Because Ghostbusters has been so successfully franchised over the years, it’s hard to know what to expect from a new iteration. Maybe I’m dumb, but I didn’t expect Ghostbusters: Afterlife it to be what it is — which is, essentially, an 80s-style kids movie in the vein of The Goonies.
In retrospect, Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things joining the cast should’ve been a tipoff. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, directed by Jason Reitman, whose dad directed the original, is more of a Muppet Babies take on the material, attempting to restart the franchise with both a younger cast and a younger audience. Reitman, the seemingly overqualified director of Juno, Up In The Air, Young Adult, etc., turns out to have a knack for 80s-style Amblin Entertainment-style filmmaking. Afterlife looks great, and I can imagine loving it if I was 9. As an adult it’s merely so-so, something you’d happily sit through with your kid and probably forget the next day.
Ghostbusters began, of course, as a strange, “supernatural comedy,” starring Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and the gang. Aykroyd has always been a little kooky, and Ghostbusters felt a bit like his buddies all got together to humor him, partly indulging his obsession with the supernatural, partly just having fun with it even if they didn’t entirely buy-in. The resulting movie is very strange, but just amiable enough to work, a zany take on demons and ancient myth stapled together with wry smirks and, I assume, lots of cocaine. It was 1984 after all, and the climax of the movie involved a possessed marshmallow destroying New York City.
Yet it was kooky and fun, and because it was so easy to brand, with a catchy theme song and a perfect logo, it almost instantly became a phenomenon. So it was we got the sequel, the cartoon, 2016’s gender-swapped version, etc. Which naturally raises the question: what is Ghostbusters now? A comedy franchise? A Halloween costume? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Is it still in some way an eccentric Canadian’s drug-addled fever dream?
Before 2016 there was at least a decade of various people working on sequel ideas. Sony spent millions going to increasingly elaborate lengths just to cajole an apathetic and notoriously aloof Bill Murray into reading a script. At some point, he seems to have signed off, and with Murray, Aykroyd, and Hudson featuring prominently in the advertising for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, I guess I assumed it was going to be more of a direct sequel to the original, closer to the movie Dan Aykroyd probably wanted before he got talked into Ghostbusters 2016. Instead, Afterlife is more like a kids adventure film, beautifully crafted but also a bit confused.
The plot concerns Egon Spengler, who has died as a recluse on a ramshackle farm in the fictional village of Summerville, Oklahoma (it was actually shot in Alberta). He has bequeathed his crumbling house full of wacky ghost gadgets to his estranged heirs — daughter Callie, played by the luminescent Carrie Coon, grandson Trevor, played by Finn Wolfhard, and granddaughter Phoebe, a budding scientist and spitting image of the old man (by which I mean they wear the same glasses) played by McKenna Grace.
Evicted from their apartment, the Spengler heirs are forced to try to make a new life in this podunk town on the plains where strange doings seem afoot. Nerdy Phoebe soon makes a friend, in the form of “Podcast” (Logan Kim), an obnoxious kid with bouffant hair and too many layers of clothes whose shtick is constantly recording a podcast. Podcast seems like he escaped from one of those insufferable Nickelodeon sitcoms where the kids are all wildly overstyled and loudly snarky, like an OshKosh B’Gosh showroom possessed by the ghost of Joss Whedon. (85% of kids shows are like this now, please make it stop.)
Phoebe finds a mentor in her Summer school teacher, Mr. Grooberson, played by Paul Rudd. Meanwhile, Trevor — all sharp angles and shaggy hair, like Wiley Wiggins from Dazed and Confused crossed with a young Freddy Mercury — meets his crush while working at the local drive-in: Lucky, played by Celeste O’Connor.
The picturesque setting is a fresh twist and the best thing about Ghostbusters: Afterlife is probably Reitman’s flair for texture and tone. The ’80s gave us a bounty of goofy kids adventures shot with the care of seventies auteur cinema, and, at least texturally, Afterlife is a worthy homage. It has that Earth-toned analog tape deck sensibility that so many contemporary movies lack, where you can feel the dirt on your skin and the breeze on your face when you watch it.
Yet pretty quickly, Reitman slams headlong into The Child Actor Problem. Someday we’re going to replace most actors under 18 with older actors with glandular disorders and Andy Serkis in his mo-cap ballsuit, and then we’ll look back on headshots like this as strange curios from a barbaric age. Until then, we must suffer, pretending this is normal.
McKenna Grace, it should be said, is fantastic, and Celeste O’Connor is solid in a lesser role. but the rest of the young actors just aren’t quite up to the task. And can you really expect them to be? The original worked partly because it starred some of 1984’s most skilled comedic improvisors. You just can’t recreate that with a handful of little kids. The kids in the audience probably won’t mind, but their parents will groan a little on the inside.
With Reitman’s direction, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, JK Simmons in a blink-and-you’ll miss-it role, and even Coon’s real-life husband, Tracy Letts in a cameo, it’s hard not to fantasize about how good an adult version of Ghostbusters: Afterlife could’ve been. But why work hard to create a better one-off when your true goal is a long-running franchise and ancillary revenue streams?
Therefore Afterlife is mostly about the kids, and like virtually all iterations of Ghostbusters since 1984, it ends up slightly adrift in the swirling tides of corporate fashion. Whereas 2016 Ghostbusters got caught up in the gender-swap craze, Afterlife feels like an attempt at a kids-ified Bill and Ted: Face The Music meets the Marvel Universe.
It relies heavily on our familiarity with the material, never seeming to notice or attempt to explain just how damn weird that source material is. Again, maybe I’m dumb, but what the hell actually is Slimer? Afterlife never attempts to answer, skipping straight to Slimer’s successor, Muncher, a gluttonous ghost who eats metal and is apparently voiced by Josh Gad, though I don’t remember him using any English words. Is Muncher a demon? Is he the spirit of a dead fat guy? Why does he eat metal? Ditto Afterlife‘s army of vaguely demonic mini-marshmallow men. Which Ghostbusters would I need to rewatch in order to understand this?
Reviewing these modern franchise movies, I always feel a little like being asked to rate the phone support technician at the end of a call with my cable company. I just endured a Kafkaesque hell, screaming “OPERATOR” at a voice recognition system that only works in theory and waiting on hold for 40 minutes just to troubleshoot some software glitch, and now you want me to rate it all based on the politeness level of an individual Bangladeshi? That human isn’t the problem. The problem is the absurdist farce competing market forces have made out of something that used to seem fairly simple.
Did Jason Reitman do a good job directing Ghostbusters: Afterlife? Yes, he performed wonderfully. The problem is the contradictory corporate whims he’s been asked to satisfy here, asking him to create something that is simultaneously an homage, a sequel, an adult comedy, a kids adventure, a teaser for future movies, and a requiem for Harold Ramis. Is this even really the best way to make money nowadays? What if we just gave creative people money to tell stories, rather than forcing them to try to reanimate the ghost of dead IP?
Anyway, three and a quarter stars, solid B+.