The blame for Ghostbusters’ failure to birth dozens of sequels lays at the feet of Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis, who wrote Ghostbusters II (1989) and basically remixed elements of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original into a cartoonier style. Almost three decades of development hell awaited Ghostbusters III (mainly due to Bill Murray refusing to return for a story ironically intended to be about the Ghostbusters going to Hell), until director Paul Feig’s gender-flipped 2016 remake made the mistake of letting its cast of comedians ad-lib their way through a weak screenplay.
Jason Reitman (Juno), son of Ivan, appears to have to taken control of Ghostbusters: Afterlife in direct response to the 2016 movie’s failure, despite dismissing the idea of stepping into his father’s shoes for many years. He even co-wrote the screenplay with Gil Kenan (who directed the excellent haunted house children’s animation Monster House, and the less excellent Poltergeist remake), with a ‘legasequel’ pitch about a new generation of kids getting caught up in events related to hokum their grandparents dealt with. It’s not as much of a retread of the ‘84 classic as that comparison suggests — well, not until the third act— but it’s a more whimsical companion piece aimed squarely at fans clamouring for nostalgia more than anything entirely new.
The stark difference between the original and Afterlife is that Ghostbusters was embraced by children at the time, but its tone and style of comedy skewed towards adults. (There was a phantom blowjob gag, lest we forget.) It was about three eccentric parapsychologists who discover a means to catch ghosts, then setup shop as paranormal pest control to make a quick buck, before stumbling into an apocalyptic battle against a shape-shifting inter-dimensional goddess. Afterlife is more of a Stranger Things-style nostalgia fest (even casting that show’s Finn Wolfhard), pulling out all manner of references to the two ’80s films, before climaxing with appearances from the three surviving Ghostbusters actors.
Single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) moves her two kids — precocious science nerd Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and hormonal Trevor (Finn Wolfhard)—to a ramshackle farmhouse in Summerville, Oklahoma, which she inherited after the death of her estranged father Egon Spengler. The kids don’t realise their “dirt farmer” grandad was one of the fabled Ghostbusters, who since split up and are now just YouTube curios, but eventually they start to discover hidden traces of their family’s spooky legacy. A dusty ECTO-1 is parked inside a half-collapsed barn under a tarpaulin, a PKE meter seems to be detecting Egon’s spirit, and a ghost trap hidden under a floorboard leads Phoebe to school teacher and Ghostbusters super-fan Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). There’s certainly “something strange in [the] neighbourhood” of Summerville, as seismic events point to an abandoned mine that infamous occultist Ivo Shandor used to build the raw material for his New York City skyscraper that once summoned the Sumerian goddess of Death, Gozer the Gozerian, who is apparently due a comeback…
The approach taken by Afterlife makes sense. It’s primarily aimed at kids who may not know too much about Ghostbusters, and certainly won’t have the same level of attachment to the franchise as their elders (who watched the cartoon and bought the toys). But through investing in the experience of its young characters, who are similarly clueless, they’re given an entertaining introduction to the brand and an appreciation for what came before. Meanwhile, those deeply familiar with Ghostbusters can relive their enthusiasm for the movies through those same character’s naive eyes, but also enjoy the slightly more adult perspectives offered from cynical Callie and enthusiastic Gary. (And it’s probably no coincidence that Paul Rudd was once tipped to appear in Ghostbusters III, right?) Finally, diehard fans are catered for with an abundance of references and callbacks (some subtle, most not), although tolerances will vary over how captivated Afterlife is with Ghostbusters ’84. Rob Simonsen’s music is almost entirely rearrangements of Elmer Bernstein’s iconic themes; so much so that it often feels like a cut-and-paste job. Unexpected, the famous Ray Parker Jr. theme song isn’t blasted out until the end credits, but that’s less a show of restraint and more acknowledgment this film’s tone is too different to that of the previous three.
Mckenna Grace (Annabelle Comes Home) is remarkably good as Phoebe Spengler, bringing an easy charm and intelligence to the part. She convinces as a dorky kid her own mother and brother don’t understand because they don’t share her love of science. Egon’s genes clearly skipped a generation. Grace does a superb job with what’s essentially the lead role, which by rights should make her a superstar after mostly playing the kid versions of adults in I, Tonya (2017), Captain Marvel (2019), and Malignant (2021).
Finn Wolfhard (It) has surprisingly limited involvement in the story, considering he’s a more recognisable face than his young co-stars. He gets a half-hearted love story with a diner waitress called Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and drives ECTO-1 around a lot, but that’s mostly it. Afterlife has a similar vibe to The Goonies (1985), which likewise mixed older and younger kids into one big ensemble, so Wolfhard is perhaps just ageing up in his demographic here—going from Sean Astin to Josh Brolin.
Logan Kim is good fun as the unfortunately named Podcast (on account of him hosting a paranormal podcast), despite being lumbered with a two-dimensional character who exist in his own bubble. There’s no sign of him having parents or any sort of life beyond Phoebe’s new sidekick who gets to drive a remote controlled ghost trap around, but Kim’s certainly amusing and likeable throughout.
Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) is an incredible actress who hasn’t done many blockbusters— unless you count her vocal performance as Proxima Midnight in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)—and she’s reliably good here as Callie Spengler. She doesn’t have a huge deal to do as “the mom”, but can’t help elevating any scene she’s in. My only issue is how the story uses her (and Rudd) in the final act, which arguably crosses the line into tedious repetition and is almost impossible to make work.
The $75M budget seems a little steep considering the unfortunate lack of ghosts and major set-pieces, but Jason Reitman certainly makes the production look slick and evocative of many other ’80s films — most notably a few Amblin movies of the period. There’s even a shot that seems to be a direct reference to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) when Trevor approaches a barn at night, in much the same way as Elliot walked to his shed.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a belated sequel to a cultural milestone that’s never been able to escape its own legacy, so opts to capitalise on the built-in nostalgia for characters and gizmos we’ve seen before. So despite giving the appearance of offering something new in the beginning, by the end Afterlife almost becomes a rural remake of the ’84 movie. It thus creates a bit of an internal tug-of-war with audiences, whose heads are telling them Afterlife is too referential to have enough merit of its own, but whose hearts are being touched by its expertly delivered bursts of nostalgia. It’s no spoiler to confirm that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson reprise their roles for the first time since 1989, and for many their appearance will land in the same way seeing a bearded Luke Skywalker at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016) did. Is that sort of thing lazy fan-service to be sneered at by stonier hearts, or a joyful way to salute cinematic icons who meant a lot to kids growing up in the ‘80s? It’s for individuals to see how they react to what Reitman has created, but personally speaking I’ve waited 32 years to see “The Ghostbusters” back together again on screen, so it was indeed a special moment for me… and one given extra emotional resonance by something that really would be a spoiler to mention here!
Could this movie have been better? Undoubtedly. Bringing back Gozer wasn’t necessary because a new supernatural villain could have been used instead with any real changes needed to the story, and tweaking all that lore bogs down the climax in stuff we’ve seen done better before. I guess we should just be grateful it doesn’t end in another giant, as every previous Ghostbusters movie has. It could also have been funnier, as there aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments, and perhaps a touch scarier. But what’s important is that the heart is there, there are no bad performances from anyone, and it has unexpectedly moving ways to pay homage to Harold Ramis’s involvement with Ghostbusters. We’ll never get the Ghostbusters III everyone expected in the 1990s, but considering the passage of time and the difficulties involved in getting the gang back together, Ghostbusters: Afterlife should prove appealing to old fans… while clearly leaving the door open for new adventures in this world.
CANADA • USA | 2021 | 125 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Jason Reitman.
writers: Gil Kenan & Jason Reitman (based on ‘Ghostbusters’ by Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis).
starring: Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bookem Woodbine, Tracy Letts, Oliver Cooper, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts & Sigourney Weaver.