GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE— 3 STARS
In true Ghostbusters fashion, the climax of this long-distance sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife is enveloped in foreboding dark clouds. People either cower at their sight or take initiative to save the day and the greater world. Those haunted thunderheads and the characters making those resolute choices might as well symbolically match the judgment and dread that’s building for this holiday blockbuster. Some folks are going to find rainbows, which may or may not be made out of proton streams, in those clouds and others will just see a swirling mess.
That judgment and dread for Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife hinges on two terms that have earned slandered reputations as knocks. They are “fan service” and “nostalgia factor,” and they are far too often used in click-bait fashion by the same armchair #FilmTwitter critics, both amateur and professional, who have lost most of the nuance that exists between “trash” and “masterpiece.” Those cynics and their mobs forget that fan service and nostalgia, with the right intention and execution, can honor as well as, and sometimes better than, it panders or placates.
That’s the hearty pleasure of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. By the director’s own words in a pre-recorded introduction (OK, go ahead and call it a plea) screened for advance press, this movie was made “by family” and “about family” with Easter eggs and spoilers abound. Not to get all Dominic Torettto, but that’s never a wrong place to build roots. Sure enough, old stories and forgotten legends are meshed with new figures for a fresh generation. Ghostbusters: Afterlife passes the baton and gift-wraps this franchise from the manchild adults it was founded by to the hungry teen crowd that will further its hip heritage.
Callie (The Leftovers Emmy nominee Carrie Coon) is an urban single mother to two teens, the science-minded Phoebe (Gifted’s Mckenna Grace) and the socially-driven Trevor (Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard, relegated to more sidekick hurdles than his advertised top billing), who’s broke and evicted right when she gets word that her father passed away. With no place to go, she emigrates to her late father’s abandoned farmhouse (or “murder house” and “haunt box” as the kids call it) in the old mining town of Summerville, Oklahoma. Phoebe and Trevor are folded into the local scene during summer school where Phoebe makes a fast friend named Podcast (newcomer Logan Kim) while Trevor lands a diner job to get the attention of the lovely Lucky (Celeste O’Connor of Selah and the Spades).
The locals called Callie’s crackpot father the “Dirt Farmer” due to his reclusive nature and odd behavior. As you might figure, that very father and the kids’ grandfather is a man of great importance fans will know– a perceptible surprise nicely slow-played by Reitman and company. The wily hermit must have been onto something dangerous to cause his property to be lined with graffiti-tagged metal barricades quoting Revelations 6:12, his yard hot-wired as one colossal field of ghost traps, and have the old Ecto-1 car parked in the barn.
LESSON #1: NATURAL VERSUS UNNATURAL CAUSES— Callie’s father died of unforeseen natural causes of the silent killer variety. Meanwhile, Summerville is experiencing consistent, not-so-silent, and unexplained earthquakes despite being closed with mining and nowhere near a fault line or tectonic plate. Sure enough, neither add up to any ordinary explanation. Much of what that old man planned and what threats are looming in this town are shrouded in a mystery that draws in Phoebe to unearth her family’s retired legacy.
LESSON #2: SCIENCE IS RECKLESS— Along for the spooky shenanigans as a sounding board and an inquiring mind of his own is the slacker science teacher Chad Grooberson (the headlining Paul Rudd). He makes eyes at Callie, is impressed by Phoebe’s intellect and, with this lesson’s line, pushes the introvert to dive into the risks with the hope of discovery and rewards. Go ahead, kid, and throw liability out the window. Open those ghost traps, follow your nose, turn a few keys, toggle a few switches, challenge a few curses and see what happens.
LESSON #3: DON’T BE YOURSELF— Another bit of courage-building in Ghostbusters: Afterlife comes from this negative-skewing line of parenting advice repeated by Callie that sums up her jaded motherly wisdom. Pushing against the usual back-patting encouragement that we all hope works with the token truth and accepting kinds of people, she isn’t wrong. There is the occasional need to code-switch or change your personality to break into a new crowd or setting. From the inside, you can find your people and revert to your weird self rather than stay ostracized. At the same time, purposely working to not be your known and flawed self is an aim to be better overall and rise to the occasion.
Out of all that, here’s Jason Reitman doing just that with a big studio’s holiday tentpole. The son of Ivan Reitman is no slouch of a filmmaker himself with solid indie credentials built on Up in the Air, Juno, Young Adult, and Thank You for Smoking. His well-developed eye for softening flawed characters and quick banter brings devotion, poignancy, and charm to the paranormal mythology of this reignited franchise. He was on those Ghostbusters sets as a kid and grew up with those heroes. He gets this world. Assisted by co-writer Gil Kenan (Monster House), Reitman has elevated what was originally a fantastical lark for wit and sarcasm into an endearing tribute that does not skimp on the signature crassness we all came to love 37 years ago.
Plenty is imperfect though. A fair share of zingers in Ghostbusters: Afterlife can feel like forced and planted retreads from a “did we get all of the OG coolness” checklist. The movie relies on familiar lore made a little bigger and a little louder for today’s attention spans and big screen frills. In that regard, without revealing spoilers, there are more red herrings than new springboards from a storytelling standpoint. Moreover, it’s hard to truly scare modern audiences within the money-making boundaries of the PG-13 rating. No Vigo the Carpathian nightmares will come from this new entry-level launching pad and that’s a missing sensation. Nevertheless, fun can forgive flaws.
Nevertheless, the attitude of it all is spot on for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Every McKenna Grace squint of admonishment and freewheelin’ Paul Rudd strut of confidence display the pluck and moxie which echo the original. The use of practical effects and lived-in props mesh well with the newfangled digital effects. The Elmer Bernstein-esque tingles in composer Rob Simonsen’s sly and nifty musical score fit right into the mood of a proper Ghostbusters movie. That’s the kind of vibe longtime fans and new folks alike are coming for, and the merriment of it all is damn enjoyable.