REVIEW: 'Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire'

Someone get a blowtorch

March 22, 2024

So as you're struggling to stay in the theater, or just stay awake, through the entire—not very long—running time of the new Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, you might find yourself noticing that Bill Murray only appears in about five minutes of the picture and he seems, well, divorced from the other people in the movie.

In his first appearance, his character, Peter Venkman, throws pens at the head of the comedian Kumail Nanjiani… but we never actually see them interact. Later we see him enter the Ghostbusters fire station from the old movies and kid around with Annie Potts, the remarkably well-preserved secretary from back in the 1980s—this may be the movie's only genuinely enjoyable moment—but are Murray and Potts actually looking at each other or at tennis balls on a green screen?

And while Venkman and Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz, the buddy team from the first two movies back in the 1980s, are supposed to have been best friends then and best friends now, they do not have a moment together. Only at the very end, where the original busting team of Murray, Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Potts are seen pulling down on a handle, do they all seem to be on the same set in the same scene in the same movie at the same time.

Welcome to the future of movies. Green screens and AI and actors' schedules are going to mean it will be possible for entire pictures and television series to be produced in which the interplay of characters and the performers who inhabit them are created through digital editing rather than the filming of them working off each other.

We've had tastes of this before, notably in the absolutely dreadful Fast X, in which Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron and Brie Larson and a few other players who only appear for a few minutes are clearly standing alone on a stage in London or Atlanta or somewhere reading lines with an assistant director, getting a million-dollar check for their time, and vamoosing back on a private plane to their PrivatePlaneLandia. Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly didn't even know she was in Spider-Man: Homecoming because they'd cut her in from a scene she'd filmed years earlier for some other Marvel picture and didn't even bother to tell her.

Yes, there's going to be a lot more of this, and the problem is that no matter how good they get at it, some part of us is going to know we're not seeing people acting together, and the degeneration of our interest in what movie honchos and streamer bigwigs are throwing at us will continue and perhaps accelerate.

Since Murray is only one of two reasons even to bother seeing Frozen Empire—the other being Dan Aykroyd, who delivers an actual performance of disarming sweetness utterly unlike any other Aykroyd turn before this—it is unnerving to realize he's mostly not even in it. In some sense, I'm glad for Murray's sake, since he's just too good for it. This enervating, overplotted, and underrealized picture is the second entry in a Ghostbusters Reboot Universe mostly featuring teenage characters we saw a couple of years ago in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (which was more a ripoff of Stranger Things than anything else). I didn't care about those kids then and I really didn't care about them now. And I don't think I'm alone.

Who goes to a movie called Ghostbusters to watch a teenage girl having fake conflicts with her mother and her mother's boyfriend about whether she can or cannot be a Ghostbuster? Those adults are perfectly happy for her to be a Ghostbuster; it's only that the rotten mayor of New York (William Atherton, who was the evil guy from the government in the original) says he'll arrest them and tear down the Ghostbusters fire station if he catches her doing it. So what is she mad at them for? And why is she playing chess with a ghost in Washington Square Park? And why does she say she wants to be a ghost for two minutes?

Her being a ghost for two minutes turns out to be a central feature of the immensely complicated and utterly uninteresting plot, which is nonetheless so immensely complicated that we get about 10 minutes of exposition laying it out for us, including animated sand paintings you can barely make out. The one thing we're told about this movie's Big Bad—not Gozer the Gozerian, but rather someone named something like Gonzaga or Gazala or something—is that he is so scary he scares people to death as they feel the icy fingers of terror climb up their spine. But then that doesn't happen at all! He's just an ice monster who freezes people and makes icicles pop up on Coney Island's beach. And he can be stopped by… get this… fire.

Ooooh. Fire. Scary.

Ghostbusters was a sensation in 1984 and remains some kind of second-rate classic—I say second-rate because even though it made the equivalent of $750 million in theaters alone in 1984, it's pretty messy and crudely made. But it resonates because it is a screwball comedy about failed egghead academics who take on difficult working-class jobs and make an unexpected success of themselves.

That's a great plot and the director Ivan Reitman and screenwriters Aykroyd and Harold Ramis really ran with it. The Ghostbusters are just exterminators—only what they do is clear places of ghosts in the shambolic New York City of the 1980s, where everything was so lousy and out of control that the idea ghosts were wandering around causing all kinds of damage didn't actually seem especially surprising to anyone.

I actually like Ghostbusters 2 better, which is very much a minority opinion. But all three efforts to evoke it in the past 10 years—the horrible female Ghostbusters picture in 2016 and these two new ones, shepherded to the screen by Reitman's son Jason—succeed in one way in creating an unearthly mood. By the time they're over, they've made you wish you were dead.

Published under: Movie Reviews