Ghostbusters: The Afterlife is a film at war with itself, unsure of exactly what it will be. On the one hand, it is a heartwarming tale of a family in need, forced out of their homes in hopes of getting a fresh start in life. On the other hand, it’s a sequel to two of the most beloved sci-fi comedies in film history. Everywhere the two pieces dance together – often harmoniously, sometimes not – before the latter takes over and almost fatally decays everything that worked beforehand.
The afterlife is directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, up in the air), son of Ghostbusters co-creator and director Ivan Reitman. Ivan produces this time with Jason, who also co-writes with Gil Kenan (The Monster House). The story takes place about 30 years after the events of Ghostbusters when a young single mother named Callie (Carrie Coon) is thrown out of her home.
This happens at about the same time as her father – a mysterious figure we only see in the shadows, but with very familiar equipment – is killed under strange circumstances. He leaves Callie’s farm in the small town of Summerville, Oklahoma, and so she moves there with her teenage son Trevor (nowhere to go)Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) and daughter Phoebe before the teenager (Haunting of Hill House’s Mckenna Grace).
When the still-named family moves to Summerville, The afterlife basically pushes Coon’s character to the side and brings Phoebe in the lead (Trevor is somewhere in the middle). Phoebe is a whimsical outcast because she is so incredibly smart for her age, and very quickly she begins to unravel the mystery her grandfather left behind. Soon, with a little help from a new friend named Podcast (Logan Kim), the proton packs and ghost traps get their triumphant return.
All this is when Ghostbusters: The Afterlife is best, and when it’s good, it’s very good. Seeing these young characters (somehow completely unaware of the massive events that took place in New York in 1984) discover that ghosts are real and how they are able to capture them is at times completely intriguing . Nonsense? Slightly. But a lot of fun anyway. This is also because Reitman professionally mixed Elmer Bernstein’s original, eerie Ghostbusters music with Rob Simonsen’s more traditional, yet effective, update, resulting in an excellent alchemy of nostalgia and progress.
And yet, as Phoebe and Podcast, with the help of Trevor, dig deeper into the mystery, things slowly begin to change. Their discoveries begin to answer some, but not all, of the questions you had about this new narrative.
What happened to the original Ghostbusters? Why are they not together anymore? What have they done since? Why did not their discoveries and actions change the whole world? And of course, what does this family have to do with any of it? The last part is first played as a mystery before, almost too easily, it is revealed that they are descendants of Egon Spengler (deceased Harold Ramis). His reasons for being in Summerville are what finally push The afterlife from a touching, thrilling, emotionally charged comedy to children’s struggles to an almost shocking avalanche of fan service.
You are probably well aware that this is not the first time Ghostbusters has returned since its sequel in 1989. In 2016, director Paul Feig completely re-imagined the franchise and was heavily criticized by some fans (before it was even released) for being too far from the tone and story of the original film, not to mention the fact , that Ghostbusters were now women. This film feels in a way like a subtle response to some of these emotions.
“Next-Gen Ghostbusters” (for lack of a better description) of Phoebe, Podcast, Trevor and his infatuated Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) consists of multiple ages, races and genders. The afterlife implies that Feig’s films got that diversity right. Unlike Feig’s film, the story into which these characters are sucked is so directly linked to the original that if I ruined it, you would not believe me.
The culmination of the story is all the filmmakers believe – and perhaps they are right – that hardcore Ghostbusters fans may want to. A true checklist. Characters, names, symbols, all sorts of iconography from the original film return and play a sometimes crucial, sometimes not, role in what happens in Summerville. All of this is really exciting for a few minutes, but in the end it feels overwhelming and close, roughly slapped on what had been a lovely family story. The result is a massive disruption in the audience’s emotional investment. You go from worrying about these characters to being distracted by all the references, and that’s a real shame.
The bulk of that fan service is isolated until the very end of the film, so most of the better, heartfelt elements can come to play along the way. Plus, the movie is seriously funny from start to finish. Some of it is from Paul Rudd as Mr. Grooberson, a local teacher who helps Phoebe and her friends solve a few of Summerville’s mysteries. But the majority are from Phoebe. The character has such a deadly, dry delivery that her dialogue is fun entertaining in a unique, memorable way.
In fact, Phoebe is by far the best at Ghostbusters: The Afterlife. Mckenna Grace – who has already had an incredible career since she started acting in 2013 – has created an instantly unforgettable performance that mixes brains, courage and humor. She gives a really revealing, star-studded performance here, and her charisma, chemistry and teasing with Kim is wonderful. That all these complexities come in a modest, pint-sized package makes the performance and character even more unforgettable.
On the other hand, the excellent Carrie Coon (The remains) is completely underutilized here. She spends most of the film sitting in her father’s house and feeling bitter, and when she finally gets some things done, one can not help but think that the role was significantly cut down at some point along the way. The same can be said about several other characters in the film played by people like Bokeem Woodbine (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Tracy Letts (Fatherland), and a few other surprising appearances at the end. There is a strong feeling that there was simply too much to put into a movie. But the film does enough world-building to leave you hoping to see more from these characters in the future.
After all, you would expect something so determined to please hardcore fans to answer the many questions it asks. But Ghostbusters: The Afterlife do not do. It explains a few things, but there is so much plot, character, and backstory stuffed in, a few crucial connections get frustratingly pushed to the side or left too vague. Worse yet, after its huge climax, the film ends very abruptly, offers almost no closure of the core characters, and then grabs two credit scenes that feel like they are from completely different, almost unrelated films. All this is to say, even when you think The afterlife works, be careful. The wheels come pretty fast.
Ghostbusters: The Afterlife coming so close so many times to be so perfect successor fans have wanted for years. But when it becomes too obsessed with its past instead of its future, it loses much of that power. It’s one of those movies that works and feels great while watching it, because it does so many things you like to watch, but when you take a minute to think about how it was all put together, the lack of cohesion becomes a major obstacle.
Many people come to love Ghostbusters: The Afterlife and boy I tried to. I am such a fan of the originals that I even emphasized seeing it a second time before this review just to make sure I had it the same way. On second viewing, some of my complaints got softer because I knew they were coming, but they are still there and in the end Ghostbusters: The Afterlife feels like a movie that is afraid of being its own thing. You can almost say that is afraid of a ghost. The ghost in a 1984 movie called Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters: The Afterlife opens only in theaters in Australia on New Year’s Day.