2021 | PG-13 | starring McKenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd | directed by Jason Reitman | 2 hrs 4 mins |
A unique blend of dry comedy, big-budget effects, Saturday Night Live talent and supernatural horror, Ghostbusters was a lightening-in-a-bottle movie that even it’s own writer’s could match in their sequel. That didn’t stop the rich world that sprung from this premise turning it into 2 cartoons (at least) and a toy line. The rumor is that Dan Aykroyd sent Bill Murray a script for Ghostbusters 3 decades ago and Murray responded by shredding it and sending it back to Akroyd in pieces. However, the doors flew open in 2014 when co-star/c0-writer Harold Ramis passed away and Bill Murray got behind the 2016 Paul Feig reboot like a hostage with a gun to his back. Now Aykroyd and the studio are free to franchise this nostalgia trip right into the ground. That’s exactly what Ghostbusters: Afterlife is. Yes, it’s better than the 2016 remake in that it looks and feels like a real movie, but man does it fall into a grotesque symphony of nostalgia porn.
Single mom, Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two kids, Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) get a chance for a new life when her grandfather passes away and leaves them the family dirt farm in the small town of Sommerset, Oklahoma. Acclimating to their new life, Phoebe’s devotion to science leads her to slacker summer teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a seismologist – basically the Randy Marsh of this movie – studying the town earthquakes and Podcast (Logan Kim), a classmate self-named for his own supernatural podcast. The prophecies predicted by their late grandfather are coming true, the apocalypse is coming to Sommerset and it’s up to Phoebe, Trevor and their new friends must master the technology left by their family in order to save the world.
To get the obvious out of the way, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is lightyears better than the 2016 reboot. An angry, cynical and deeply unfunny movie that showed nothing but contempt for the series and it’s fans, Paul Feig’s abomination gets run in circles here by Jason Reitman, a real filmmaker, making a real movie. Instead of just casting the actors and figuring out the story later, instead of lining everyone up and forcing them to improv until the scene dies and instead of replacing jokes with dance movies, Reitman has made a movie that at least conceptually feels like a decent springboard for a Ghostbusters sequel, that changes the environment, builds on the characters and respects the origin story. It overcorrects too much, but we’ll get to that.
From the outset it seems like several things are working in this movie’s favor. The most impressive bit is how seriously Reitman takes the horror elements of Ghostbusters. The 2016 completely forgot that part of the accomplishment of the 1984 film was how seamlessly it blended laughs with scares and ghouls and Afterlife does the best job of taking its threats seriously than any sequel so far. When it wants to be exciting it can be that too. For the first time every in the series, Reitman gets the Ecto-1 out on an open road and into a car chase. In the most fun scene in the film, Trevor pilots the Ecto-1 through town, while Phoebe in a gunner-seat chases down an adorable Slimer stand-in named Chomper tearing up main street. With the trap on a remote control car we get to see what a Ghostbusters action scene looks like for the first time and it’s a thriller.
We’ve got a likable ace in the hole here in Paul Rudd, who livens up the film on effortless charm every time he’s on screen. Badly needed for a comedy that isn’t funny. Rudd gets outshined, however, by McKenna Grace (The Handmaid’s Tale) giving a terrific performance as the girl who learns she is Egon Spangler’s granddaughter. Grace takes on Egon’s idiosyncrasies, even struggling with an inability to express emotion. She’s the best thing in the movie, even when the movie starts collapsing around her. Finally, I loved how Afterlife treats the Ghostbuster tech. It’s not glossy. It’s worn and dust-covered. It clicks and hums mechanically.
The script, from Reitman and Gil Kenan (Monster House), starts to fall apart as it goes, from the basics of the world they are trying to create to the increasingly nonsensical actions of the characters. It feels like it was written with Kenan and Reitman with two different goals for the characters they try to reconcile in real time during the shoot. For example, Phoebe claims that she believes in science, not the supernatural, after having spent the morning watching the chess pieces by her bed move by themselves. When she starts being guided by a ghost in her house – or when Grooberson, Podcast and Phoebe see a ghost spring out of a trap, nobody seems surprised by it. That would make sense in the world of Ghostbusters where 30 years ago 4 guys saved the world on top of a skyscraper in New York, but Afterlife – unable to reconcile how the world would have radically changed with the discovery of ghosts – presents us with the idea that this event was pushed into myth, that everyone forgot about ghosts and Ghostbuster commercials lie deep in Youtube searches. Callie (Coon gets punted out of the movie for the most part) not only never told her kids who her grandfather was, and not only actively hid it from them, but held it against him for most of his life.
For a movie that ends up being dedicated to Harold Ramis, Afterlife spends a lot of time building up Egon as a deadbeat dad and a lunatic who caused the breakup of the Ghostbusters and became a mockery in the town. When it corrects this unnecessary set-up, it overcorrects in a big sappy, melodramatic way that turns this once irreverent comedy into a love note for a side character in a film and a late actor and writer that very few people feel deep emotions for because nothing in his work presents that level of sap and emotion itself. What happens in the third act of this movie is shocking. It’s jaw-dropping in the worst way how far Reitman goes to destroy his sequel, turning it back over to wallowing in nostalgia for the original film. At the end of the day he doesn’t trust his own characters to carry the day as much as he does to turn the movie into nostalgia porn.
As Afterlife moves into it’s third act, Reitman flips a switch and turns the movie off creatively. He makes one deliberate, conscience, you might argue clever, decision after another to wrap this story back into the first film. Here is where most of the good will gets flushed away. Yes, it’s effectively creepy, yes some of the performances are very good and yes, its visually appealing, but all of that comes to serve what becomes a slavish, beat-for-beat remake of the first film. Instead of a new story, a new terror and a new God – we get Gozer, Ivo Shandor, Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men and Terror Dogs – again. We get the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster recast to the only age-appropriate actors in this movie. And none of this touches on the queasy moral quandary of using CGI to resurrect dead (or aged down) actors on screen. It feels tacky, even with as much love as this movie has, and this movie in particular lacks any grace or subtilty in the handling.
I was really rooting for this movie. It looks good. Reitman is the right guy for the job. The cast, particularly Grace, is good and while it strains for a laugh there are brief, real, sparks of fun here – but, man, does it fall apart in the final act and suck all the good will right out of it.