Wednesday 27 March 2024

REVIEW - Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

 This review contains some spoilers

Having relaunched the franchise again with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan return with what might be described as an episode of the ongoing Ghostbusters series. In spite of some negative reviews, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire has done well enough that it's likely we'll get a run of films, coming in every few years, continuing the paranormal exterminators' adventures. Kenan has said that he and Reitman have storylines ready to go for future movies. This, then, is basically the first regular episode after the pilot.

On the whole, I preferred Frozen Empire to Afterlife, for several reasons. First and foremost, this film was simply a lot of fun, something which seems so low on people's priorities for movies these days. Reitman and Kenan stated in interviews that they were going for the feel of an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, magnified for the big screen, and they absolutely achieve that. It's a funny, busy, silly adventure that still finds time for character work, like all the best episodes of RGB.

It massively helps that this film features a new villain, instead of the retread of the first film we got with Afterlife. Of course, it's understandable that a relaunch of the original continuity after decades would bring back the classic Big Bad for a rematch, but Afterlife reused some of those elements so slavishly it verged on a remake. Frozen Empire, on the other hand, gives us a brand new monster to threaten New York and the world.

Still, this film ostensibly ties in with the original's fortieth anniversary (although you'd have expected them to release it in June for that), and as such it has plenty of characters, ghosts and settings included as references to the past. While the Oklahoma setting of Afterlife was a breath of fresh air, it feels right that we're back in New York for this one (although excursions to other cities, state and even countries was par for the course on RGB). As with Afterlife, the bulk of the original's surviving core cast return. However, while in the previous film this was little more than a bunch of glorified cameos, here the characters feel more integrated into the story.

Winston and “Dr. Ray” benefit the most from this approach. Winston, now a hugely successful business, is now the owner of the firehouse and seemingly the Ghostbusters organisation itself, financing research and development while the new team get on with the everyday business of busting. Ray, on the other hand, is where he belongs, running his spooky little shop, helping out with research where he can and tenuously entering the 21st century with a new YouTube series on allegedly haunted artefacts. Ernie Hudson is a class act as always, wile Dan Aykroyd basically just is Ray at this point.

Less well served are Venkman and Janine, who come across as a little shoehorned in, but at least they have a reason to be there. Venkman gets to do his somewhat dodgy parapsychologist schtick in the service of the mission, while Janine finally gets to suit up, itself a much deserved reason to include her. Annie Potts seems to be having a great time, but Bill Murray comes across as running on autopilot. The final actor to return from the original is William Atherton as the hated Walter Peck, rather brilliantly now mayor of New York and still determined to shut the Ghostbusters down. He's great in the scenes he has, but he's a bit underused here. Still, it's a nice way to tie events back to the beginning without just repeating things.

It's the new cast who continue to impress the most. While it's very much an ensemble film, McKenna Grace still stands out as the star. Phoebe Spengler is now fifteen, becoming more frustrated and confrontational with her family, particularly when they acquiesce to Peck's demands and bench her until she comes of age. (Peck, like in the original, isn't wrong in his judgments, but he goes about enforcing them in a destructive way.) Phoebe gets a wonderful storyline to herself in which she bonds with Melody, the ghost of a girl who burned to death years before. Emily Alyn Lynn has a real presence as the ghost, whose friendship (and hints of romance) with Phoebe aligns with her increasing isolation and advances the plot.

Finn Wolfhard gives a solid performance as Trevor, now eighteen and struggling to prove himself as an adult and a Ghostbuster. Logan Kim is pitch perfect as Podcast, now working with Ray at the Occult Bookstore and managing his online activities. Kim has grown up a lot between films and steals a lot of his scenes with his infectious humour. A little underused is Celeste O'Connor as Lucky Domingo, who at least gets some great busting scenes interning for Winston's team.

Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd gives the film an emotional centre as Callie Spengler and Gary Grooberson, now an honorary Spengler, now a running the Ghostbusters street team as a couple. Rudd has some sweet moments as he slowly learns how to become a father to Phoebe, although he does get saddled with some awkward exposition to bring audience members up to speed with developments from the previous film.

Some of the best material goes to entirely new characters. Surprisingly essential to the story after a seemingly throwaway introduction is Kumail Nanjiani as Nadeem, a dropout looking for a quick buck who turns out to have a powerful secret hidden even from him. Nanjiani gets some of the funniest moments of the movie,carrying what could have been a ridiculous character by just running with it. I was a little dubious of James Acaster's casting, knowing him purely as a stand-up comedian rather than an actor, but his curt inventor character Dr. Lars Pinfield is a joy. Plus, it's good to have a Brit in there at the heart of the Ghostbusters team, heading up research and development for the new generation. Stealing his scene is Patton Oswalt as the enthusiastic occult historian Dr. Hubert Wartzki, although he is in the film for only a brief time. Still, he manages to make a long run of exposition highly entertaining.

When it comes to the various ghosts and goblins, Frozen Empire serves fans well. For celebratory purposes, Slimer is back, still hanging around the firehouse after Ghostbusters II and now hiding out in the attic, while Eleanor Twitty, the library ghost, has a brief cameo. The latter is pointless but fun and over in seconds, while Slimer actually has some impact on events, with Trevor having a fun little sideplot dealing with attempts to catch the critter. Of all the classic ghosts, it's Slimer who really had to be there, especially as he was absent from Afterlife. Surprisingly, given that this film follow up on the post-credits danger signs on the containment unit from the previous film and everything eventually breaks free, we don't get a ton of cameos from ghosts from the classic films. We do, however, have a lot of little Mini-Pufts running around; they're fun, but the joke's wearing thin with those guys. Time to melt them down.

There are plenty of new spooks, courtesy of Winston's new spectral research facility. Pukey, a revolting little spud, is no doubt included to be the new kids' favourite, while the simply but effectively realised Possessor makes for fun and threat as it jumps between various objects which it brings to life. Starting out with a major bust, in this case the thrilling car chase after the wonderfully realised Sewer Dragon, kicks the main body of the film off nicely, and it's satisfying that both puppetry and CGI are utilised together here.

The Big Bad for the film, the great demon Garraka, is a suitably threatening creation, an inhumanly thin, ghoulish creature with impressive horns. He's a striking image, and his power, to freeze people using their own fear, is enjoyably nasty. However, while I'm pleased that the film has considerable build-up to his eventual appearance, once he's there he's dispensed with far too quickly. It almost feels like we're missing an act, giving the film a rushed ending which badly affects its overall pacing.

Afterlife notoriously and controversially brought back the late Egon Spengler as a ghost, there to help and reconnect with his family. Here we have Melody, and while her motives are complex, she's another ghost who is very human in her thoughts and actions, rather than the monstrous manifestations we usually see. The majority of entities in these films have been godlike things far beyond humanity, virtually mindless creatures that never were human, or the ghosts of humans whose evil has made them monstrous in their afterlife. There's a lot more room for exploration here, to see more traditional ghosts who are intelligent, self-aware and altogether human, and the questions that raises for the Ghostbusters and their treatment of spirits. There could be some dramatic consequences there, along with the fact that, while they're praised as heroes at the end, the Ghostbusters and their new ally Nadeem are responsible for everything bad that happens in this film.

Altogether, Frozen Empire is good fun, and while it can't hold a candle to the original, it's a step up from Afterlife. Where it works best is in its original elements, and this is where the franchise needs to go next. While the old guard are better used here, this really should stand as the final handover to the new generation. The inclusion of the classic crew, the Spenglers and the new characters leaves this film (ghost)busting at the seams. The next film really needs to let the past go for good, focusing entirely on the modern team and more new ghosts for them to face. Let's really evoke The Real Ghostbusters and bring is some truly weird stuff.

Spoiler-y elements lifted straight from The Real Ghostbusters:

  • The possessed Ecto-1 and a haunted stone lion both appear in the first RGB season.

  • The possessed pizza brings to mind the pizza monster in the title sequence for the Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters iteration.

  • Phoebe temporarily leaving her body is not unlike the times her father was discorporalised/forced from his body in RGB.

  • Even the Mini-Pufts originated in The Return of Mr. Stay Puft, a comicbook collection from 1990.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

REVIEW: The Black Archive - Midnight by Philip Purser-Hallard

Obverse Books' Black Archive range is something of a marvel. I wouldn't have thought it was possible to find a book's worth of material to say about each and every Doctor Who story, but here we are, at the 69th volume. Philip Purser-Hallard (The Pendragon Protocol, The Vanishing Man, Of the City of the Saved...) delivers his fourth entry in the series with Midnight, analysing the 2008 episode widely considered one of modern Who's finest hours (or at least, one of its finest 43 minutes). It's even more impressive to create an engaging full-length piece on a single episode, although that this is even possible shows the depth of many of Doctor Who's 21st century episodes. Midnight itself is an episode that is crying out for a dissection like this, so it's surprising it's taken so long for the range to reach it.

In spite of episode's simple storyline and production, a consequence of the need to produce an episode cheaply and quickly before season four's big finale, it's a narrative filled with questions and room for exploration. Purser-Hallard delves into the traditions of the script, both televisual and theatrical, drawing fascinating parallels with productions both within the series (such as The Edge of Destruction) and without (Arthur Miller's The Crucible). Purser-Hallard analyses the social commentary within the episode, delving into each character's background, taking them apart to show remarkable depth for what, at first glance, may seem like sketched-in characters. He notes that the script's author, Russell T. Davies, picks out easily recognisable archetypes to populate his story, but that this adds depth and complexity without the need to spell everything about the characters out. Some of the analysis of the character names seems to be taking things a little far, though, seeing parallels that unlikely to be deliberate. Similarly, the seemingly counter-intuitive name for the planet and story, Midnight, was probably chosen for no deeper reason than it sounded cool.

Purser-Hallard takes a very writerly perspective on the episode, viewing it in context with the traditions of storytelling. As well as more contemporary forms of story, he adroitly links Midnight, with its nameless horror that steals the very voice of the protagonist, to fairytales and folklore. Even then, he brings it bang up to date by comparing it with the most recent Doctor Who episode, The Church on Ruby Road, with its own take on fairytale monsters. From a fan perspective, some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the fiction itself. After all, with the possible exception of Listen, Midnight features the most obscure and unknowable monster of any Doctor Who story, simply asking for an essay discussing just who or what it is. Equally intriguing is the later section dealing with the Doctor's character in this episode, one which takes him to task for his many flaws; again, Purser-Hallard's essay reflects the story itself while also looking at it through the lens of the most recent Doctor Who episodes, in which David Tennant returned as an older, more refined version of his Doctor.

As effective as the main essays are, the part that was most informative for me was the appendix, which details the three stage productions of Midnight. This was news to me, and it was fascinating to read the differences between the productions in their approaches to performance and casting, backed up by interviews with some of the creatives involved. Altogether, a very strong entry to the Black Archive, giving the reader plenty to think about next time they watch this acclaimed episode.