Note: This article discusses the plot of Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
In early 2019, just after Jason Reitman signed on to reanimate the corpse of his father’s most beloved project, Ghostbusters, the director appeared on Bill Burr’s podcast to declare what, presumably, every Ghostbusters fan wanted to hear: “We are, in every way, trying to go back to the original technique and hand the movie back to the fans.”
In light of the sexist campaign against Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot, many read his comments as a dog-whistle to court incensed fans back to the franchise. Reitman later retracted the statement, but he still accomplished the goal implied by his remarks and then some. He hasn’t just handed Ghostbusters back to these fans. He’s put fans in the movie.
Fan surrogates, or “fanalogues” if you want to be cute about it, are now commonplace in our nostalgia-burdened blockbuster landscape. Traditional audience surrogates speak to the viewer’s logic and put their point of view on screen. A fan surrogate focuses on a specific viewer who knows everything about the cinematic universe unfolding before them. This allows a movie like Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife to speak the language of the fan community, verbalizing all its desires, interests, and moods.
In 2015, when the decades-late-sequel industrial complex cranked into high gear, Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens made sure fans weren’t just heard but also seen. Characters like Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars and Jake Johnson’s Lowery from Jurassic World acted as fans of the very property they existed within, giving the diehards a seat at the table.
This was very much by design. In Bob Iger’s memoir, The Ride Of A Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years As C.E.O. Of The Walt Disney Company, the former C.E.O. discusses George Lucas’ disappointment with J.J. Abrams’ film, citing a lack of “visual or technical leaps forward.” Iger agreed with his assessment but thought fan reactions were, ultimately, more critical.
We’d intentionally created a world that was visually and tonally connected to the earliest films, to not stray too far from what people loved and expected [...] Lucas fans needed to be reassured that we, too, were fans first, respectful of the creator and looking to expand on his legacy, not usurp it.
Rey’s role in the film is one of a Star Wars fan. She knows about Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and the Millennium Falcon, and treats Solo with the reverence of a ComicCon attendee getting an autographed 8x10. She’s essentially the first guest at Disney’s “Star Wars: Galactic Cruiser” immersive hotel.
Moreover, her desire to be in a Star Wars movie allows her to do just that. By now, it’s widely accepted that The Force Awakens essentially retreads the plot of A New Hope. It does that through the lens of Rey. In Abrams’ film, she’s not fulfilling her destiny, she’s fulfilling the wishes of Star Wars fans, fighting her own Darth Vader and blowing up her own Death Star.
Unfortunately, this bit of character setup makes for a wobbly, unstable universe—something that will become a big problem by The Rise Of Skywalker’s release. Rey’s desire to be a Star Wars character sometimes feels like her defining trait. Moreover, her fan-as-character background raises questions about the nuts and bolts of this universe. How, exactly, does she know about Luke and Han and the Millennium Falcon? The galaxy far, far away is a big place, and Rey didn’t have a Ben Kenobi feeding her info about her past. Are there libraries with Rebellion history books on Jakku? Did Finn have access to the Wookiepedia while in the Storm Trooper army? They all must share a Disney+ account.
Jurassic World took a different approach to the fan surrogate, using Jake Johnson’s character, Lowery, to express fan hesitancy regarding a potentially disappointing sequel. Like many fans, he must’ve hated The Lost World and Jurassic Park III and worries that he’s being taken for another $15 ride.
Lowery wears a vintage Jurassic Park T-shirt and comments on how “legit” the first park was. “I have respect for it. They didn’t need these genetic hybrids,” Lowery says. He then lets loose a very “Worst. Sequel. Ever.” groan as Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) announces their new dinosaur: “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominous Rex.”
Lowery’s criticisms are a thinly veiled metaphor for the skepticism fans might express about the sequel, parodying concerns about corporate integration and new dinosaurs, likely ones created by CGI instead of the animatronics that made the original a classic. Again, this is all very intentional. As Jake Johnson explained in a 2015 red carpet interview, “We wanted a character who felt like one of us, somebody who could comment on the new Jurassic World and somebody who would miss Jurassic Park, the original park, the way we would if it was something that actually existed.”
Lowery is less a Greek chorus and more a Greek message board commenter, laying out complaints before the plot gets underway. The film’s director and co-screenwriter Colin Trevorrow uses the character as a means of absolution by self-awareness. The only problem is that Lowery’s right: Jurassic World is a poor imitation of the original. Admitting this doesn’t deflect those criticisms but instead plants them in our heads.
With Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason Reitman “hands the franchise back to the fans” by writing all kinds of them into his script. There’s the original Ghostbusters fanatic Gary Gooberson (Paul Rudd)—a frankly rude name for a fan surrogate—who is introduced as someone who recognizes items from the first film. We also have the new young fans who discover the suddenly Amblin-esque wonder of Ghostbusters, and the lapsed fan, Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), daughter of original Ghostbuster Egon (Harold Ramis), who abandoned his family after the events of Ghostbusters II.
Gary, summer school teacher to Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Podcast (Logan Kim), feels connected to the Ghostbusters, waxing nostalgic about the ghost-filthy New York of the 1980s. He sees the ghost trap the kids are playing with and immediately assumes it’s a replica. He’s not just familiar with the Ghostbusters. He loves them.
The problem is, Reitman’s script uses fandom as an excuse for all kinds of sweaty setups, like the return of the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man. In his excitement, Gary helps the kids open the trap and awaken the Sumerian God Gozer. Later, undisturbed by the fact that he’s had the first supernatural encounter in 30 years, Gary goes to buy some ice cream and comes across a bag of Stay Pufts at Walmart. Seemingly, thanks to the force of Gozer’s resurrection, mini Stay Pufts burst from the package and begin wreaking havoc. Except Stay Puft wasn’t a ghost; it was a manifestation from the memories of Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd). So unless Gozer is as nostalgic as Gooberson, the mini marshmallows have no business in Walmart.
The mini Stay Pufts are the punchline to a joke that was never set up. The monster’s reveal in 1984 was both a technical marvel and a character quirk: Ray always screws something up at the last second. (“When someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!”) Here it’s supposedly funny because Gary is delighted by their appearance, looking at the miniature marshmallows with a reverence he just showed for proton packs. Unfortunately, the fan surrogate’s recognition of Stay Puft is all the setup the movie thinks it needs.
But not everyone is a fan of Ghostbusters, if you can believe it. The first sequel and Paul Fieg’s 2016 reboot created lapsed fans, like Carrie Coon’s Callie. Callie doesn’t like talking about the Ghostbusters because her father, Egon, abandoned her family. The timeline of the three films also indicates that Egon spent more time bustin’ than he did parentin’. She doesn’t want her kids getting into Ghostbusters.
Callie’s journey in the film is to stop worrying and love the Ghostbusters again. In the film’s climax, she learns something she would have no context for (in a rather ghoulish display of fan service) and decides to forgive her father—mostly, it appears, because she likes seeing the old gang back together. Her forgiveness makes abandoning your child to hunt ghosts an acceptable excuse. What’s important is that she forgives the Ghostbusters for all their past sins, like releasing two entries that some fans loudly rejected.
Even the camera seems to prefer old Ghostbusters stuff. Lingering shots of Crunch Bars and Twinkies, among other Ghostbusters memes and ephemera (like a P.K.E. meter), signal to viewers that the filmmaker “gets it.”
And that’s what these fan surrogates hope to achieve, too. It’s the “how do you do, fellow teens” of fan service, a filmmaker or corporation popping in to tell the hardcore contingent “we’re just like you.” But while Rey might accrue some dramatic power in Star Wars, cynically deploying this fan-courting screenwriting strategy results in a character named “Gary Gooberson,” who clashes with the film’s logic around him. The meme adage “liking something isn’t a personality” applies to characters, too.
These fan surrogates have multiple functions. They can ingratiate and welcome fans, like Gary. They can inspire new ones, like Phoebe. Or they can apologize, like Callie. What they rarely do is serve the story. However, they’re more than happy to point out an easter egg, reiterate some exposition from another, better movie, or simply remind fans how much more fun they used to have with these properties. They’re having fun, so you should too, right?
But sticking fans in the movie, Last Action Hero-style, doesn’t give the filmmakers any space to “leap forward,” as Lucas put it. It’s an approach that encourages fandoms and the franchises they cherish to stagnate. Don’t let the past die. Luxuriate in the good old days that never really were.
While the intentions of giving Ghostbusters back to the fans may be pure, fan service shouldn’t become a be-all end-all. Having an in-film cheerleader reminding us how awesome the old thing was doesn’t make the new thing awesome. It just makes you want to watch the old thing.