I ain’t afraid of no nostalgia, but Ghostbusters: Afterlife seems like a prime example of where it can go wrong when pushed to 11. For the most part, this legacy sequel (that awkwardly shoves 2016’s Ghostbusters out of the way) has a good head on its shoulders. The cast is solid, the tone is a shift in a new direction yet acceptable, and it looks great. However, even before getting to a finale that relies on a sledgehammer to assist with all the callbacks to the original 1984 blockbuster, it becomes clearer and clearer how little was done to flesh out this ghostly reimagining. While there’s a very nice core idea, there’s a lot of missing texture that didn’t ultimately make bustin’ feel too good this time around.
Set 37 years after a massive ghost-related event in Manhattan, which is apparently enough time for everyone to forget that ghosts are real, Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), have no choice but to leave the big city and take up residence at an old farm in Summerville, Oklahoma. This is where Callie’s estranged father, Egon Spangler (the late Harold Ramis), decided to live for reasons to be cleared up later in the story.
While Ghostbusters is an established property, given the casting and general look of the film, it’s hard not to see Netflix’s Stranger Things acting just as much as an influence as various kid-friendly Amblin films from the 80s. However, it does allow for an interesting pivot as far as what to do with this franchise. Much like Men In Black, New York seems to be just as much a character in Ghostbusters as anyone else, but having Phoebe serve as the main character uncovering a mystery in this new setting makes plenty of sense.
At the same time, while director and co-writer Jason Reitman is certainly trying to balance the idea that anyone can be a Ghostbuster with reverence for the original film, in terms of plotting, the attempt to create a mystery out of what’s going on does little to strengthen this story. Given how much Ghostbusters: Afterlife ends up pandering to fans, there’s little to actually discover in this film beyond eventually understanding why Egon moved to Oklahoma. Once that concept is all set, the story is basically on rails in how it retraces the steps of the first movie.
As we’ve seen in other legacy sequels, particularly Creed and The Force Awakens, there are ways for that to work. Having the right kind of energy and just enough pushes to call to mind what came before is not always a detriment. The problem I see in Ghostbuster: Afterlife is how much potential it disposes of, following a terrific first act.
A lot of that comes down to the cast and some solid writing. Grace is terrific as Phoebe. Much like her grandfather, she’s clearly on the spectrum yet spends the film attempting to grow beyond her own eccentricities. That means opening up by way of corny jokes, befriending a classmate named Podcast (a winning Logan Kim), and sharing interests with her science teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd).
Playing one of the two main adults in this film, Rudd is as charming as ever, naturally sliding into the role of a teacher and Ghostbusters fan. There’s not much stretching for him to do here, but his likability is never unwelcome. Carrie Coon has her own kind of fun as a mom with the sort of undercutting sense of humor that operates best in Reitman’s films. With the film and the performance letting on some subtler qualities allowing her to feel more human, it’s a shame there were not more creative avenues to explore with this family unit.
This is even more apparent with Wolfhard, who is entirely fine as the older brother but feels like an afterthought. Given what he adds to the film, I can picture the workshopping going on with the writers to realize they needed a brother character simply because someone was needed to drive the Ecto-1. Part of this also speaks how the film comes up lacking in more of a liveliness.
It’s one thing to see Trevor, his possible love interest (Celeste O’Connor), and friends travel up a mountain during twilight hours as if they were creating a retro Ford car commercial. It’s another thing to realize how anonymous this whole location ends up feeling. While the characters live in the middle of nowhere (Alberta, doubling for small-town America), it was odd to see how non-existent life was when the time really called for it.
An exciting car/ghost chase runs through main street, with next to no one taking notice. Bokeem Woodbine shows up as a sheriff, only for all of the cops to completely disappear by the film’s end. Despite Summerville’s nice Walmart, much of the film feels empty and uninteresting beyond the core cast members. Never mind the moments when indisputable proof that ghosts exist presents itself, the few characters we see react as if they saw a mildly alarming notification on their phone.
This is less about nitpicking and more highlighting how much has been lost in translation. While Ghostbusters, as much as I enjoy it (it’s one of my favorite comedies), doesn’t need to be placed on a pedestal to celebrate it as cinematic scripture, the film found something special in melding its fantasy elements with the real world. Ghostbusters: Afterlife has too much that feels artificial.
Choosing to lean into reprisals of certain storylines and very direct callbacks becomes especially an issue when the finale relies entirely on a predictable element that is designed to stir certain emotions. I understand why this will work for some. Still, I couldn’t help but feel this was a bad form of manipulation that was taking place within a film not confident enough to try and stand on its own two feet.
Of course, this is what Sony caved to. The firestorm created by a sad group of people not willing to accept “Lady Ghostbusters” took over the conversation in 2016. The whole thing ended up with mixed results (good reviews, decent box office vs. being too expensive and attachment to a toxic discussion). As a result, Ivan Reitman’s son being handed the reigns to his biggest film meant making something with more appeal for “the fans.” There is merit in doing something that ties a new, younger-skewing movie to an older one. After all, Ghostbusters was designed as a film for all audiences (that happened to have a lot of adult jokes). However, here we are with a movie that gives up a good start for a series of way too easy references.
I like this cast. There’s a good chance a follow-up could better incorporate these new characters in an adventure all their own without dealing with eye-rolling references to the other films. In an inspiring move, we could even see some kind of multiverse activity that brings back the 2016 cast as well, delivering a whole different form of justice. For Ghostbusters: Afterlife, however, as fun as it is to see a new generation track down and catch a ghost, I still feel like I got slimed with one ode too many to the past.