Starring: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl), Finn Wolfhard (It), Mckenna Grace (Gifted), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor (Freaky), Bokeem Woodbine (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Tracy Letts (Lady Bird)
Director: Jason Reitman (Juno)
Writers: Gil Kenan (Monster House) & Jason Reitman
Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes
Release Date: 18th November (UK), 19th November (US)
The legacy of Ghostbusters is a bizarre one when you look back in retrospect. Whilst it has the scale and effects of a typical blockbuster of the era, when you get down to its core it’s really just another 80s comedy in much the same vein as Stripes or Animal House, and that was part of the gag. Its central conceit is “what if supernatural investigators were comparable to blue-collar exterminators?”, and all of its talk of ancient evils and pseudo-scientific technobabble is mostly in service of giving Saturday Night Live and SCTV alum something preposterous to riff off of. In the simplest of terms, it’s not supposed to be taken seriously.
However, in much the same way as other joke properties of the era (e.g., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Ghostbusters has been dissected and deified as if it were akin to Star Trek, and that perception has warped the perspective of certain sections of the fanbase. If anything, the real reason the 2016 reboot failed to find an audience isn’t because it changed too much, but because it understood its core conceit as a comedy and tried to modernise that, when what the fanbase was demanding was a movie that worshipped the original as much as they did. Ghostbusters: Afterlife positions itself as that film the fans asked for, delivering a truckload of nostalgia and a genuine reverence for the material, but in execution it is nothing more than a hollow and unoriginal cover song that misses the forest for the trees.
Right from its opening moments, it’s clear that the movie Afterlife wants to be is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that’s not an entirely bad idea as a starting point. The original film itself was basically a play on the screwball, snobs vs slobs comedies of its time, and taking that off-beat approach to a legacy storyline has plenty of material to mine. Unfortunately, it also quickly becomes obvious that Afterlife is completely and blindingly sincere in its convictions. This isn’t a parody or a comedic twist on that formula, but just another example of it, and treats its source material with a completely unwarranted grandiosity. It’s hard to describe, but basically imagine if they made a sequel to The Princess Bride today, but treated it as if it were a Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy; that’s how badly Afterlife misses the point. That’s not to say it takes itself completely seriously, but the comedy here is secondary to the story, with the humour treated in much the same manner as a Marvel movie. Jason Reitman’s influence as director is felt in the quieter, character-focused scenes that make up its better moments, but as soon as the action kicks in it feels like just any other blockbuster and it goes straight for the obvious answer every time.
The entire film is just one giant pop culture reference, chucking in every call back to the original it can possibly think of. They are sparing with them at first, and there’s a few more subtle ones worthy of a chuckle or a knowing smile, but by the end there are scenes that are just straight-up remakes of bits from the first film; there’s maybe a sly wink or a tiny twist for the sake of a gag, but they feel like little more than a lampshade. Even if you accept its totally earnest and unironic approach to the material, as a sequel it has even less originality than Ghostbusters II, which itself was criticised at the time for being a cookie-cutter follow-up. That film at least brought new concepts to the table and expanded the lore, but Afterlife is more than content to just throw recognisable iconography at the screen and call it a day. It’s hard to go into more detail without getting into spoiler territory, but the entire third act plays out like trite fan fiction that attempts to go for the heart but falls completely flat, and even in this supposed emotional finale they can’t help but keep being self-referential. All in all, Afterlife certainly wants to be The Force Awakens, but what it ends up being instead is The Rise of Skywalker; seriously, they basically have the exact same ending.
With all that said, the first two acts that are less weighed down by constant self-satisfaction have their moments of joy, and those are mostly found in the performances of McKenna Grace as the socially-unattached prodigy Phoebe, and Logan Kim as her happy-go-lucky, conspiracy theory-obsessed sidekick Podcast. These are two characters who feel like they’d work in a movie completely unrelated to the busting of ghosts, and whether playing around with proton packs or just making awkward small talk they are consistently hilarious and entertaining to watch. Whilst Kim is mostly here just for comic relief and do so with exuberant aplomb, Grace does a fine job of balancing the comedic side of her character with the dramatic heft needed whenever the movie remembers that it’s directed by Jason Reitman. Grace has been doing phenomenal work in parts big and small for the past few years, and if nothing else, hopefully this film gives her enough of a spotlight to make her the household name she deserves to be.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, aren’t so lucky to have characters with as much depth or humour. Carrie Coon is saddled with a pretty one-note role as downhearted mother Callie, whose dialogue entirely consists of three topics: “I hate my dad”, “I hate science because I hate my dad”, and “I don’t get you, Phoebe”. More than anything, she just feels like a self-insert for Reitman to vicariously vent about his own issues with his father and the series. Finn Wolfhard’s Trevor is also mostly a perfunctory role, with his only real motivation being his hopeless pursuit of Celeste O’Connor as local girl Lucky, and he spends most of the film off in his own unresolved sub-story before getting dragged into the main plot with little more than a shrug. Paul Rudd is at least his usual charming self as summer school teacher Gary Grooberson, but the character is otherwise so indistinguishable from Rudd’s own personality that he might as well just be playing himself. Other recognisable faces, like Bokeem Woodbine as the town sheriff or Tracy Letts as a hardware store owner, are little more than bit parts that could have been played by anyone, and then there are a few others in more subtle roles that I’ll let you discover by either watching the movie or reading the end credits. Some will delight you, some will make you shrug, and others will just have you going “Why did they bother?”
The only way Afterlife majorly differentiates itself from prior entries is in its aesthetic. Moving the story from New York to a Podunk town in Oklahoma gives it at least an air of freshness, though it doesn’t play as much with the new setting as it could have. It visually goes for a more cinematic look rather than the locked-down cinematography of its more comedy-focused forbearers, which does lead to some pretty shots but it still feels workman-like in its attempts to feel more like a blockbuster. The visual effects are top-notch, using a good mix of practical and CGI that feel like an upgrade to the original but without completely changing the wheel; I wish this level of effort and craftsmanship went into the effects in the 2016 film. However, from a design perspective, the ghosts here that aren’t just pulled from the 1984 original are just slight variations on them. There’s the mischievous poltergeist Muncher, who is basically just Slimer but blue and he eats metal instead of food, and the heavily-marketed Mini-Pufts who are just here to remake Gremlins for one mildly amusing scene. However, the most disappointing aspect of the film on a technical level is its music. There is not a single tune by Rob Simonsen I can actually recall, because most of the score is just repurposed tracks from Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for the original. It’s great to hear these classic refrains again, but they mostly feel slapped onto the movie and don’t really fit with the rest of the movie’s more grounded aesthetic; it’s like a Spielberg movie with Seinfeld stings.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the reason why you shouldn’t always listen to fans. Instead of doing something clever or refreshing with the material, it just throws references at the screen whilst convincing itself it’s original because it sometimes looks like an indie flick. Jason Reitman has laboured his entire career to differentiate himself from Ivan Reitman, and whilst I can’t say he’s just outright copied his father’s work for a quick cheque, he certainly doesn’t have a career as the next JJ Abrams if that’s what he’s contemplating. Whether you liked the 2016 version or not, you have to concede that it at least tried to do its own thing whilst still paying tribute to the originals. Afterlife, though, is the cinematic equivalent of a mass-produced T-shirt that’s been dyed to look faded and had holes purposefully ripped in to make it seem vintage; it wants you to think it’s trendy, but it’s just another bit of corporatized product.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is both a mid AND a post-credits scene, because of course there is!
FINAL VERDICT: 5/10