In a world of IP and tenacious, practically ferocious fandom, it was mightily tough for Paul Feig to release his 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters just a few years ago, as the filmmaker and his cast ultimately faced a hefty amount of backlash turning the release of that film into one of the ugliest battlefields of contemporary fan culture in the process. So with such strife, it’s not too surprising, and honesty pretty befitting, to see the series about beings that refuse to stay dead, deliver Ghostbusters: Afterlife which arrives as a catered silver-platter to the franchise’s most vocal loyalists. Things even go so far into the hands of the same “dedicated,” rabid fans who effectively rendered the property radioactive five years ago, that we have this film helmed by Jason Reitman, son of the original film’s director, Ivan Reitman.
Where Feig’s women-led reboot attempted to take things in a different direction with the Ghostbusters property, Ghostbusters: Afterlife this time around focuses entirely on erecting the kind of hermetically sealed continuity that defines so many belated sequels to long-standing IP. This time though delivered, for some reason, as a Steven Spielberg-like, Amblin-esque family adventure film. That’s right, despite the 1984 original being a scrappy genre comedy about a bunch of hustling, wise-ass underachievers who inadvertently saved the world, Afterlife reimagines Ghostbusters more along the lines of Stand By Me and The Goonies. Even its protagonists are the descendants of a founding Ghostbuster, Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis): His daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), and his two grandchildren, Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), all of whom open the film with their moving in to his Midwestern farm after inheriting the property after his death.
And it’s shortly after they’ve arrived that Phoebe and Trevor explore their new home and surrounding land, soon uncovering the secrets of the grandfather whom they never knew and inadvertently unleash the ghosts that he was barely keeping in check. In a broad sense, that’s the basic thrust of the story, and in theory that simplicity should free up the film to devote its time to the mix of comedy and sci-fi spectacle that made the original so popular and relatively inedible. But Afterlife never nails that balance, with most of its jokes restricted to the introverted Phoebe’s awkward and thoroughly flat attempts at conversations with strangers.
Instead, the focus is thrown entirely onto action set pieces, which are executed with a severity that’s wholly at odds with what we’ve come to expect from a Ghostbusters film. Even a sequence built around chasing a gluttonous ghost named Muncher (a shameless riff on Slimer from the old movies) abandons its inherently goofy quality to stress white-knuckle tension as the kids careen through small-town Oklahoma attempting to blast the spirit. And it’s this seriousness that informs the film’s treatment of its own internal mythology, which it showcases with zealous devotion. Afterlife is gradually exposed to be less about its narrative of apocalyptic threats than the laborious nature that it employs its endless callbacks. Numerous scenes and shots are staged around the reveal of some element from the first movie: the car, the memorable one-liners, and members of the original cast. This turns the film’s ostensible young heroes into audience surrogates, and their emotional arcs are not about finding their own way in life, but coming to appreciate and marvel at the lives of their predecessors.
The entire film ultimately feels like Reitman attempting to stake an almost hereditary claim to the Ghostbusters franchise. He even goes so far and even more obvious in a garish appropriation of one actor’s likeness in Afterlife‘s finale that stands as one of the most literal expressions yet of Hollywood’s treatment of actors as intellectual property, “casting” them in death for what likely hopes to be a tribute but also strives for an unseemly nostalgic impact. And it’s by the time of that rocky finale, that Afterlife has become quite paint-by-numbers in its recreation of the hits and its celebration of itself and its “legends.” It’s a curious mix of contradictions, sentimental in its longing worship for Ghostbusters and yet cynical in the way it seems to rehash every classic moment of the original, insulting the audience’s intelligence along the way by giving them every cameo, wink, and nod they never knew they actually didn’t want until it was slathered all over them like some Stay Puft cream. A retread vaguely reshaped for re-consumption, Ghostbusters: Afterlife remains a nearly shameless succession of callbacks and references that never really captures the charms of the original.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is playing in Theaters nationwide