feels like the opposite is true. There is clearly a lot of deep, longstanding love for this franchise from people like Dan Akroyd, but that affection isn’t loadbearing and the lack of ambition in “Frozen Empire” is very heavy.

Now that I’ve mentioned Akroyd, I need to address the obligatory inclusion of the cast from the original films. Everyone is here, minus Harold Ramis of course, and they all do their best to bring back the goofy 1980s charm that made them so beloved. It works, when it works. I just wish the torch had been well and truly passed in “Afterlife”, when the addition of the old-timers made more sense. Instead, “Frozen Empire” confirms that there is no going forward without them, and that the new characters are never going to be given the chance to evolve. It’s a pity, because these kinds of stories don’t have enough material for two full ensembles worth of stars. Everything thins out too much and, in “Frozen Empire”, everyone suffers the consequences of it.

This is one of the more painful reviews I’ve written. I love this brand and I wanted to love this movie. But nostalgia should be a slow-release drug, delivered with deliberate intention. It’s not a punch in the face. Ghostbusters, as an antique franchise, needs to adapt, not repeat. If this current configuration gets another shot, I hope it’s allowed to finally break free of the past. I know. I’m talking about a ghost movie. I’m also taking about a formative cultural touchstone for my generation. I will follow the Ghostbusters to the end of the time. I only ask that the people in charge honor that devotion.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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