Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2021-11-24 21:40

Written by: Gil Kenan & Jason Reitman (screenplay), Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis (original film)
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Mckenna Grace, Carrie Coon, and Paul Rudd

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"I don't remember this job being so painful."

Five years ago, I prefaced my review of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters with the acknowledgement that his movie was not the mythical Ghostbusters 3 fans had anticipated for two decades. Holding this against that movie and comparing it to a phantom sequel existing only in our imagination wasn’t fair then, and, to an extent, the same holds true for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Yes, it technically is Ghostbusters 3, now finally a real movie after 30 years of rumors; however, it’s still not the Ghostbusters 3 anyone could have ever envisioned, and for good reason. The prospect of doing a standard follow-up died with Harold Ramis in 2014, and, quite frankly, I would have been fine if everyone agreed that Ghostbusters as we know it should have been put to rest. But this is Hollywood, where no familiar property can be put to rest when nostalgia can be deployed to pull in more money. Even the title of this thing unwittingly highlights the ghoulishness of resurrecting a property after its viability has been vanquished: Ghostbusters: Afterlife is what happens when nostalgia becomes the primary reason something exists. Hollywood has given longtime fans what they want, but there’s something a little hollow about an enterprise that seeks to look back at the expense of moving forward.

It’s a little more complicated than this, of course, because Jason Reitman is taking the reins from his father, something that I have to believe speaks to a genuine desire to honor the Ghostbusters legacy. And to be fair to everyone involved, this isn’t a half-hearted attempt at simply serving up a typical sequel we expected all those years ago, with the old guard handing over the proton packs to a new generation of comedians. But that’s only because Afterlife isn’t even a comedy in the first place since the younger Reitman and co-writer Gil Keenan have couched the premise in an Amblin-style family adventure movie. It’s certainly a choice, and it’s the double-edged sword that cleaves Afterlife in half: on the one hand, it’s admittedly bold to reimagine the franchise’s entire genre; on the other, the film is still so reverent of its predecessors that you’re constantly reminded of what this movie isn’t, resulting in the uncanny effect of watching a solemn, fawning redux of a movie that climaxes with a giant marshmallow man rampaging through New York.

In Afterlife, Aykroyd and the surviving Ghostbusters are very much in the background, as the script instead leans into the absence of Ramis’s Egon Spengler, who perishes on an Oklahoma farm while trying to keep malevolent forces at bay during the film’s opening scene. He leaves this rickety estate—and all of its esoteric junk—to his estranged daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon). She thinks inheriting the farm is only going to be a matter of signing paperwork before selling off the house to pay for her rent, but she’s evicted from her apartment first, meaning she and her kids (Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard) suddenly find themselves stuck in a podunk Oklahoma town, where her father was simply known as an eccentric dirt farmer instead of a renowned parapsychologist. However, Callie’s daughter Phoebe has taken an interest in science and is eager to uncover her grandfather’s secrets, which includes the now buried legacy of the Ghostbusters. Other spirits of the past also lurk in the nearby Shandor mine, where Gozer and their minions seek to finish what they started in 1984.

If not for the familiar iconography and incessant call-backs, nothing about Afterlife would exactly scream “Ghostbusters.” Gone is the larger than life grandeur of gritty, grimy 80s New York, here replaced with an anonymous heartland setting, where vintage diners thrive alongside a rural Wal-Mart. Cornfields replace skyscrapers, and the contents of the iconic firehouse now rest in a shed, with the Ecto-1 rusting away until Phoebe’s brother Trevor goes to work on it. And instead of leaning into the absurdity of having comedians exterminate impish spirits, Afterlife insists that busting ghosts is, in fact, serious business. The original film and its first sequel might have been larks at the time, but, now, over 30 years later, they’ve curdled into the stuff of revered mythology by an entire generation. I find that fascinating, especially since I’m very much part of the generation that was raised with toy proton packs and cartoon iterations of Ghostbusters. When I was four years old, I even broke my arm trying to slide down a pole in an ill-advised attempt at being a Ghostbuster. If anyone is in the bag for Afterlife, it should be me, a person whose very first pop culture obsession was Ghostbusters.

And yet, something about the leap from anarchic comedy to whimsical adventure falls flat. It’s not necessarily the very premise that’s inherently at odds because there are moments when Reitman pulls it off. Centering Grace’s Phoebe is an especially sharp move because she’s such a captivating screen presence, and the story of a shy, lonely kid finding her place in the family legacy is compelling enough. After all, how many shy, lonely kids took solace in Ghostbusters growing up? Likewise, there’s an interesting subtext to Phoebe’s summer school teacher (Paul Rudd) being an older Ghostbusters fan (it turns out that kids in this universe also played with toy proton packs and containment traps) shepherding a younger generation into the lore. Toss in Jason Reitman stepping into the shadow of his father’s legacy, and there’s plenty of interesting avenues to explore about legacy and cultural mythology, even if “serious Ghostbusters” almost feels like a paradox.

But instead, all of these possibilities linger like ghosts, only to be vanquished by Reitman’s insistence on doing the most routine, easygoing take on this material once it becomes a literal Ghostbusters redux. Entire beats are repeated wholesale, so this quaint children’s movie suddenly becomes an absurdist (but not terribly funny) farce once the script isn’t content to simply be an homage and strains to be a reenactment, only on a less impressive scale. Instead of a green blob ghost, the heroes have to wrangle a blue one that eats everything in its path. This time, you see, there are dozens of mini Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men, and instead of stomping through New York like a haywire kaiju riff, they terrorize a Wal-Mart. Gozer’s hellhounds also return to trample through the department store, further underscoring just how odd and out of place it all feels. It’s ironic that a movie that places Ghostbusters on a pedestal also reimagines it on such a mundane scale.

In some respects, Afterlife missteps in the same way Feig’s movie did by constantly reminding the audience of the original, superior movie, only it goes several steps further by ultimately wanting to be that movie. Furthermore, the presence of the original cast is less a distraction here and more the elephant in the room. Because the surviving Ghostbusters are lurking in the background, the natural tendency to wonder where they are and when they’ll show up looms over a script that deliberately builds towards revealing these answers. For a while, Reitman actually strikes a nice balance by having Egon’s ghost guide Phoebe through the farm’s wreckage as she discovers the truth. There’s something sweet about that, even if I’m not sure Ghostbusters should really be sweet. Less graceful, however, is the ultimate reveal of the original cast: a mid-movie exposition dump from Ray awkwardly captures 30 years of missing history, while the rest of the gang randomly appears at the climax, fully armed and ready to battle Gozer (even though we learn that Egon absconded with all of their gear decades earlier).

Look, I get it—Afterlife was never going to be a movie exclusively about the old guys, nor should it have been. I don’t think anyone would want to dwell on how these guys drifted apart and fell into obscurity—nobody wants an entire movie with the same vibes as the ill-fated birthday party Ray and Winston appear at in Ghostbusters 2. But surely there would be something more satisfying than the climax here, where the old man Ghostbusters are wheeled out to repeat their schtick, right down to riffing on the original film’s dialogue. Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to see these guys, and I’d be lying if it didn’t satisfy some kind of longing that’s simmered within me for 30 years. However, it’s also too little, too late and feels almost obligatory at this point, as if Bill Murray (who infamously blocked a new Ghostbusters sequel for years) especially finally relented to do a reunion because he was tired of being asked about it.

Their appearance—wearing the same outfits, repeating the same jokes—shortly after the new heroes encounter an exact replication of the Gozer shrine speaks to the dearth of imagination on display in Afterlife, a movie that sometimes feel less like a sequel and more like a Ghostbusters fan sorting through their collection. The original crew is the centerpiece, practically trapped in amber (or mint in box), having not changed in any significant way in the past 35 years. That’s something else I get too: the longing to be comforted by familiarity and taking solace in childhood memories, preserved just as you remember them. Afterlife goes all-in on this sentiment with a saccharine climax that resurrects the likeness of Rami’s Egon, allowing him to stand alongside his friends for one last stand against Gozer.

It’s another one of those moments that should be heartfelt, but it’s so utterly cloying that I’m left to wonder if anyone involved actually remembers how sardonic the original Ghostbusters is. While the approval of Ramis’s family for this “appearance” is the only thing that really matters here, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy about how weird it is to see the likeness of a dead man playing a ghost. To Reitman’s credit, he handles it about as tastefully as can be imagined: Egon doesn’t speak and generally acts a sort of “Force Ghost” (to borrow the parlance of another franchise that’s struggled to evade its nostalgic roots). Still, it seems pertinent to wonder if Ramis himself would have approved such a sentimental take. Then again, he did write and appear in Ghostbusters 2, a movie that ends with New York embracing the power of love to defeat a reincarnated Carpathian overlord.

I don’t know—it suddenly strikes me that maybe I’m the one treating Ghostbusters much too preciously. Certainly, I can’t begrudge anyone who’s been swept up in the sentiment because lord knows I’ve defended the much-maligned first sequel for most of my life, and I can’t even pretend nostalgia isn’t a factor there. It’s just an odd thing to have something like Afterlife completely and utterly pander to you, only for it to land with a thud. One of the most damning things about it is its triumphant ending—which finds the Ecto-1 riding into the New York City skyline once again as Ray Parker Jr’s iconic theme blares—is a complete misfire because it feels like it belongs in a completely different movie. Maybe I have a genuinely different outlook for what Ghostbusters should be—it should be irreverent, acerbic, even a little anarchic, and Afterlife is absolutely none of these things. Instead, it’s perfectly nice and occasionally charming, especially whenever it has the good sense to let Coon, Grace, and Rudd do their thing.

Unfortunately, it can’t just be that, and every good decision is matched by questionable ones, like having Tracy Letts and JK Simmons at your disposal and using them for one scene apiece. As solid as the script’s foundation is, it’s undone by a slipshod narrative as the movie becomes less concerned with its characters and more preoccupied with arranging them like action figures in a Ghostbusters playset. I can’t even begin to explain what Annie Potts’s Janine is supposed to be doing in a movie that hints at her romantic feelings for Egon even though she’s definitely not the mother of his abandoned child (in fact, it seems like Callie was already born during the events of the first Ghostbusters). The answer is that it doesn’t really matter—she’s essentially one of the dozens of Easter Eggs scattered about since Reitman seems to be conducting an experiment to determine if a movie can function solely on Pavlovian responses to nostalgia. At a certain point, it begins to feel like parody when his camera longingly gazes at Nestle Crunch wrappers and Twinkies, a pair of images that unwittingly captures our fealty to nostalgia and corporate branding.

Then again, that’s probably fitting for a movie that largely exists to kick the tires on the Ghostbusters brand. I want to believe Reitman had more noble intentions than this, and he probably did; however, it should be noted that Afterlife isn’t content to be an epilogue or a post-script that definitively ends his father’s story since it labors on with obligatory post-credit sequences hinting that this is a new beginning. What’s more, it seems to be setting up the exact type of sequel we always expected, with at least one of the original Ghostbusters reopening business and presumably mentoring some newbies. By the end, it almost feels like we’ve taken the scenic route to arrive at a destination that would have been more appealing decades ago, when a legitimate Ghostbusters reunion was possible.

Because, if nothing else, Afterlife and the 2016 reboot underscore the ultimate appeal of the original movies: this cast and these characters. I don’t think it was ever the proton packs, the ghosts, or the “mythology”—it was always the lighting that these specific performers harnessed at a particular moment in time that can’t be bottled up again. Instead of lamenting that and trying to recapture it, let’s be grateful that Ghostbusters 2 at least rekindled some of those sparks. On the other hand, Afterlife is a pile of dull, cool ash, an okay movie that might not embarrass the Ghostbusters legacy, but only because it’s so respectful of it in the first place. I don’t know if Ghostbusters ever demanded respect, so maybe the best joke here is Afterlife’s cloying reverence for a movie where a ghost gives Dan Aykroyd a blow job.

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