‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ Review: A Beloved Franchise Goes Bust

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The title Ghostbusters: Afterlife implies this franchise is already dead. Based on the film itself, maybe it is. At best, this series now exists only to give audiences a chance to bask in their warm memories of earlier, better movies. At worst, Afterlife is a coldly calculated exercise in nostalgiasploitation disguised as a love letter to a beloved work of cinema. Director Jason Reitman, paying homage to his father Ivan’s most famous work, remains dutifully faithful to the original Ghostbusters, at least in terms of its gadgets, costumes, special effects, and score. But he completely lost the first film’s anarchic comedy and rebellious vibe. The result plays like a technically proficient but soulless cover of a classic rock song. The notes are the same, but the meaning is missing.

The trailers have scrupulously avoided revealing many of the key details of the plot — including the basic setup of Afterlife’s very first scene — so I will try to proceed carefully. While the original Ghostbusters team does appear, the main characters are a single mom and her two teenage children: Callie (Carrie Coon), Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), respectively. They’re evicted from their apartment just as Callie’s absentee father dies somewhere in Oklahoma, leaving them his farm full of dirt and rusted junk.

With nowhere else to go, the family relocates to the Sooner State. Phoebe, a budding science genius, discovers a hidden lab full of ghostbusting equipment hidden under a barn. Trevor finds the old Ecto-1 in the garage and gets it working again. It turns out their grandfather was Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis), and he left them this farm and its secret cache of proton packs for a very specific reason. Together with a few of their friends — including Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and a classmates of Phoebe’s named, um, Podcast (Logan Kim) — they begin defending their town from a spectral invasion.

When Egon’s motivations for ditching the rest of the Ghostbusters and relocating to a farm in the middle of nowhere — not to mention for abandoning his daughter and grandchildren for their entire lives — are eventually revealed, they are wholly unsatisfying and unconvincing. I don’t know this for a fact, but it appears that Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan wanted to find a way to honor Egon by including him in the film, while having to work around the fact that Ramis passed away in 2014. Their solution was to jury-rig a flimsy excuse for Egon to isolate himself from his friends and family, leaving him as both absence and presence in Afterlife. But the whole subplot falls apart with the slightest bit of consideration.

A similar lack of logic infects the rest of the story. Phoebe is brilliant but for some reason she also has to attend summer school, where her teacher, Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), hates his job and his students but is also an expert seismologist and seemingly the only person alive who remembers that 35 years ago the Ghostbusters stopped a giant marshmallow man from bringing about the end of the world. They all live in a place called Summerville, the sort of phony, idealized image of small-town America that only exists in movies. There’s maybe 20 residents in the entire city — Mr. Grooberson goes to the local Walmart to buy some ice cream and he’s the only one there who’s not a ghost — and everyone either works or hangs out at the local drive-in restaurant, which is staffed by enthusiastic carhops like something out of American Graffiti. 

The cast does what they can with some very underwritten roles. Callie’s entire personality stems from her hatred of her father. She’s barely interested in her kids’ lives and it’s not even clear what she does with her time while they’re off at school and/or busting ghosts. Rudd has exactly the right comic energy for a modern Ghostbusters but the script leaves him little to do but explain the first movie’s events and technology to the younger heroes — who are all cute and enthusiastic, but mostly feel like a cynical attempt to graft a kid-friendly point-of-view onto a property (not to mention a narrative) that’s obsessed with things that happened almost four decades ago.

Rather than flesh out the new characters, Reitman fixates on fan service. He lingers over the old Ghostbusters traps, PKE meters, and proton packs. He recreates specific lines from the 1984 Ghostbusters exactly. He fills Egon’s farmhouse with Easter eggs. The whole movie is basically the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV meme from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for 125 straight minutes. That includes his use of the surviving Ghostbusters cast, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson. In their limited scenes, they are actually very funny and charming, and they all effortlessly slip back into their old roles. But even with Egon’s importance to the overall plot, they’re a tiny part of Afterlife, just another piece of the first film to dust off and smile at in recognition for a minute or two before it’s on to the next familiar prop or music cue.

I am sure Jason Reitman loves the original Ghostbusters. He clearly knows it well. But for all his deference to it, he seems to have completely missed what made that Ghostbusters work. It wasn’t just that the guys wore cool jumpsuits or had fun gadgets, or that it made science seem cool to a generation of budding nerds. Strip away the sci-fi trappings and Ghostbusters really is just an archetypical slobs versus snobs comedy. The ghosts aren’t even really the villains. The true bad guys are the stuffy, humorless authority figures who stifle Venkman, Stanz, and Spengler at every turn: the EPA’s Walter Peck, most obviously, but also the Dean at Columbia University who fires them, and the manager of the Sedgwick Hotel who thinks they’re quacks. Even Gozer, with her supernatural heels and supermodel haircut, belongs to that group.

That energy is totally missing from Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Phoebe is nominally an outcast because of her enormous intellect and passion for science, but none of the kids at school tease or antagonize her. Trevor falls for Lucky at the drive-in, but she’s enamored with him almost immediately and their relationship proceeds without a hiccup. There’s a local sheriff, played by Bokeem Woodbine, but his role is so brief he doesn’t pose a threat to the new Ghostbusters. There are no human villains, in other words, and Reitman finds nothing to replace them except hollow nostalgia.

Even if you don’t love the 1984 Ghostbusters as much as Jason Reitman (or, frankly, me), you have to at least acknowledge that the film had wit and style and some authentic New York attitude. One of the reasons it appealed so strongly to kids in the ’80s was because it wasn’t necessarily a movie designed for them. Aykroyd initially conceived the project as another Blues Brothers-style vehicle for him and John Belushi, and the final production maintained plenty of grit and grime, with a ton of scares and a fair amount of off-color humor. Afterlife is packed with Ghostbusters paraphernalia, but that spirit is nowhere in sight.

Additional Thoughts:

-Introducing the world premiere screening of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason Reitman said he “had the luckiest childhood a kid could have,” because he got to grow up around his dad’s movies and hang out on the set of the original Ghostbusters. Yet Afterlife features two different deadbeat dads whose absence in their children’s lives causes catastrophic emotional damage. That’s a weird way to pay tribute your beloved father.

RATING: 3/10

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