When the 1989 film Ghostbusters first came out, it was a hit with women. Who could forget the scene in which Erin Gilbert (Sigourney Weaver) splits off to get a lawyer’s divorce papers? Or the cute meeting between Erin and her boyfriend over pizza. But 26 years later, Ghostbusters: Afterlife focuses on a new generation of women – in their late teens and early 20s – who aren’t too keen on sharing their brains with men.
The three new protagonists start out as new medical students, and then serve as lab assistants to a trio of scientist ghost hunters. The women are tasked with finding a microbe that could revive the dead – ghosts at which scientists have failed. Like in the original Ghostbusters, the ghost hunters must use the real power of their job: phallic humor.
But these new women aren’t entirely without their familiar moves. First seen as at least one of the leads in the 1980s film, Erin (Madelaine Petsch) is a career-driven graduate who resents her flat and unadventurous life and yearns for a more meaningful career. At school, Ashlyn (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) is a nerdy science whiz, but wants to go prodigal and help out with ghosts. Kate (Courtney Henggeler) is a religious Midwesterner who also wants to help ghosts, and is put off by stereotypes she sees about ghosts at school and at work.
From the outset, Afterlife clearly aims to be unlike its predecessors. The plot turns take a backseat to almost every other scene, with the young women acting in ways that were never remotely believable in the original film. Once again, the three heroes play by their own rules, and deviate from feminist norms. That’s most clearly illustrated in the new Ghostbusters’ new assignment, a new enterprise called the Ghostbusters Science Explorations Academy. Here, the young women are not required to wear uniforms and participate in a traditional Ghostbusters’ kegger, but instead face off against each other at an all-female tae kwon do tournament. Also, Kristen Wiig is the owner of an all-girls private school in an upscale Chicago suburb.
And when the new young women do wear Ghostbusters’ bright white costumes, they make fun of the original film. That sight gag isn’t quite as jarring as it might be, given that fans of the original film have long reminded themselves that those movie costumes were never as “irrelevant” as they made them appear. Still, it’s interesting that the director, Paul Feig, chosen to helm the new film when he’s just had a big screen success with a buddy comedy that features six female leads, male onscreen couples, and possibly a best friend who may have feelings for one of the best-known female characters.
Feig’s choices show just how far behind the original Ghostbusters the first film had been in 2017. What had come before was a film built around the mass appeal of its leading ladies: the big of the white, rah-rah, action-adventure vibe of movies like The Goonies and E.T. The Goonies. But a sequel built around what’s a more narrow mix of cheesiness and focus-group-tested elements feels outdated.
There are a few highlights from Afterlife, notably a clever scene in which the ghosts and the new heroes sit on the floor beneath a massive inflatable head of Slimer, the deflated giant baby friendly ghost from the original movie. The movie’s most memorable scene, though, is yet to come. In the final moments, the new friends – ghost hunters, er – turn to face the ghost of a random middle school girl, and seemingly change the course of their own lives.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a low-budget family-friendly film that is long on humor but takes a lot more convincing to respect than much else released this year. But it’s the kind of movie that has often come to define what it means to be an audience with a true understanding of the world.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife plays in select theaters June 14.