Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is too much and not enough

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is too much and not enough

“Did you ever think that maybe this movie wasn’t made for you?”

It’s a common rhetorical question, typically put forth to shut down unthoughtful criticism of a film. If we forget that it’s usually a question asked by people who hypocritically cannot abide a film that wasn’t necessarily made for them, the argument is strong. It’s a simple fact that no single piece of art has universal appeal, and one consumer’s rejection of said art is never indicative of its quality. Every ounce of art is subjective, and the smart appreciator will know when to recognize that something wasn’t made with them in mind. It’s the reason why every generation is doomed to hate the next generation’s music, and why every generation still likes the junk they listened to when they were 15. 

I do my best to remember this when watching and reviewing movies, but when I see a movie like Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, I run into a problem. Namely, I find myself asking: if not for me, then who is this for? 

Nobody alive today can claim to be unaware of Ghostbusters. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is insane that something so uniquely weird in concept has been as popular and beloved for as long as it has, and consistently so. Ghostbusters came out the year I was born, and it remains a household name as I approach 40, yet I still cannot visualize the pitch meeting: “Four funny dudes start a pest control business, but the pests are ghosts, and ghosts are sorta the spirits of the dead but are also linked to all other supernaturalia, including ancient gods looking to destroy New York because a certain apartment building acts as an antenna to draw them to our world. Also the EPA is pissed.”

It’s madness, yet it persists.  Naturally, for something so strange to remain a pop culture staple for four decades, it’s going to have to grow a bit. It’s got to bob and weave a little to stay relevant, adopting new styles and casting off dated elements in order to keep up with film technology, social mores, and the demands of the moviegoing public. This constant state of mutation can be good — it might lead to interesting new angles and ideas. More commonly, however, it’ll result in pablum. All of the ingredients you love, arranged in a way that is recognizable, inoffensive, and impossible to keep in one’s memory for longer than it’s in front of one’s eyes. 

It gives me absolutely no pleasure to report that Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire undoubtedly marks the end of the brand’s relationship with quality. Yes, all of the ingredients are here: proton packs, ghost traps, Slimer, etc. But the imagination that makes these elements sing is gone. Quality has been traded for quantity, and it’s exactly what has me wondering who the intended audience is. With all four members of the OG team making a cameo at the end of Afterlife, it felt like the torch was being passed to the new generation of Ghostbusters. Individual mileage may vary on whether or not it was successful (I was moved by it, despite the movie being just okay), but it should’ve been their last hurrah. And listen, I’m not the type to ever turn down more time spent with Venkman, Zeddemore, and Stantz (and Janine, my sweet and gorgeous queen Janine), but there’s just not enough room in this movie for everyone to come back while also continuing the stories of the new characters…

…and adding a few more new characters to boot. I was happy to see this franchise passed off to a new generation of characters, but it seems to want to keep one slip-resistant boot in the past just to keep us oldheads interested.

Trust me, we are not worth the effort!!

It’s too much stuff! Not enough space to keep the stuff!

Which is where this film kinda sorta begins: as established by the post-credits sequence of Afterlife, the independently wealthy Winston has financed the new squad of busters and moved them into the iconic firehouse, complete with the ghost containment unit, which is at capacity and literally about to explode. If they can’t get it repaired, every ghost they ever captured could be released (again). 

At the same time, Walter Peck (remember him?) is now the Mayor of New York, and is understandably mad that the new Ghostbusters, who employ a literal child, are regularly destroying large swaths of the city with their nuclear lasers.  Frankly, despite his salty attitude, he is again correct. In fact, throughout this movie the Ghostbusters are the cause of every single problem they have to solve. 

Meanwhile, Ray comes across an ancient object that may or may not be haunted by an ancient god who wishes to freeze everything or something. 

Meanwhile, Phoebe, having been benched by decree of the Mayor, has befriended the ghost of a teen girl who died in a fire. 

Meanwhile, Winston and a handful of new characters are building a bunch of new tech that needs to be introduced and explained to the viewer. 

Meanwhile, Trevor, whose name I had to look up, is trying to capture Slimer, who has taken up residence in the attic. 

Meanwhile, Podcast, who despite being like 30 now (seriously he looks like a whole new person on account of puberty), still goes by “Podcast” and lives in the basement of Ray’s Occult, where he helps Ray make videos for the internet. 

Meanwhile, Gary and Callie have deepened their romance and are navigating the propriety of Gary acting as a father figure to the kids. 

Also Kumail Nanjiani is there being a silly lil guy. 

It’s sooooooooo much crammed into under two hours, and none of it is given much time to breathe. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a rich kid parading his toys out in front of you, describing what they do, and asking if you recognize any of them. Don’t touch, though. Just nod if you recognize it. 

The film spends most of its runtime scattering its players to different locations, only for them to gather back together for a final showdown that, despite the charms of seeing the whole roster in one setting, is anticlimactic and visually unimaginative. 

That said, the performers all do wonderful work. I like this cast overall. There’s plenty of charm to go around, and it’s never not fun to witness the interplay between Aykroyd, Murray, and Hudson, all of whom fall right back into character flawlessly. Rudd is quite funny throughout, and the chemistry between him and Coon is as sweet as a Stay-Puft marshmallow. The kids, who at the time of Afterlife were primed to be taking over the franchise, are mostly sidelined by all the…stuff. All are charming, all do what they’re asked, but it’s not easy to care about them or even remember their names. The script works very hard to try and give McKenna Grace something to do, but it ultimately feels arbitrary and forced, even if she gives a solid performance. Her story lacks the heart of her previous arc. 

I don’t know what else to say. Ghostbusters fans are going to see this movie no matter what, and like me they will emerge from it satiated but not satisfied. Just like the rest of our big franchises, Ghostbusters has fallen into the content machine where “good enough” is the best we’re apt to get. To put it simply: if this were a The Real Ghostbusters: The Movie or Ghostbusters Jr. (coming soon to streaming), it would be passable. But as Ghostbusters 4, it’s pretty lame. 

The saddest part about Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is not the stupid title, or the lack of fun ghosts for the sake of fun, but that it’s exactly the movie I expected it to be. It’s exactly the movie that every piece of popular IP eventually becomes. It’s content, designed to let you know that more content is coming, story be damned. Bustin’ no longer makes me feel good. 

Directed by Gil Kenan

Written by Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman

Starring McKenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Annie Potts

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes