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What Ghostbusters: Afterlife Reveals About Casting a Reboot

There seems to be no end to the reboots and remakes of classic 1980s and 1990s franchises. From Jumanji to Dune, it’s clear that studios are capitalising on a widely held nostalgia for those seemingly simpler decades.

And the revival of the Ghostbusters franchise is no exception. First receiving a reboot in 2016, it was also flattered by several allusions in Stranger Things, and received a further adaptation that was released late last year. Even the original 2009 Ghostbusters video game was also remastered and rereleased on Xbox as recently as 2019.

Much has been written about the cultural conditions that appear to be forcing studios to look back into the past for new box office hits. But less has been written about how studios go about reviving cherished characters through new, up-and-coming actors. And Ghostbusters provides us with some lessons in how, and perhaps how not, to revive a much-loved franchise.

The original cast of Ghostbusters were Saturday Night Live alums. Dan Akroyd, an original member of the SNL team, first conceived of Ghostbusters after reading a parapsychology journal article that led him to imagine a team of academics trapping ghosts. Working it into a comedy, it made sense to cast his SNL colleagues as those academics.

Initially, Akroyd wanted to include SNL alums Eddie Murphy and John Belushi. But Murphy turned down the role to star in Beverly Hills Cop, and Belushi died from an overdose before production started.

So Akroyd and his writing partner Harold Ramis, who would both star in Ghostbusters, turned to Bill Murray to portray Jon Vekerman, completing the main cast. The chemistry between the three actors was palpable on screen, and that original 1984 Ghostbusters is still considered one of the best special effects comedies to this day.

While the cast look back on this film fondly, not every cast member had a similar experience of natural chemistry. The last academic outcast who would join them, Ernie Hudson playing Winston Zeddemore, carried a more complicated history with this film.

In an interview with the AV Club, Hudson described his time with the film as a somewhat frustrating process. Hudson’s character was never fully realized in the first nor second film. He was always an “outcast among outcasts” and was not even featured on the original movie poster.

Husdon noted that the relationship between Winston and the three other Ghostbusters was necessary, but the lack of character development for Winston and the separateness Hudson felt would be seen as a deliberate oversight in today’s political and social climate.

Ghostbusters reboots have sought to correct the wrongs of the predecessor. In changing with the social and political climate, the 2016 reboot of the franchise featured four female main characters.

The 2016 adaptation is seen by some critics as a totem to the politicization of film in Hollywood, but the original Ghostbusters is not absent political commentary. As Peter Sunderman writes, the original blockbuster film reflected a Reagan-era ideology, with the protagonists viewing “politics, bureaucracy, and regulation through the eyes of its inventor/small-business-owner heroes.”

Three out of the four main actresses were SNL comedians with the exception of one actress, Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy and Kristen Wig both worked with Paul Feig in Bridesmaids, but McCarthy is known as a frequent collaborator of Feig’s.

Still, the 2016 reboot remains controversial to many critics. While the quasi-Winston role fulfilled by Leslie Jones’ character in the 2016 reboot is less of an afterthought than in the previous film, the political statement made by the film didn’t work as well as in the original Ghostbusters. Some in the industry consider the reboot a cautionary tale for those thinking of recasting the genders of lead characters in a classic film. Other critics argue it’s a trailblazer – a martyr for better, more gender-balanced films to come.

The failure at the box office and largely negative reviews of the 2016 reboot led to the production of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It departs from the original film and takes place in Oklahoma, rather than New York. The name suggests breathing new life into a franchise some felt the 2016 reboot had killed off. As such, this new rendition focuses on the next generation of Ghostbusters: a baton-passing between the old guard and the new. Bill Murray features, but so too does Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard.

And that baton-passing was taking place behind the cameras too. The first two films in the Ghostbusters franchise were directed by Ivan Reitman; Ghostbusters: Afterlife is directed by his son, Jason Reitman. While there might be a whiff of nepotism here, Reitman is an acclaimed director in his own right, having directed Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Young Adult, Up in the Air, and Tully.

This film, as many critics have noted, is a nostalgic exercise or love letter to the franchise. In an article by Anthony Breznican, he claims that Reitman sought to unite the various fan factions, including the 2016 reboot. As Breznican writes:

"Like the 2016 film, Jason Reitman’s concept was female-led, centering on a financially strapped single mom, Callie, and her outcast daughter, Phoebe, who is struggling to make new friends. Callie’s lovesick gearhead son, Trevor restores the Ecto-1 he finds in their late grandfather’s barn and tries to impress his too-cool-for-him crush Lucky, who knows everything about the weird little town—except who his grandfather really was. Paul Rudd co-stars as a summer school teacher who’s a veritable stand-in for fanboy Gen Xers, steeped in knowledge of the original Ghostbusters, while Logan Kim plays a conspiracy-obsessed middle school pal of Phoebe’s. Every generation has a stake in the tale."

This film also looks different to the previous films and carries a Spielbergian ode with magic-hour shots of the kids becoming a new generation’s heroes. There are clear moments of fan service in the dusting off of proton packs and the iconic Ecto-1, but the production also sought to respect the legacy of Harold Ramis, the original films’ co-writer, who died in 2014. As Jack King writes for The Collider, Ramis’ family was involved throughout the production of this heartfelt resurrection.

The 2016 Ghostbusters has received a fan score of 49% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ghostbusters: Afterlife has proven far more popular with audiences, accruing a score of 94%. The latter’s consideration of fan groups, its willingness to try new things, and its ability to demonstrate respect for the franchise’s forebears were essential to its success as a “gruesomely sentimental” film.

And much of that was in the casting, which many felt to have been inelegant in the 2016 reboot, but carefully and lovingly handled in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. What would the lesson be for would-be rebooters of other cherished franchises? Fans don’t mind seeing new actors assume the roles of iconic characters – but respect in the casting and the writing, and a liberal dose of nostalgia, can go a long way.

Marie is currently living in the Bay Area, working as a paralegal. She has an enduring love for movies. When she is not writing or working, she loves getting outdoors, watching movies, reading, and travelling.

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