Five years after a reboot with an all-female cast failed to light up the box office, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is here to bring a troubled franchise back from the brink of death.
Though the engine that’s currently driving the saga is a woefully misguided one, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, helmed by Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman’s son, Jason Reitman, is undeniably the best-case scenario for a franchise-inclined Ghostbusters sequel in 2021.
Spiritually the reincarnation of the 1984 classic with plenty of its own invention, Afterlife is the rare instance where a crippling case of nostalgia results in something exciting, fresh, and moving.
Afterlife directly siphons its energies from 2015’s overtly reverent Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is strange because Ghostbusters has always been an irreverent comedy about falling backward into business in ‘80s New York. But for a troubled film series preoccupied with death, Ghostbusters: Afterlife bears witness to a rebirth.
Set after 1989’s Ghostbusters II (and disregarding the 2016 film entirely), Ghostbusters: Afterlife moves from Manhattan to Somerville, a sprawling stretch of nowhere in Oklahoma. The only point of interest is an abandoned mining mound where bored teenagers hang out and see the view. But there’s something very old and very evil that awaits below.
Stumbling into this podunk town are the Spenglers, a family of three: 12-year-old Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), 15-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and Callie Spengler, single mother to both, played by a lively Carrie Coon. Evicted and broke, Callie moves her family to a decrepit farmhouse owned by her late, estranged father. The two inquisitive children find gadgets, relics, and eerie phenomena. There’s also a recurring series of unnatural quakes that plague the town, which baffles a geeky science teacher, Mr. Gooberson (Paul Rudd).
Afterlife makes franchise filmmaking look simple.
Eventually, the children learn their grandfather was Dr. Egon Spengler (belonging to the late Harold Ramis), a scientist central to supernatural occurrences that plagued New York decades earlier. He is also a polarizing figure to those he left behind. “Egon Spengler can rot in hell,” one character remarks icily. The kids join their friends, diner server Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), and a serial podcaster whose name is — and I’m serious — Podcast (Logan Kim) to learn about their grandfather’s tools and discover the haunting of their new home.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife makes franchise filmmaking look simple with sublime visual direction and a serious sense of humor (“Phoebe, be a dear and break into your grandfather’s house”). Afterlife lives by the strengths of Reitman’s guiding hand and ensemble of misfits who latch onto Ghostbuster gear as if they were summoned.
Save for the terrific and scene-chewing Mckenna Grace, who channels Ramis’ eccentricity to put on a performance that’s entirely hers, Afterlife’s characters are a fresh batch of original prototypes. Even characters who seem ready to derail the movie, like Podcast (a diminutive Rufio who might collapse under audio equipment), are so charming and charismatic they win over even the most cynical hearts with ease.
Afterlife takes the 1984 film and cranks up the volume.
These characters walk and talk like none of the original cast members, even when the new movie virtually replicates their places in the plot. Unfortunately, they are just as static as their predecessors, with only Callie and Phoebe having anything close to a complete narrative arc. But their easygoing vibes are enough to propel audiences from beginning to end, just like in 1984.
Afterlife loves that it’s a Ghostbusters movie. Those familiar Proton Pack blasts and Ecto-1 sirens are beefed up in Afterlife, amplified as though the saga is roaring back to life than merely awakening. Composer Rob Simonsen remixes the motifs of late Ghostbusters composer Elmer Bernstein into something bigger and grander than Bernstein’s whimsy. If the 2016 movie seemed too brazen, Afterlife genuflects at the altar in a way that comes across as precious overcorrection.
But it’s a relief, too, that the movie is keenly aware of the original’s most important legacy: its genre-blend of action, comedy, and horror. Afterlife takes the 1984 film and cranks up the volume for 2021. The action is more visceral — a midpoint chase with the Ecto-1 could encourage Fast & Furious to take notes — while the series’ unique flavor of horror is more fierce than the originals could dream.
Though there’s never abject terror, its delightful and creepy sense of atmosphere, impressive creature effects, and few jump scares are finely tuned to a young audience who will spend their nights checking under their beds for red-eyed Zuul.
There’s a tenderness in Afterlife that earns the movie its stripes.
In theory, the excellence of Ghostbusters: Afterlife shouldn’t be surprising. Independent of his father’s stature, Jason Reitman has proved himself a capable craftsman. But unlike his father, whose movies before and after Ghostbusters were goofball studio comedies, the junior Reitman’s filmography has been made up of more sensitive portraits. Compare Jason Reitman’s normcore works like Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult to the elder Reitman’s more broadly appealing work, and you’ll find a vast canyon that separates father from son.
But Jason Reitman’s grasp of the human condition is still strong in Afterlife. There’s a tenderness in Afterlife that earns the movie its stripes as a franchise sequel that soars beyond implied limits. For the first time in Ghostbusters history, the living are incapable of grabbing hold of the dead.
Despite what its legion of fans and studio execs think, Ghostbusters is not a superhero franchise. The success and cultural resonance of the genre-defying original has long been misunderstood thanks to the many cartoon spin-offs and A-list legends who’ve graced its frames.
Stripped down, Ghostbusters is an adult comedy about running start-ups before the dot-com bubble burst. I was never mad about Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot because Ghostbusters was never sacred ground. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife pushes back on any genre misconceptions and becomes a resonant, moving picture atop the very foundations the franchise had built.
Outrageously funny characters, superb filmmaking, and heartfelt sentimentality outweigh any flaws in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It’s a beautiful picture, one fueled by the universal feelings of grief and resentment towards those you loved the most. (There is one particular choice that left me slack-jawed, however, and I await the movie’s mass release to see if audiences find it affectionate or exploitative.)
I still respect the 2016 reboot for daring to see Ghostbusters from a new perspective, even though its conventional construction spelled its doom. Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t ready to move on from the past, but it is more than prepared to drive forward into the future.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife arrives in theaters on November 19.