A Chill in the Air

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Due to the fan reaction to the female-led Ghostbusters (aka, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call), Sony (the studio behind the franchise) felt the need to retool. That team of Ghostbusters was ignored, many plans Sony had for future films were put on hold, and the whole franchise was taken back to basics. Very back to basics. As in the original continuity of films was brought back, everything that wasn’t part of the films was cast aside, and a third movie for that franchise was made. Titled Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the film came out in 2021 and was generally met with acclaim by the fans. “A return to form for the Ghostbusters,” was said, along with, “so much better than Lady Ghostbusters.”

Thing is, the Ghostbusters fandom is just as toxic (if not even more so) than the Star Wars fandom. If it’s not exactly the films they remember from their youth (such as having the gall to put women as the heroes in a Ghostbusters movie), the fans will complain up a storm. The vitriol thrown at Ghostbusters: Answer the Call was massive, chasing some of the stars of the movie offline for a time. The other side of it, though, is that the only people supporting the franchise are those fans. It doesn’t grow the franchise, it contracts it around that fervent core.

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call wasn’t a huge success, making $229.1 Mil against a $144 Mil budget, but it’s also been the highest grossing of the three films to come out in the continuing franchise. Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a success because its budget was smaller, only $75 Mil, while making $204.3 Mil during its release. Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, will likely go down as a failure, though, since it made even less, $201.8 Mil, against a slightly inflated, $100 Mil budget. Films have to make twice their budget to be considered successful and, so far, the franchise is trending in the other direction.

I’m not here to say that Ghostbusters: Answer the Call should have gotten a sequel instead of Sony moving ahead with this resurrected franchise. It did have an inflated budget and didn’t seem to garner enough response to make up for those fervent, hardcore fans not showing up. I will note, though, that if Sony wants to get more people to come to these films and to continue building this franchise, it needs to crank out better, more interesting movies than Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. This is a weak fourth (or fifth) entry in the series, and a bad Ghostbusters movie in general. Whatever your feelings on the female-led version, I have to think everyone can admit it’s better than this warmed (cooled?) over five-quel.

The latest film in the series sees the Spangler family – Carrie Coon as mother Callie Spengler, Finn Wolfhard as son Trevor Spengler, Mckenna Grace as brainy daughter Phoebe Spengler, along with Paul Rudd as (mom's boyfriend? fiance? guy-pal?) Gary Grooberson – in New York, running the original Ghostbusters franchise. They’re been chasing ghosts down all around the city, but that has led to some damage to buildings and other resources. The mayor of the city, former EPA inspector (and Mr. Dickless) Walter Peck (William Atherton), wants them gone, and will use this damage as an excuse to put them on final notice. One more screw up and they’re gone for good.

However, the very Ghostbusters that the mayor wants to get rid of will also be needed when a new threat to the city comes along. An ancient spectral demon who controls fear and ice, Garraka, is accidentally released at the new Ghostbusters lab founded by Dr. Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), and with the demon on the loose, all of New York could find itself buried under a deadly layer of ice. There’s only one team capable of handling a threat this big, the one team you always call for demons and specters. The Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is a deeply flawed movie. It’s not unwatchable and, in fact, I’d say that for a good length of its run time it’s a fun, if shallow, film. The problem is that by the last act the fun of the film gives way to generic spookiness, while the shallowness of the storytelling never actually gets any heft to it. The film remains empty and threadbare throughout, leading to a movie that has the look and feel of a Ghostbusters adventure but none of the comedy soul to it. Story wise, it’s the weakest of the films so far.

The entire plot of the movie boils down to, “there’s a demon in a brass ball and it sure would be bad if it somehow got out.” And then it gets out. So, of course, the Ghostbusters have to fight it. That’s not a spoiler, as that basic plot was revealed in the trailers, mind you. Still, the film never rises above that. There aren’t really any surprises, no unexpected twists or turns. It’s a very flat, basic monster-of-the-week story that would feel more at home in, say, a Ghostbusters television series (like The Real Ghostbusters) than in a big-budget (or even mid-budget) blockbuster.

Much of that is because the villain at the center of it all, Garraka (who has the name of a Z-list Mortal Kombat villain), doesn’t have any personality to him. The first film of the franchise gave us the envoys of Gozer, who were two characters we’d grown to enjoy across the length of the film, before they were possessed by the big bad. The second film provided us with Vigo the Destroyer, who we glimpsed in his painting regularly, and who threw out a lot of lower-level underlings (and one confused Museum worker named Janosz) to fill the film and give the villain’s plans some depth. But Garraka sits in a ball and, sometimes, chills things. He doesn’t have characters serving as his envoys. He doesn’t do anything truly terrifying for much of the runtime. He sits there, in a ball. He’s a mid-grade villain at best.

The film tries to make up for this by setting up a separate C-plot, with Phoebe befriending a ghost, Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), and learning about what it's like to be a ghost. This does, eventually, tie into the main plot (in expected ways that won’t come as a surprise but, for the sake of it, I won’t spoil), but suffice it to say that this plot doesn’t really play out as well as it should. Phoebe wondering what it’s like to be a ghost is a character development that comes out of nowhere, with it just being some new quirk of hers that didn’t have any development prior to this film. It feels like Marty McFly refusing to be called “chicken” in the later Back to the Future films simply because he needed to have a character quirk. Phoebe suddenly wants to know what it’s like to be a ghost despite her, you know, fighting ghosts. It’s weird and doesn’t suit her character at all.

We also get another new character in Nadeem Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani). Razmaadi sets the events of the film into motion by selling the brass ball with a demon in it to Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), but then he keeps showing up in the film. His family has a connection to the demon (which I won’t spoil) and then, suddenly, Razmaadi is needed for the climax because, apparently, more characters were needed in this film. Nanjiani is having fun in this film, and I like him as an actor, but his entire plotline could have been cut and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all.

This, in point of fact, could have been done with so many of the cast members of this film. We have the new characters, Melody and Razmaadi plus Patton Oswalt as Dr. Hubert Wartzki and James Acaster as Dr. Lars Pinfield, two more paranormal researchers. We have the characters from Ghostbusters: Afterlife, with not just Callie, Trevor, Phoebe, and Gary returning but also Logan Kim as Podcast and Celeste O'Connor as Lucky Domingo. Then we have the returning originals, with Bill Murray's Dr. Peter Venkman and Annie Potts's Janine Melnitz joining Ray and Winston. What do all of these characters do? Not much. You could excise almost the entire cast considering none of them have real character arcs, and the film wouldn’t miss any of them at all.

I get why the original cast members are here from the first films. They’re legacy characters and the fans want them (the same fans that are the only people supporting these films now). Let them cameo, sure, but if they’re going to be in the movie maybe give them something to do. All of the side characters (and by that I mean, Trevor, Lucky, Podcast, Razmaadi, and even Melody) could all be removed. Send the teens off to college, never introduce Razmaadi (and have Ray buy the orb off Ebay), and don’t bother creating Melody at all. If you remove all of that then you could actually get at the one story that matters: Phoebe wondering what her place on the team really means.

Phoebe goes and hangs out with Melody because she’s not allowed to bust ghosts anymore (Mayor’s orders since she’s 15 and it’s dangerous, which is fair). Melody gets mad at her mom, and Gary, and then she goes off to sulk. If, instead, there was more development between her and Gary (which the film does have, and it works) as well as her and her mom (which is missing from the film entirely) then we could get a real story about a family struggling to both bust ghosts and be a family together. That’s a story that would be interesting, especially if then, somehow, Garraka can lure Phoebe in with the promise of real power, or a team she can be part of, or something. She’s the smartest, best character on the team and would be an easy prize for any villain. The film doesn’t notice that at all.

More than anything, though, I just want the events of this film to matter. There are so many characters, with so little to do, and not enough stuff going on, that the film never really takes off. The first half of the film is funny because there are a lot of funny people in it trying to make the movie work. At a certain point, though, the film realizes it has to release its villain, and then have the heroes fight it out, and it all becomes so rote and boring. It’s not an entertaining film, it’s just an exercise in franchise continuation.

There’s a core of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire that could work. A trimmed down, focused movie that actually could understand its characters and how they could relate to an interesting Ghostbusters tale could work in this context. If, somehow, we actually get a third of these continuation movies, I really hope the writer, producers, and director can all get on the same page and make a movie that actually matters. Or, at the very least, one that is truly funny throughout.