Ghostbusters: Afterlife and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Jason Reitman
I was a pretty big fan of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot and am still a bit salty that we never got a sequel to it, so seeing the trailers and just how much the studio was backtracking to safe and familiar nostalgia was pretty demoralizing to see and left me with a bad feeling about this. A Stranger Things knockoff that revels in the legacy of the first two films while grabbing a mostly indie director who just so happens to be the son of the original films’ director just felt like too many ideas on how to make this a MARKETABLE Ghostbusters movie instead of a GOOD one. Still, Reitman is a good director and the buzz so far has been good for the movie, so perhaps I’m being a bit overly critical before even seeing the darn thing. Did my low expectations set me up for a pleasant surprise that finds the balance between mining nostalgia and finding new ideas, or is this a cynical paycheck from a guy whose complicated history with this franchise landed him in the director’s chair long before he ever picked up a camera? Let’s find out!!
Many years after the events of the first movie (and the second presumably), Egon Spengler has made a new life of sorts in a total nothing town somewhere in the Midwest, and while it’s probably not much of a spoiler considering that the actor is no longer with us, he has recently died under mysterious circumstances, and his estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) has come to settle his affairs as well as start a new life for her and her two kids Phoebe and Trevor (Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard). While packing up his things though, Phoebe finds the PKE Meter as well as Egon’s ghostbusting Batcave, and Trevor starts to see some strange things around town; especially while hanging out with Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) at the nearby mine, which is… a thing kids do I guess? In any case, Phoebe starts to investigate the strange occurrences in the town with her paranormal podcasting friend named Podcast (Logan Kim), but more importantly starts to learn more about her grandfather and, by extension, herself. That, and her Summer School teacher (Paul Rudd) is a total nerd who was obsessed with the Ghostbusters when he was a kid, and so the stage is set for the next generation to take up the mantel once these strange things around town turn into STRANGER things! What was Egon doing in this Podunk town in the first place, and is there more than just his old eighties crap that he’s left behind for his family? How will Phoebe and Trevor deal with their newly discovered legacy, and why was their mother hiding it from them all this time? Do you think in thirty years someone will try to do one of these for the 2016 Ghostbusters movie? I mean how ELSE are we supposed to get a sequel!?
It’s fine, but that’s about all I can say about it. It’s a shame because there were moments in this movie where it could have been great and maybe even have been as good as the 2016 film, but it simply can’t overcome its own strange existence with no clear idea of what it wanted to be. Whatever Jason Reitman’s motivations were for making this movie and his feelings towards the franchise, the movie itself feels like a film split by two competing drives; a Jason Reitman style character drama that has almost nothing to do with Ghostbusters, and a nostalgic celebration of the franchise for all the fans who wanted some sort of closure. Reitman is a good director so he manages to wring some solid performances out of the movie, and if you are THAT big of a Ghostbusters that you just want to see them do the same stuff over again, well I guess they do it all competently enough. Still, by not sticking to one or the other, neither side manages to fully flourish and live up to their true potential and instead end up being half measures that can’t add up to a satisfying whole.
The first half of the movie is where it feels the most like the movie it wants to be; a story that is a continuation of the first two films, but only so much in how it informs the characters and their stories. We’re not here to start a new ghost-busting business, we’re here to pick up the pieces left behind by one of the original team, and how that person’s life affected his family. The ghost-busting stuff that they find isn’t there to fight bad guys; they are tools of self-discovery as the two kids find ways to express themselves through the life that Egon built for himself, even if that life was complicated and flawed. It was pretty interesting because it’s not what I expected to see from a movie that was more or less designed to win back whatever fans were turned off by the direction the 2016 film went in. The nuanced take on those characters and their legacies feels antithetical to the overwhelming nostalgia that surrounds this franchise, and the acting and writing are solid enough to hold up the fact that there’s not much action (or “busting” if you prefer) for a good chunk of this. So yeah, color me surprised that as much of Jason Reitman’s style managed to find its way in here. If it had stayed on that path and focused on the character stuff without devolving into cynical nostalgia pandering, then it might have been one of the better movies of the year! How foolish of me, right?
Once we get into the second half and the plot has to start moving is when things start to get obnoxious as the film more or less turns into a pale imitation of the first film. It’s the same villain, the same monsters, and even the same shots at several points in the movie, all to remind fans of how awesome the movie they saw forty years ago is and… I don’t know, I guess that there’s no reason to try new things? Seriously, what was the point of spending so much of the first half of the movie establishing new characters and going for a completely different kind of movie, just to fall back on the safest forms of nostalgia pandering? Ghostbusters 2 had its problems, but it didn’t hitch itself as tightly to the original film as this one ultimately does, and the fact that we’re repeating ourselves doesn’t feel as significant or poignant as I’m sure the filmmakers wanted it to be. It’s clear that they are trying to echo the original as a way to contrast its new set of characters and its modern sensibilities against how it was done back in the eighties, but really it just feels lazy and underwhelming. Some of the action is fine such as the early car chase with a Slimer knock-off and… well I guess the same car chase but this time with Zuul, but the heart is just not there and the threats feel utterly perfunctory. I’ll give it credit for a good ending that provides a decent amount of closure for those fans who still feel that they need it, but I still think we could have gotten there without the constant barrage of callbacks.
Now all that said, the nostalgia stuff is what you expect in a movie like this, and frankly, it’s the stuff that I’m sure most people were expecting to be insufferable. What’s a more interesting issue in this movie is the disconnect between what the audience knows and what the characters know due to some very strange decisions in the script. Most of this issue surrounds the mother who is really frustrating to watch in the movie because it almost seems like she was written to intentionally keep the history vague. We don’t have a middle piece between the original films and this one where Egon was a father, and I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to commit to anything (perhaps hoping to do some prequels) so the mother seems oddly distant from everything that happened in her past despite it being the crux of her character. She talks about her dad in the vaguest of terms and doesn’t seem to react in any way to whatever Ghostbusters stuff the kids find. It’s made clear in the movie that she never told them who he was, what he did for a living, or how that may have influenced his decision to leave her and her mother, but the motivation for that secret is never brought up. It feels like they were setting us up for some big confrontation where she finally breaks down and tells the kids why she never wanted them to know who her father really was… but then it never happens. They find out at one point and she has no strong feelings about it one way or the other. It’s a bizarre character arc to try and comprehend, and on top of that it ends up lessening the impact of certain scenes with her. Suggesting fixes for movies isn’t always the most constructive thing to do, but to illustrate my point, there’s a scene where she is with Paul Rudd’s character and explains that she wanted Phoebe to grow up to be a normal kid. That’s the extent of her explanation, and to the movie’s credit it IS a motivated sentiment (Phoebe proves herself to be a handful at several points in the movie), but what is unspoken here is the fact that she is JUST like her grandfather and that is a terrifying prospect to the daughter he left behind. The fact is that she couldn’t stop her father from leaving her and now she can’t stop her daughter from becoming that same person which is an interesting insight into her character… and yet the movie opted to avoid this as well as other chances to link her character to the specifics of her past, and it’s just kind of baffling.
I couldn’t tell you what was in Reitman’s head as he was making this, but the final product definitely feels like the outcome of someone at war with himself. The character work and even some of the early Ghostbusters stuff to be found in the first half definitely feel like a different movie to the latter half which piles on the callbacks, references, and cameos to justify this movie even existing, and even if Reitman was happy to do all of it, I can’t help but feel that a BETTER Ghostbusters movie was lost along the way; one that didn’t lean so heavily on old ideas and had a bit more bite to how it frames its own complicated legacy. Maybe that’s not what Ghostbusters fans wanted, and maybe they’ll eat this up as vociferously as they DIDN’T eat up the last one. It’s not without some real charm to it and the first half is worth watching on its own, so I guess I still recommend seeing it at some point; especially if the nostalgia bait is more to your liking than it was to mine. A missed opportunity is about as mean as I want to get as Reitman once again proves he knows how to write characters and shoot scenes, and hopefully the next few films don’t flop as hard as his last few; lest he gets roped into sequels for Junior and Twins.