I’ve already said my piece about the long quixotic saga of bringing a third mainline Ghostbusters film to the screen. I wrote up a whole blog entry about how Sony’s in such deep shit that the fate of the studio could very well depend on this last, best franchise that they own outright. For that matter, I’m sure we’ve all seen the posters and trailers for this movie so many times all through the pandemic, it felt like the film would perpetually exist in post-production limbo. So now that the movie’s actually here, let’s get to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, shall we?
The premise begins with Ivo Shandor. For those who need a refresher, Ivo Shandor was briefly mentioned in the original film as the mad occultist who built 550 Central Park West to bring about the apocalyptic arrival of the Sumerian god Gozer, leading directly to the events of the first movie. Speaking of which, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that this movie almost certainly wipes “Ghostbusters: The Video Game” out of canon. In fact, Ghostbusters II might have been rendered non-canon as well, since the events of that movie are never even obliquely mentioned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, it’s noted in the original film that 550 Central Park West could only function due to the highly unusual metals used in its construction. It turns out that these metals were mined in Summerville, an Oklahoma mining town built by Shandor in the ’40s for this specific purpose.
So where do the Ghostbusters fit into all of this? Well, I won’t go into details about what’s happened with Messrs. Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore over the past thirty years. Suffice to say that one day, Egon spontaneously moved from New York to Summerville as fast as he possibly could. He didn’t tell anyone what he was doing or why, he just cleaned out the firehouse, packed everything into the Ecto-1, and bought a farm out in Oklahoma. Of course this pissed off his fellow Ghostbusters to no end. What’s worse, Egon left behind a young daughter (Callie, played by Carrie Coon) who went through her entire life with an obsessive all-consuming hatred of her deadbeat father.
(Side note: No, we never learn a thing about who Callie’s mother could’ve possibly been. Annie Potts makes a brief appearance, just long enough to disappoint and confuse literally everyone with the news that this couldn’t possibly be the offspring of Egon and Janine.)
Egon proceeded to obsessively work the land without ever growing anything, earning himself a local reputation as a crazy old man called “The Dirt Farmer.” But then, one day, Egon dies of an apparent heart attack. And he inexplicably leaves his entire estate to the daughter he never knew.
Thus Callie packs up her two kids (Trevor and Phoebe, respectively played by Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace) and they roll out to get a closer look at the rundown middle-of-nowhere shack they just inherited. I might add that they’re stuck living there for the indefinite future, as they just got evicted from their apartment. Thus Phoebe sets to work rediscovering her grandfather’s legacy and learning how to deal with the supernatural shit going down in Summerville and we’re off to the races.
To address the elephant in the room, the callbacks to the first film are undeniable. There are so many points in this movie — most especially during the third act — that directly mirror or call back to the plot of the first movie. That being said, and without getting into too many spoilers, the film does this in a way that braids up so many plot threads left over from the first picture. Perhaps more importantly, the filmmakers dovetail the old with the new such that they work together, passing the torch in a way that honors what came before while giving the younger generation their due.
(That said, there is a pathetically forced “Who ya gonna call?” line crowbarred in there, guaranteed to elicit a painful groan out of everyone in attendance.)
More importantly, the filmmakers put their own twist on the premise in some inspired ways. Easily the most prominent example concerns Egon’s family, as they struggle to parse their feelings over the death of a distant family member with such a powerful legacy. The existence of ghosts is directly hardwired into the premise of this franchise, and it’s well-established that at least some of the ghosts in-universe (most notably the librarian Eleanor Twitty and the Scoleri Brothers) were actual people who lived and died. Yet this movie directly addresses the implications of this in a way that the franchise never has until now. What would it be like to die and to face mortality in a world with documented evidence of spirits floating around after death? What would it be like to grieve, with the knowledge that a lost loved one might not actually be gone?
The first movie became iconic precisely because it had a blend of comedy and horror that could only be possible within a painfully brief window. It was the product of very specific comedians working at a very specific moment in their respective careers, capturing lightning in a bottle in a way that could never be replicated. For better or worse, this movie makes a very clear point of dialing back the comedy while betting the house on the themes of grief and legacy.
In other words, the first movie was a comedy that became a massive hit across all ages through its blend of horror and heart. This movie achieves the exact same goals by making it a family drama. Undeniably a bold and ingenious move, and it pays off beautifully.
Of course a lot of that has to do with the involvement of co-writer/director/producer Jason Reitman. Say what you will about him (and there’s been a lot to say), but it’s incontrovertible that he grew up with this franchise in such a way that the Ghostbusters practically are family to him. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker bringing back every major cast member of the first movie (yes, even the late Harold Ramis, though Rick Moranis is MIA) and using them as effectively as he does here. Like it or not, there is literally nobody else in all of time or space who could tell this story and do it so well.
Even so, there are problems. Whoo boy, there are problems.
The standout of the cast is Mckenna Grace in the role of Phoebe. She superbly anchors the film, gamely portraying a socially awkward scientific prodigy with an instant connection to the grandfather she never got to meet. This is indisputably Phoebe’s movie, to the point where she gets the vast majority of character development and impact on the plot. This regrettably means that pretty much everyone else in the plot gets shafted by comparison.
Take Trevor, for example. Though he’s also a descendant of Egon Spengler, we get shockingly few details about his feelings with regards to his grandfather’s passing. In fact, Trevor gets depressingly little in the way of character development, except that he’s a two-dimensional stereotype of a teenage boy who struggles with his crappy summer job while pining for his crush (more on her in a minute) and so on. Hell, some of what we learn about Trevor doesn’t even make sense. His main contribution to the team is that he’s a gearhead with a passion for fixing up cars, and he proves to be a marvelous driver behind the wheel of the Ecto-1. Yet it’s a crucial plot point that Trevor failed his driver’s test three times and he doesn’t have his license yet. WTF?
Even worse, there’s the matter of Trevor’s love interest, played by Celeste O’Connor. She’s only ever introduced as “Lucky”, and she’s the daughter of the local sheriff (a criminally wasted Bokeem Woodbine). That’s it. That’s literally all we get from her in the way of character development. Even as a second-generation Ghostbuster, she doesn’t do much of anything or have any kind of clearly-defined role on the team.
Rounding out the team is Logan Kim in the role of “Podcast”. That is literally the character’s name and his entire personality. He spends every waking moment recording for some paranormal mystery podcast with exactly one subscriber. Granted, he does at least get a vital role on the team, as the pilot of the remote-controlled trap (more on that later). Even so, he’s a pitiful one-note character and his one gimmick is relentlessly annoying.
Still, for all my complaints about the new lineup, it’s nice to see a 50/50 co-ed split. We’ve also got a black kid and an Asian kid working with the two white kids, so that’s a nice improvement on racial diversity as well. I dig it. I definitely see a lot of potential in this new crew, it’s just a damn shame we’ll have to wait for the kids to get a few years older in the next film before we see any of it.
Then we have the adults in the cast. Callie is a woman who’s always going on about how her life is a trainwreck, there’s no sign that she has any kind of job, she whines incessantly about the stress of being a single mother to two teenage kids, she’s constantly drinking to dull the pain… this woman is a sadsack. She’s a total downer and a relentless pessimist, too busy feeling sorry for herself to count her blessings or try and improve her situation. Not that she’s necessarily wrong on any given point — NOBODY is denying that she got screwed over by her own father and the father of her children. Even so, she’s a one-note character and her one defining character trait makes her absolutely zero fun to be around. Moreover, while Trevor and Phoebe are actively making strides to learn more about their grandfather and everything he left behind, Callie comes off like a closed-minded idiot actively holding the movie back because she stubbornly refuses to get with the program.
As for Paul Rudd’s character, Gary Grooberson is a seismologist moonlighting as a summer school teacher, which means that he leaves the kids to watch wildly inappropriate horror movies on VHS (because, again, this is a podunk town in Bumfuck, OK) while tending to his own work monitoring the freak earthquakes in town. So, he’s a teacher who doesn’t seem to like or care about any of his students, which is an immediate strike against a character who’s supposed to be sympathetic. (Seriously, you don’t cast Paul Rudd to play an unsympathetic character, that’s simply not a card in his deck.) Also, this is a character whose whole deal is that he’s obsessed with science, he’s got a passion for learning and experimentation, yet he apparently hates teaching. Make that make sense.
For that matter, it’s completely unexplained what the hell a professional seismologist is doing as a summer school teacher, except that the plot had to contrive some way of getting him and Phoebe in a room together for exposition’s sake. He’s an obsessive fan of the 1980s Ghostbusters team because our main characters had to meet somebody old enough to remember them. He’s a brilliant scientist, except for when he does something so unbelievably fucking stupid as deliberately opening a ghost trap that he knows to be occupied! Oh, and he’s a love interest for Callie, but it doesn’t work because he’s openly looking for a relationship while she’s only looking for someone to listen to while she bitches about her problems.
Put simply, Gary doesn’t work because he’s all over the place. He’s whatever the plot needs him to be in the moment, and all of Paul Rudd’s well-practiced charm can’t provide any illusion of consistency or depth.
On the other hand, because this is a Jason Reitman picture, we do get a J.K. Simmons cameo. Olivia Wilde also appears in an uncredited cameo role. I don’t dare spoil any more about either, because god damn were those some inspired choices to play those particular roles.
In all honesty, I think the ghosts and monsters might’ve fared better than the human characters. Of course I have to include Egon in that assessment, because of how absurdly active he is in pushing the plot forward even after death. Still, all of the ghost designs strike a balance, such that they’re nicely creative yet they all look like they could plausibly exist in the universe of the first two films. It certainly helps that many of them — most especially the Terror Dogs, returning from the first film — were brought to life with a mix of practical effects and CGI to spectacular results.
And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, here reimagined as a legion of smaller gremlins spawned from regular-sized marshmallows. It’s a brilliant idea, a funny and ingenious means of putting a new spin on an icon from the original film. Even so, the film stayed on their comically violent antics for longer than necessary, and the new Stay Puft mascots came within a hair’s breadth of wearing out their welcome.
On the other hand, we’ve got Muncher, the new film’s answer to Slimer nee Onionhead. It bears mentioning that Slimer inexplicably became the ghost mascot of the Ghostbusters as a result of the animated show, falling into a role the filmmakers never designed him for, and there was never any kind of decent explanation as to why the Ghostbusters ever wanted or needed a ghost mascot in the first place.
By comparison, Muncher comes onto the scene with a voice provided by Josh Gad. He’s shown to be a ghost who can fight back by chewing up metal and spitting out shrapnel. And though the next-gen Ghostbusters never form any kind of alliance with Muncher, there is one notable point in which they use him as one problem to solve another. Everything about this ghost was done and designed to make him the new unofficial face of the Ghostbusters’ paranormal adversaries. I don’t think he’ll catch on the way Slimer did (Slimer does have 40 years’ worth of inertia, after all), but I commend the effort nonetheless.
Which brings me to the ghostbusting itself. In previous movies, this has traditionally been portrayed as four guys lined up side by side or in a circle, firing their proton streams to direct a ghost into a trap. Not here.
In pretty much every ‘busting scene, Trevor drives the car to chase after (or away from) a ghost, Phoebe fires a proton stream from a nifty gunner’s seat, and Podcast operates a trap that drives on a spiffy remote-controlled car. The Ecto-1 was always an iconic part of the franchise, but this film elevates the car into such a crucial and indispensable part of the action scenes that the car is practically another member of the team in a way that it never was before. Additionally, the teamwork is greatly enhanced because each individual member is contributing to the effort in their own unique way, as opposed to four Ghostbusters firing identical proton streams. Perhaps most importantly, this approach means that each ‘busting scene has a fast-paced element of mayhem. The Ghostbusters have always brought some degree of collateral damage to their work, but the action scenes in this movie elevate that collateral damage to a whole ‘nother level while also bringing speed and energy that we’ve never seen in the franchise before. Great stuff.
On a final miscellaneous note, you’ll want to stay through the credits. We’ve got scenes at the mid-credits and end-credits that deliver more nostalgia for the first film, along with a sequel tease.
In summary, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is hardly a perfect film, and this new iteration of the franchise still has a lot of work to do in making this new lineup recognizably iconic. Yet the film plays into the iconography of the first movie while adding in some new twists. It picks up on leftover storylines from the first, delivering satisfying conclusions while introducing new possibilities. Exploring this world outside of New York opens up the scope of the franchise, and this particular angle of coping with grief is an ingenious extension to the premise of ghosts.
My biggest concern is in swapping out the comedy for family drama. That worked brilliantly well for this movie, but I hope the filmmakers know they can only play that card once. Nobody wants to see a situation like with Creed or the Daniel Craig run of James Bond, in which the protagonist spends literally every movie rehashing the same development arc because they can’t get over a specific death. This whole arc with Egon ended beautifully and perfectly, we should all let him rest in peace and move on to something else.
I’ve no doubt that there will be a sequel to this movie, partly because it’s already a box-office success and partly because — again — Sony has literally no other franchises to fall back on that Marvel doesn’t partially own. I’ll be interested to see how these new actors age into their respective roles, and whether Sony can keep this franchise from derailing again. In the meantime, I honestly think that this latest movie is as good as anyone could’ve reasonably expected and I have no problem recommending it.