It’s hard for any viewer to walk into a movie theater without some degree of prejudice about what they’re about to see. That’s part of what movie marketing is for, after all, to create a set of expectations. As a film critic, I try to mitigate that prejudice as best as I can, and when I can’t, I should at least make my readers aware of them. From the moment Ghostbusters: Afterlife was announced as a nostalgia-driven sequel to the original film, it felt to me like a capitulation to fans who rejected the 2016 Ghostbusters remake in bad faith. Every detail that followed increased my cynicism about the project — the last thing Hollywood needs is another movie about a kid inheriting the legacy of a decades-old blockbuster, much less from a director who has done exactly that. (Jason Reitman is the son of Ivan Reitman, who helmed the 1984 original.)
Nevertheless, when looking over the list of new releases in theaters this weekend, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the film I felt best equipped to review. I’m chapter and verse on the original film and I’ve seen it and its 1989 sequel dozens of times. I am presumably the target audience for this nostalgic reboot, even if I am put off by the way in which I am being targeted. In an effort to counteract my negative attitude going into Afterlife, I decided to give the movie a positive handicap by seeing it in a 4DX theater — you know, the kind where your seat moves around to match the action on screen, theme park style. I’ve never done something like this before, and given how susceptible I tend to be to such gimmickry (see my perhaps overly effusive review of seeing Dune in IMAX), I thought this might help even my odds of enjoying Ghostbusters: Afterlife. And it did — It kept me from falling asleep.
The Kids Are (Just) Alright
12-year-old science prodigy Phoebe (Mckenna Grace, Malignant) and hormonal 15-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things) are transplanted to rural Summerville, Oklahoma when their mother Callie (Carrie Coon, The Leftovers) inherits a rundown farmhouse from her estranged father. Soon, the kids learn that their late grandfather was famous Ghostbuster Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis, who passed away in 2014 but nevertheless appears in the film’s opening minutes via digital necromancy). With the help of Phoebe’s summer school teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), an eccentric classmate who calls himself Podcast (newcomer Logan Kim), and Trevor’s older crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor, Freaky), Phoebe investigates a spike in paranormal activity in Summerville and discovers why her grandfather left his family behind in New York to set up shop in the middle of nowhere.
I came into Afterlife more than a little skeptical about a kid-centric sequel to a horny slobs vs. snobs comedy, but the kids actually do fine with what they’re given. Mckenna Grace carries most of the story — both the technical and the emotional — on her shoulders, all via a character who could’ve easily gotten annoying over time. Podcast, likewise, should really have irritated me, but Logan Kim doesn’t overplay his character’s precociousness and I found him pretty tolerable. As for Finn Wolfhard, his “bratty teen” persona wears pretty thin with me, but he’s honestly not in the film nearly as much as the billing and advertising might imply. Celeste O’Connor is the grown-up of the group (22, playing ambiguous late teens), and delivers on the very little she is asked to do. As weak as this film is, its failure can’t be placed on any of their heads.
Afterlife’s young cast distinguishes it from its predecessors, as does changing the setting from Manhattan to a rural Midwestern town. At first, these changes seem to work in the film’s favor — both Ghostbusters 2 and the 2016 Ghostbusters (retroactively subtitled Answer the Call) suffer from retreading the beats of the original, and avoiding direct comparisons should be a smart move. Afterlife also does away with much of the original’s improvisational comedy, perhaps in reaction to how heavily it was employed in Answer the Call. The trouble is that Jason Reitman extracts these key Ghostbusters identifiers and replaces them with, well, nothing. The small town setting never develops a character of its own, in fact the sparsely-populated flatlands rob the action of scale, speed, and danger to bystanders. Movies set in the country don’t have to look boring, but this one does.
Where all previous Ghostbusters films have benefitted from an easy, off-the-cuff rapport between the lead characters, the kids’ scripted pitter-patter is rarely funny. Most of the film’s visual gags are packed into one completely excisable scene that plays like a clip from Gremlins that got accidentally spliced into this movie. Afterlife squeezed only a handful of laughs out of me in the whole two hours, most of them won by Paul Rudd playing his usual “sweet boy next door” type. While some of the crowd at my screening was clearly having a ball, I spent the first half of the film in a state of mild, sedate amusement, jostled to attention now and then by getting punched in the back by my 4DX seat.
A Hand-Me-Down Movie
The second half of Afterlife steers directly towards the familiar, which does the film no favors. Once all the kids become involved in the action, there’s a clear attempt to echo the dynamic of the original Ghostbusters. Phoebe is our Egon, brilliant and deadpan but sitting right next to Sheldon Cooper on the Vague Hollywood Autism spectrum. Trevor is our cynical wisecracker, less slimy than Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman but also less funny. Podcast shares the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the paranormal that Dan Ackroyd brought to Ray Stantz, but it doesn’t have quite the same charm because Podcast isn’t childlike, he’s a literal child. Finally there’s Lucky, who succeeds Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore in that she’s just sort of cool and regular and has the least involvement in the plot. (Yes, this has happened yet again to the one Black Ghostbuster.) Callbacks to the original film become more frequent until Afterlife lifts its famous finale outright.
Even the portion of the film that’s doing its own thing, plotwise, is still soaked through with Ghostbusters nostalgia. Composer Rob Simonson starts quoting Elmer Bernstein’s original score beginning with Afterlife’s very first frames and he never stops. The cameos by original cast members reprising their roles start early and only get more aggressive. The Ghostbuster equipment and ephemera used by the characters is all directly from the original, save for some upgrades to the Cadillac ECTO-1 which are adapted from the 1986 animated series The Real Ghostbusters, and a new radio-controlled ghost trap on wheels that’s in stores now. The main villains are imported from the first film, and there are very few new ghost designs. Muncher, the second act’s featured creature, is just Slimer with some extra legs added, and there are a few scenes featuring an army of tiny Stay Puft marshmallow men. Afterlife adds so little iconography to the canon from which it sprung that The Force Awakens seems brave by comparison.
This all comes to a head during the film’s climax, which might be the most nakedly manipulative nostalgia play I’ve ever seen in a movie. While most of the film had me barely engaged, the final ten minutes made me feel positively gross. I’m the type of moviegoer who cries at the slightest provocation, but I’ve never felt more ashamed of it than I did during Ghostbusters: Afterlife. My eyes welled up as an autonomic response, while my conscious reaction was “Fuck you, you cheap bastard, you have not earned this from me.” There is nothing visually or narratively interesting about Afterlife, least of all its ending. Jason Reitman merely pushes the button for Automatic Emotional Engagement, and I’m genuinely angry for having responded to it.
I Guess This Is Why We Need “Never Forget” Bumper Stickers
In the original Ghostbusters, New York City is struck by an epidemic of ghostly mischief which comes to a head when the Sumerian god Gozer breaks into our reality. Gozer conjures a hundred-foot marshmallow man who rampages through Manhattan until both Gozer and the glucose golem are defeated by the Ghostbusters. In Ghostbusters: Afterlife, these events still occurred but have apparently become an obscure factoid remembered only by those with an interest in the paranormal. I’ll grant that there are a lot of events from the history of New York that were a big deal at the time but perhaps aren’t well-known to out-of-towners or people born decades after they took place. I wouldn’t expect someone born after 9/11 to know that the World Trade Center was bombed a decade earlier in 1993, for instance. However, if there had been a highly public incident during which the dead rose from the grave en masse, proving the existence of life after death and in other dimensions, I think that would probably have made a lasting impression.
(Ghostbusters II establishes that many New Yorkers eventually dismiss the entire Gozer incident as some sort of mass hysteria, which halfway works only because that film is far sillier than Afterlife. Ghostbusters II is also apparently not included in Afterlife’s timeline, perhaps because history would have an even harder time forgetting when the Statue of Liberty strolled through Manhattan to the music of Jackie Wilson.)
In order to explain why even Phoebe and Trevor are ignorant to their grandfather’s adventures, Reitman chooses to make Dr. Egon Spengler into a deadbeat dad, scarring his daughter Callie so deeply that she never mentions him to her kids and carries a deep resentment for him throughout her life. As Phoebe begins to explore Egon’s legacy and develops a relationship with him from beyond the grave, Callie’s wounds only become more apparent. Carrie Coon is really compelling in the few moments in which she tries to convey to her daughter how much her father’s absence has hurt her, but these scenes stand out uncomfortably in a film that’s otherwise supposed to be light and fun. She’s actually so effective in conveying this pain that it made the film’s weaksauce efforts to exonerate Egon for his abandonment feel wholly insufficient. And yet, by the end, we seem expected to offer him our complete forgiveness, because, well, because he’s Egon from Ghostbusters.
Afterlife depends so much on reverence for the original Ghostbusters and its cast that the original film’s irreverence is totally lost. If someone were to try and reverse-engineer Ghostbusters based on its portrayal in Afterlife, they could not possibly come close. But even this wouldn’t be such a crime if there were anything unique to Afterlife that was worth remembering. What little charm the film has is borrowed, and it has no collateral to offer in exchange.
Back in 2008, only two films into his directing career, Jason Reitman gave an interview to Howard Stern dismissing the very idea of making a Ghostbusters sequel.
“I would make the most boring Ghostbusters movie,” said Reitman.