Way back in the before times of 2019 — pre-pandemic, but after the world was already experiencing real Old Testament-type stuff, like human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria, Trump — readers may have come across a news item. There was a new Ghostbusters movie on the way. I mean, there already had been a new Ghostbusters movie, which tried to channel the classic 1980s blockbuster’s spirit while giving things a fresh spin via an all-female gang of paranormal investigators. That idea was inspired; the end result, not so much. (Still: Kate McKinnon.) Yet now we were learning about another attempt to resuscitate the franchise, this time with an added bonus: Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters O.G. director Ivan Reitman, would be co-writing and directing it. “I’ve always thought of myself as the first Ghostbusters fan, when I was a six-year-old visiting the set,” Jason said. “I wanted to make a movie for all the other fans.”
The second half of that statement was loaded, to say the least. The 2016 movie had become a whiffle ball batted around in the culture wars, with the mere concept of lady Ghostbusters causing collective pearl-clutching among the die-hards. Fan-bros acted as if this update had personally gone back to every single print of the original and digitally added a vagina to Bill Murray’s character. Worse, they began a campaign of harassment against the new movie’s stars, its defenders, and anyone possessing XX-chromosomes who accidentally crossed their path. These men weren’t ‘fraid of no ghosts. They were terrified, however, that the presence of estrogen was going to somehow retroactively ruin their childhood.
So the declaration that this would be one “for the fans,” even while dutifully paying lip service to the Melissa McCarthy/Kristen Wiig version, felt like a dog whistle: Relax, fellas. You’ll get your obsessive pop-culture fix without anyone messing with your perpetual-adolescence shrines. This is part of the baggage Ghostbusters: Afterlife brings with it. And while Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan (the 2015 Poltergeist remake) thankfully didn’t give in to the worst aspects of the Toxic Nostalgia Brigade™, it certainly feels like some sort of canon course-correction is being constructed. A belated follow-up to the first movie and its lackluster 1989 sequel — we don’t care what you say, Twitter, it’s not good — Afterlife plays heavily to those who treat the teachings of Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler as gospel. “It’s made for the fans, not the critics,” some will inevitably cry. They’re correct on the first part, though they should technically add to that last bit “also anyone who hasn’t committed the minutiae of the original to memory, and people who expect more than Easter egg hunts out of blockbusters.”
Spengler, in fact, is the first person we see — or rather, someone sporting Harold Ramis’ signature mile-high hairdo and telltale silhouette. The busters’ resident brainiac is set up to be the movie’s the emotional linchpin, the bridge between then and now. Never mind that the late, great Ramis died in 2014 (Afterlife is dedicated to him): He’s chasing something, or being chased, or trying to trap something out in the cornfields of his Oklahoma farmhouse. Whatever is happening, it concludes with the character shuffling off this mortal coil. How much your heartstrings are thrumming during this preamble will determine how willing you are to go with everything that follows, more or less, and you get the sense that Reitman knew where he wanted to start and exactly where he wants this movie to end up. It’s everything in between those points — the half-baked movie nestled underneath the tributes and remembrances of past glories, in other words — that becomes the dealbreaker.
In between busting ghosts, Spengler managed to father a child, though to hear his estranged, now-grown daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) tell it, he was not much of a dad. She and her two kids, Trevor (Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), hightail it to the small town in the Sooner State more out of necessity than love, and take over the farmhouse until Mom can figure out how to make ends meet. In the meantime, Trevor gets a job at the local retro-1950s burger joint, the better to cozy up to Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), the cute waitress he’s crushing on. And Phoebe gets enrolled in summer school, which is run by moonlighting seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd, regrettably wasted). A nerdy, socially awkward 12-year-old, she bonds more with her equally dorky teacher than with the other kids — the exception being Podcast (Logan Kim), a fellow misfit who… has a podcast. (As far as names for precocious Asian screen kids go, it’s not as good as Data but way, way better than Short Round.)
When Phoebe happens to bring a vintage ghost trap she found to school, Grooberson and Podcast immediately recognize it: That was those guys in New York who fought off a 50-story marshmallow man used back in the 1980s! And guess what’s sitting under a tarp in the garage, just waiting to get taken for a spin again? And also, look at all those cool gizmos and gadgets Grandpa stored in his basement, along with an ancient map of the town, which suggests that something pretty evil is happening over by that abandoned mine, the one housed at the bottom of that ominous-looking mountain….
Yes, all of your favorite toys and weapons and gear are here, along with a new generation who will don the uniforms with the famous circle-slash-specter logo. You can almost hear the checklist being ticked off. When Grace — who nails the right tone of deadpan amazement and is undeniably the single best thing about Afterlife — and her gang finally get to chase down a slimy green spirit named “Muncher,” the sequence is rendered in the whip-crack style of mid-Eighties summer movies, proving that if nothing else, Reitman Jr.’s formative years in front of VCRs paid off. Though the focus is on his dad’s runaway horror-comedy-action hit, the younger director’s sequel is really a swooning ode to a whole decade’s worth of Hollywood multiplex touchstones, from The Goonies to Gremlins and a host of Spielbergisms; even the throwback drive-in diner is something you would have found in a movie made when Reagan-era filmmakers were still obsessed with Eisenhower-era youth culture.
This is spirit-of-’84 blockbuster cosplay — a cinematic equivalent of dressing up as Venkman and trying to get every last detail of your costume and D.I.Y. proton pack right, parading your loyalty for the benefit of your peers. And yet Ghostbusters: Afterlife somehow leaves out the magic that made that Bill Murray-fueled, big-budget genre mash-up so wonderful in the first place. You can look past it muting the spiky chemistry of Rudd and Coon, who deserve more scenes and their own rom-com together, or the way the narrative’s father issues feel so incredibly forced, or how so many of the sequences appear to simply be killing time until the final act. What’s less forgivable is the way that it gets so caught up in the mythology of its hollow nostalgia that is misses why the original meant so much to so many of us way back when. It may be Reitman’s labor of love, but when you love something, you’re supposed to set it free, not continually trap it in amber. At least, that’s what the singer from the 1980s told us.
It’s not a spoiler to say that some familiar names and several very familiar faces get trotted out before everything is said and done. It may be a mood-spoiler to say that if you felt a little uncanny-valley uncomfortable with Peter Cushing’s “performance” in Rogue One a few years back, you might find yourself squirming in your seat before the final credits. There’s definitely some collective catharsis that’s happening for a select group of viewers, as the rest of us try extremely hard not to cringe. Should you be a Ghostbusters admirer who goes into this franchise extension wanting to see an actual, y’know, movie, you’ll feel as if you were trespassing in someone else’s house of worship. But at least you’ll who’ll not to call next time.