Who is “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” for, exactly? It’s not a remake, as it’s tied to the 1984 and 1989 “Ghostbusters” films, yet as a sequel, it spends roughly a third of its runtime with characters mostly unaware of who the Ghostbusters are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” then, is a rebootquel of sorts — a seemingly “fresh start” for a franchise that introduces a new generation of characters while being connected to previous entries in an attempt to appeal to younger audiences and nostalgic folks alike. But even in that context, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” — which is directed by Jason Reitman, whose father Ivan helmed the first two movies — ends up failing in both ways. If it’s aimed at new viewers, then why are there so many callbacks to previous elements of the franchise (including an emotional climax that rests entirely on caring about those earlier installments)? And if it’s aimed at those familiar with “Ghostbusters,” then why repeat multiple plot elements and stories from the 1984 movie? There is some good in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” but it’s an incredibly bungled film that relies on nostalgia to patch over the many script-level mistakes.
After Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) suddenly dies, his estranged daughter Callie and her two children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), travel to Summerville, Oklahoma, to find Egon’s legacy: a busted-up dirt farm that offers none of the financial rewards they hoped to discover. While the locals, like Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), all regarded Spengler as a lunatic recluse, Phoebe learns the truth about her grandfather from teacher/seismologist/’80s fanboy Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd). However, Grooberson is more interested in the weird earthquakes that have started to plague Summerville (and dating Callie) than busting ghosts, so it falls on Phoebe and her new friend Podcast (Logan Kim) to investigate why there’s something strange in their neighborhood.
That’s right — the kid’s name is Podcast… because he has a podcast and is always recording for it even though no one listens to it! (Insert laughter) It’s such a Boomer joke, despite coming from a script by two Gen Xers (Reitman and Gil Kenan), and is so painful that it ends up becoming inadvertently funny in an anti-comedy way. That’s obviously not the main gripe of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” but it is indicative of the negative baggage that comes with the film’s stronger elements. The actual character is funny, and Kim does a great job in the role, but he also doesn’t really serve a purpose in terms of the script.
Phoebe is the science whiz who can build and fix anything, while also having social and emotional issues; Trevor wants to be cool and can drive a car, while also being skeptical enough to force others to deliver exposition; and Podcast has a show about the supernatural but doesn’t know about the 1984 incident in New York and doesn’t offer any insight into the spooky phenomena happening. That clearly should have been the role that would make him contribute more than just jokes and a bad zeitgeist reference. Also, true to form for the series, Lucky doesn’t really have much to do but be the cool, yet poorly defined, Black fourth member of the ramshackle group.
“Ghostbusters II” made the cardinal sin of trying to start over by having the gang back at the bottom with no one respecting or believing them… even though they literally saved the world in full view of the press and a large crowd of Manhattanites. The 2016 remake at least doesn’t take place in the same universe, but it does still retread over the concept of using lasers to trap flying, translucent monsters. And in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” none of the kids know about the Ghostbusters or the events of 1984 because it was “30 years before [they were]born.” Never mind that the events of “Ghostbusters” would have forever altered the world and humanity on countless fundamental levels. In “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” those events are reduced to the main characters learning about the fight with Gozer via YouTube clips, aka repurposed footage from the original movie.
That’s at the heart of why “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is so frustrating. It spends a lot of time catching the audience up on who the Ghostbusters were and why Egon abandoned his daughter but also crams in numerous references to the 1984 film, the “Real Ghostbusters” cartoon and the Kenner toy line. Granted, those last two elements are for a fairly select audience (a Venn diagram overlap in which I apparently find myself), but the fact that the plot has carbon copy elements of Ivan Reitman’s movie is baffling. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling anything, but there are a lot of familiar scenes (and characters) involved in the kids’ adventure. It’s “The Force Awakens” for the “Ghostbusters” franchise, with less intriguing new elements. It’s unlikely that any newcomer would be lost with the dramatic turns and callbacks, but certain emotional beats are directly reliant on caring about those older entries.
And yet there is good to be found in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”; not a lot, but some. The main actors deliver solid performances and get in multiple strong jokes that have the tossed-off glib spirit of the original script by Dan Aykroyd and Ramis, complete with some clearly improvised bits that are hilarious (mostly from Rudd) in the tradition of Bill Murray. But even then, the characters are constantly chasing after this former glory instead of having their own arcs. Grace’s whole character arc consists of being awkward and eventually gaining new friends and exhibiting emotion, except that it’s made abundantly clear that she’s a person with autism, so it’s not a great look that these character traits are “solved” by the end. Still, because the cast has excellent chemistry, it’s easy to get absorbed by their antics and energy.
Maybe “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” will appeal to a new generation. The 2016 remake had new ideas, new monsters and a pretty good plot but lacked any sense of camaraderie or solid jokes, which tends to be crucial in ensemble horror/adventure/comedy movies and therefore didn’t connect with most people. The other two “Ghostbusters” films are almost 40 years old, so perhaps the timing is right and young audiences will not mind the repetition or will at least appreciate the sentimentality. However, far too much of the film coasts on “remember this?” moments that are far too reverential of the 1984 movie. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is never given a chance to be its own thing and instead emerges as a mutant hybrid of the nostalgic and the new, satisfying neither in its poorly conceived retread.
Starring: Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O'Connor, Oliver Cooper, Sydney Mae Diaz, Marlon Kazadi, Bookem Woodbine
Director: Jason Reitman