Review: Ghostbusters Afterlife Is a Fitful New Start
Warning: There are some spoilers ahead for Ghostbusters: Afterlife!
Like Eternals, Ghostbusters Afterlife exhibits visible tension between a director with a solidly identifiable style and story interests, and the demands of a franchise. Only in this case, it’s a franchise his own father, Ivan Reitman, co-created. So being too irreverent is out of the question. But given that his own movies tend to focus on self-absorbed adults who screw everything up and aren’t always the better for realizing their mistakes, Jason Reitman faces a bigger-than-usual struggle trying to show a familiar world through the innocent eyes of a child. Ghostbusters always included cynical characters, but its view of the world was sincere, never arch. The comedy came from the contrast when characters like Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman failed to take the apocalypse-level threats too seriously.
Afterlife‘s main character, 12 year-old Phoebe, isn’t old enough to be world-weary. She’s a brilliant science nerd who hasn’t been beaten down enough to see her talents as in any way detrimental. Sure, her social skills can come off awkward, but she’s acutely aware of exactly how and why. As played by Mckenna Grace, she’s more than just an imitation of the late Harold Ramis’ deadpan. She’s a character who has analyzed all her choices and determined that deadpan works the best for her. Right down to her so-unfunny-they’re-funny jokes. She’s a wonderfully realized character, and a female Ghostbuster who doesn’t deserve any controversy or hot takes.
As an unabashedly good person who mostly does the right thing at all times, she’s also a major anomaly as a Jason Reitman protagonist. Grace even sings the soundtrack’s one cool new song. Clearly, she’s a formidable multi-talent.
Phoebe’s mother Callie (Carrie Coon) is much more the sort of character that Reitman would usually cast Charlize Theron to play as his lead. She’s a single mom, her ex-husband as-yet-uncast and presumably to be played by a surprise celebrity in any potential sequel, who loves her alcohol and hates her late, estranged father (no spoilers, but you’ll guess quickly). Unable to pay rent in her city apartment, she and her two kids (the other one is Finn Wolfhard’s 15 year-old Trevor) move to dad’s old run-down country house they just got in the will. In an arguably subtle nod to the original Ghostbusters‘ embrace by libertarians, the family patriarch appears to have gone full-on isolationist doomsday prepper.
Naturally, this small town isn’t as quiet as it seems. Especially when the kids and their summer school teacher (Paul Rudd) start messing around with some old things they maybe shouldn’t touch.
The creative tension between the younger Reitman, who clearly would rather be making a movie about Carrie Coon moving to her dad’s house in a small un-haunted town, and the older Reitman/Sony Pictures, who want a ghost comedy with all the familiar things, leads to a somewhat disjointed story. Seemingly edited by Kandarian dagger, it frequently makes narrative and locational leaps that feel like transitional scenes got hacked out. And the contrasting tones make this the first Ghostbusters movie to not overtly feel like a comedy first and foremost. It plays more like Stranger Things, which of course already pays frequent homage to Ghostbusters.
The new cast members, however, do masterful jobs with roles that don’t seem well written. A kid named Podcast because he has a podcast, and records everything in his life for that podcast, already feels like a cliche after Godzilla vs Kong and the Chucky TV show. But young Logan Kim throws so much energy into it that a lot of it sticks. Thankfully, he’s probably too young to know how lame the concept sounds, and thus never gets bothered by it. Finn Wolfhard is casting shorthand as Trevor. We don’t learn much about him except that he likes cars and girls, which could have amounted to nothing. But he keeps it real and appropriately awkward.
Less fortunate is Celeste O’Connor as Lucky, the object of Trevor’s affections. It’s never clear quite why she ultimately joins the team, nor that Trevor’s affection is returned. There’s even a joke about it being age-inappropriate, which kind of sours the whole thing. (The actress would have been around 20-to-play-younger when this filmed.) There’s a hint that she got bored from living in a small town and likes the new challenges, but Reitman never explicitly connects those dots. Still, O’Connor’s charming, and we can see why Trevor likes Lucky, if not vice versa.
As for Paul Rudd — it’s good that at least one comedy guy got cast in this comedy franchise installment.
Ghostbusters Afterlife wants to be The Force Awakens of Ghostbusters, but Jason Reitman isn’t J.J. Abrams. That’s generally a compliment. Reitman’s filmography easily tops Abrams’, but he’s not as good at just copying other stuff that worked before. And after previous Ghostbusters follow-up movies went in different directions, the mandate here plainly involved giving the audience familiar things. So yes, the supernatural threats here look pretty familiar. Considering how wild and varied The Real Ghostbusters toys and cartoons got with ghosts, that’s a minor bummer. (One of the toys does get a nice shout-out, though.)
And yet, let’s be honest — for fans of this property, there’s something just inherently fun about seeing the old Ecto-1 and proton packs in action again. 2016’s reboot didn’t quite hit those feels because it was a new origin story rather than a direct sequel. 2021’s edition, however, comes off scientifically calculated to hit those feels. If it occasionally goes overboard on the familiarity, it’s forgivable for the moments where it gets it just right. The sequel that a post-credits scene may or may not set up could get even better now that the nostalgia beast is fed. Just please keep Rian Johnson far away from it.
Ghostbusters Afterlife opens in theaters Nov. 18.
Recommended Reading: Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History
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