Ghostbusters: Afterlife – Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman. Starring Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfharm, McKenna Grace, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, Bokeem Woodbine, Tracy Letts, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Wilde, and the voice of Josh Gad
**1/2 out of ****
One of the most frustrating things about this polarized world we live in is how Ghostbusters – an amusing satire of 1980s New York filled with chaotic special effects – somehow became a political flashpoint. The divisive 2016 reboot, which was ultimately a generic Paul Feig comedy that deserved neither the ridiculous hate it got nor the energetic defenses, came and went. While I wasn’t a big fan, I think its biggest problem was that it simply wasn’t what any Ghostbusters fan wanted. Not because of the female cast, but because after thirty years, it simply turned its back on the old universe and left the fans still hanging.
Into that void comes Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which takes the exact opposite approach. MCU films look at this movie and go “Dude, dial it back a little with the callbacks to past films”. It’s firmly grounded in Ghostbusters lore and can’t go five minutes without dropping a reference. The problem is, it gives people who don’t rewatch the old ones very little reason to care. Sequels to franchises that are long-gone are becoming the hottest thing. The Incredibles returned after more than a decade off. Bad Boys brought back the original cast and won the much-abridged 2020 box office race. Some returns are less welcome, but overall nostalgia sells right now. The difference is, most of the others feel like a fresh start while Ghostbusters: Afterlife feels like a resurrection – for good and bad.
This movie feels like it’s trying to be countless things for countless people, and that’s its biggest problem. From the trailers, it was clear that the big inspiration here wasn’t Ghostbusters, it was the wildly popular Netflix drama Stranger Things. Small town full of mysteries and horror? Check. Nerdy kids getting in adventures? Check. Finn Wolfhard? Check! After a brief wordless prologue where Egon Spengler (played by the late Harold Ramis and brought to life here via body doubles and CGI) meets his end at the hands of a supernatural menace, we meet the main cast of the film. Egon’s daughter, single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) gets evicted just as she learns she’s inherited a creepy old farmhouse from her estranged dad. She packs up her kids, sullen fifteen-year-old Trevor (Wolfhard, playing the Jonathan/Steve role here) and awkward twelve-year-old Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and moves them to Summerville, a tiny town in Oklahoma right out of Footloose. Only here, instead of cranky pastors, the main threat is supernatural phenomena and mysterious earthquakes.
Wolfhard and Grace are effortlessly likable and their scenes are easily the best in the film. Carrie Coon is good as well, although the film gives her some heavy material to deal with and the script isn’t really up to the task. Ghostbusters is a lighthearted franchise at its core, something the 2016 film got right (maybe a little too well). Afterlife swings dramatically in the other direction, and its themes of parental abandonment don’t exactly mesh with visual gags like mini-Stay-Pufts and a gluttonous tardigrade-ghost named Muncher who seems designed to be a plush toy. Other cast members add to the lighter tone. Paul Rudd’s Gary Grooberson, a summer school science teacher and Ghostbusters superfan, is a fun presence but mostly seems here to deliver exposition.
Of course, it’s no surprise that the original Ghostbusters make a return – Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stanz was heard in the trailer – and I was glad to see all three survivors return along with supporting cast members Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver. However, don’t expect them to take over the film – it’s mostly cameos and retcons until the big finale when they show up to play heroes. I think that’s for the best – Murray in particular looks like he just shambled in from a beach vacation. It’s definitely a better tribute to the original cast than having them show up in random cameos like the 2016 movie did, and it allows the new cast to shine.
The problem is, while the cast carries much of the movie, the plot is not up to snuff. As soon as the larger mystery at the core of Summerville starts being revealed, it’s pretty clear which notorious Ghostbuster bad guy is to blame. There are some clever callbacks to past mythology, but it relies too much on a sense of recognition rather than the plot standing on its own. Rudd and Coon have surprisingly little to do in the film beyond a slow-burn romance, with both being sidelined before the final act by a supernatural twist of fate. That allows the young cast to take over as the new Ghostbusters, with Phoebe, Trevor, and Podcast being joined by Trevor’s girlfriend Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) for chaotic plasma-blasting rides through town. It’s a lot of fun watching the kids discover the Ghostbusters legacy, but this portion of the film feels the most derivative of Stranger Things.
It’s impossible to talk about this film without discussing the legacy of Harold Ramis. The brilliant writer and director died in 2014, and in many ways this movie is a tribute to him – in some ways more explicit than others. His family approved of everything that was done here, so it’s hard to question it too much. However, his presence in the movie is unsettling at points, without getting too much into spoilers. It’s both a testament to the power of CGI and a warning sign that we might be getting a little too good at this. The final act does pack a serious emotional punch and puts a solid bow on the franchise.
And that’s what brings me to my final point about Ghostbusters: Afterlife – in many ways, it is the final chapter fans have been asking for. It continues the story rather than rebooting the franchise. But many fans still seem unsatisfied, feeling that the originals play second-fiddle. Well, of course they do – they’re all old now. And that’s the movie’s biggest problem – it’s trying to be everything to all people. For many old-time fans, it’s like returning to your favorite restaurant from when you were a kid and realizing nothing tastes the same. This is always the biggest pitfall of long-term revivals. Sometimes you just can’t win, and after two relaunches with mixed results, it might be time to let the Ghostbusters rest in peace.