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“Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire”: when a franchise cannibalizes itself

A graphic illustrating the “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” film screening at a movie theater. The new “Ghostbusters” movie was released in theaters on March 22. ILLUSTRATED BY JERRY WEINTRAUB/THE STATESMAN

This review contains spoilers.

Hollywood just can’t let go of its beloved 1980s blockbusters. Whether it’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” (2023), the “Star Wars” prequels and sequels or the upcoming “Alien: Romulus” that nobody asked for, the American film industry has made a tradition of repackaging its classics for new generations, conveniently cramming in an insufferable layer of rose-tinted fan-service in the process. “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” is potentially Hollywood’s most egregious offender, and it’s time to recognize these franchises for what they are: lightning-in-a-bottle relics of the past.

Following the admittedly nostalgia-baity but emotionally sincere “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (2021), the new Ghostbusters — starring lovers Callie Spengler and Gary Grooberson, Callie’s children Trevor and Phoebe and close friends Lucky Domingo and Podcast — say goodbye to rural Oklahoma and relocate to New York City, where the original Ghostbusters did their “ghostbusting.” This ensemble features an enormous, overwhelming cast which includes the likes of Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Celeste O’Connor and Logan Kim, respectively. 

In New York, they stumble upon an ancient artifact with spiritual powers. When the artifact releases a demonic god who attempts to conquer the world with an army of ghosts, the team seeks the help of Nadeem Razmaadi, played by Kumail Nanjiani, to save the city from impending doom.

If that sounds like a repetitive mouthful, it doesn’t even cover half this movie’s ensemble. “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” amasses a staggering 15 supporting roles, all of whom lazily attempt to contribute to the film’s so-called grandiose narrative. Other than this being a shameless effort at widening audience appeal — with the movie bringing back the original “Ghostbusters” (1984) cast while adding several well-known celebrities to the mix — it’s confounding to cram this movie with so many characters like it’s a character-sprawling Robert Altman film, especially when the movie doesn’t even hit the two-hour mark. 

Consequently, with the short runtime, the narrative has two to three characters with semi-fleshed-out arcs at best: Phoebe, Nadeem and possibly Emily Alyn Lind’s Melody, who plays a ghost with a precarious relationship with Phoebe. Everyone else, however, is pushed to the sidelines.

The original “Ghostbusters” ensemble is the biggest victim of this homage-obsessed sequel, as they are reduced to glorified Easter eggs with no real character — particularly Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. While Murray hasn’t been the most engaging actor in recent years, as you only see glimpses of his charming, deadpan wit whenever he collaborates with Wes Anderson, there’s something so dishearteningly lifeless about Murray’s performance in “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.” None of his jokes land, his constant riffing grows stale and his general presence distracts you from whatever the movie tries to establish tonally.

Even the younger actors, the supposed heirs to the original ensemble, fail to impress here, with the most agonizing case being Wolfhard’s character, Trevor. For the second consecutive time, he serves absolutely no purpose to the story; he’s just there for the ride, which is disappointing considering he’s a talented actor with dramatic chops. 

Even Phoebe, the most well-developed character in the film, is diluted by a slew of clichéd storytelling. Most of her arc centers around a rocky, all-too-familiar parent-child relationship, with her rebellious attitude growing more reckless as the story progresses. It’s a fine premise, but it feels too familiar. It may tread new territory for the “Ghostbusters” franchise, but how many coming-of-age stories follow this exact premise beat-for-beat? Quite a lot, to be frank.

And, despite desperate efforts at injecting narrative verve by throwing Phoebe into a secret, highly consequential relationship with a like-aged ghost, their dynamic is skin-deep and too contrived. The relationship somewhat borders on being same-sex-curious, but it’s too weightless and afraid to push Phoebe’s or Melody’s interest in each other beyond mild curiosity.

Ultimately, their dynamic lives and dies through their bonding over chess. That wouldn’t be so irritating to me if their mostly harmless relationship didn’t create a logistically dubious gateway into the spectacle-abundant third act where the ghosts, yet again, take over New York City and the Ghostbusters have to save the day. It’s just so depressingly devoid of anything human, full of superficial nonsense that epitomizes all the “Ghostbusters” remakes and sequels as charmless and dull cash grabs.

By the end, I can’t help but wonder what went wrong with this franchise. Maybe these reboots were doomed to fail. But, if that’s the case, that makes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” a miraculous accomplishment that should have stood as the franchise swan’s song.

That movie carries a melancholic, heartful pathos that makes for an unabashedly moving climax. For context, writer-director Jason Reitman is the son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the original “Ghostbusters,” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” served not only as a posthumous tribute to Jason Reitman’s father but also to Harold Ramis and his character, Egon Spengler. And it worked, with the movie culminating in an emotional crescendo that almost drove me to tears. But where did all that magic go for “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire?” It’s as if, like a ghost of its former self, it got sucked into the Containment Unit.

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